Phillies not likely to repeat as champs

PHILADELPHIA – During some down time in a visiting clubhouse earlier this summer, Shane Victorino, the Philadelphia Phillies’ loudest behind-the-scenes presence – even chirpier than Jimmy Rollins – was needling teammate Geoff Jenkins. First it was how he looked like Brett Favre, and then about his clothing, and finally about his advanced age, all of 33 years old at the time.

Jenkins had heard enough. He reached into the back pocket of the slacks hanging from a hook on his locker, plucked out his wallet and immediately feigned he had lifted a 50-pound dumbbell off the rack. Jenkins kept the exaggerated gestures until he finally laid down his wallet – and his point: The 27-year-old Victorino may have the bigger mouth, but Jenkins, who has made upward of $48 million in his 10-year career, has 30 times heftier a stack.

Everyone in the clubhouse, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley included, doubled over in laughter. Victorino slinked back to his locker. He would stay silent for at least a minute.

No longer than that, though. Without Victorino chatting, it just wouldn’t be the same, as would be the case were Rollins to halt his bold proclamations and Brett Myers his cold-hearted pranks and every other thing that makes the 2008 Phillies not just World Series champions but a unique group.

“There are a lot of pieces you have to fill in, a lot of pegs in the right holes,” Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. “And so we were able to do that over the past few years.”

To see the Phillies go from borderline contenders when Gillick came out of retirement in 2005 to champions was a testament to both the talent he inherited and his knack for targeting the right players in trades and free agency. So replacing Gillick – who has said he intends to step away from the Phillies after this season – could be, more than any on-field personnel move, the most important maneuver on the way to a potential repeat – which, with the Phillies’ nucleus of players creeping toward 30, is a longer shot than most defending champions’.

On the field following the Game 5 clincher against Tampa Bay, Gillick was noncommittal about his future: “You never know. You never know. Right now, I’m just worried about tonight, having a good time tonight. Then we’ll worry about what happens down the line.”

Team president Dave Montgomery continues to operate under the assumption Gillick will not return, though, and the likeliest candidate to replace him is 43-year-old Ruben Amaro Jr., an assistant GM with Philadelphia for the last eight seasons. Amaro, who is well-regarded, would take over a situation considerably better than the one handed to Gillick by Ed Wade.

Left fielder Pat Burrell is the only significant free agent likely to bolt, though plenty of replacements will join him in the free-agent market. Raul Ibanez is an option, though he would make a predominantly left-handed lineup even more so. Casey Blake can play outfield and third base, a spot the Phillies currently platoon.

Wackiest of all, they could pursue Manny Ramirez. He plays left, bats right, would more than replace Burrell’s bat and only adds cachet to the defending champions. He also could cost upward of $20 million, money bound to be spent elsewhere. Anyway, Philadelphia is plenty more like Boston than the cocoon of Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, the chances of Philadelphia’s payroll not leaping from $104.5 million are minimal. Even though Burrell’s $14 million salary comes off the books, World Series MVP Cole Hamels and Victorino hit their first year of arbitration. Also due for arbitration raises: starter Joe Blanton, outfielder Jayson Werth, relievers Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin, and, most of all, Howard.

When Howard won $10 million in an arbitration case last year, it was a record for a player in his first year of eligibility. The case terrified executives, though the faltering economic climate could prevent salaries from escalating egregiously.

Howard hitting the $13 million salary mark with two years remaining in arbitration is a daunting financial mountain, especially if the Phillies commit to Hamels long-term, as they must. Last summer, one executive said that he thought the Phillies would try to trade Howard in the offseason because of the shared history among large-bodied sluggers: very quick declines.

Now, though, the Phillies can’t do anything with Howard, lest they want a repeat of the shenanigans that ensued along Broad Street following the team’s first championship since 1980. Trading him, no matter what they would get in return, would be a social disaster.

So even though their upper minor leagues are fairly bereft of prospects – pitcher Carlos Carrasco, shortstop Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson are among the best – the Phillies are better off trying to maintain what they have and hope it doesn’t age quickly.

“A lot of good things have to fall into place for this to happen,” Amaro said. “So it’s awfully fortunate.”

By opening day next season, Howard will be 29, Utley 30, Rollins 30. Hamels is still a baby, 25 in December, while Brad Lidge, the perfect closer, rounds out the offseason birthdays with his 32nd.

Which is to say: The Phillies should be glad they won this year. Their window could be closing, and fast.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 30, 2008