COMMENTARY | You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. Why should the Philadelphia Phillies be any different?
As the July 31 Major League Baseball trading deadline lurks menacingly around the corner, Phillies fans are split at the seams on what road general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. should traverse over the next week.
The deadline is baseball's version of a human stock exchange. Each team assigns value to their commodities and those of their competitors and subsequently chooses their position in the marketplace. Are they buyers or sellers? Contenders buy and cellar dwellers sell. But what if you don't quite know what you are? What if one week you look like a contender and the next you look like a pretender? And what if the teams in your division look as flawed and over-hyped as your own?
The Phils limp into St. Louis on July 23 for a 3-game set before hitting Detroit for a weekend series. They are 49-50 after dropping two straight to the hapless New York Mets with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee on the hill. Despite a decent run of late against winning teams, the notion that the Phillies play up or down to their competition is unfounded. They are 16-23 against teams with winning records. Which makes them 33-27 against teams with losing records. The astonishing revelation in those numbers is that they're barely hanging around the .500 mark, and they've played just 39 games against winning ball clubs while battling losing teams 60 times.
The Phillies are, if nothing else, loyal. After creating a culture of winning in Philly since 2007, it seems the brass doesn't have the brass to unload any of the core that helped bring about one of the most successful eras of Phillies baseball in the team's long history.
I've read a lot on Twitter and heard a great deal on radio about fans wanting to unload players at the deadline to restock the farm system after years of shipping off young talent. Sounds fair enough, although if you survey the landscape of young Phillies farmhands sent packing for the greater good of immediacy over the last five seasons, not many have proven worth the tears involved in goodbyes. Only Michael Bourn is a contributing major-leaguer. Jonathan Singleton has an outside shot at a career. And Jarred Cosart is getting his shot and it's started out well in Houston.
Hear much about Kyle Drabek lately? How's Carlos Carrasco doing? Is Lou Marsen tearing it up anywhere? Travis D'Arnaud has played a combined 79 games the past two seasons. The point being, what exactly did Amaro and previous GM Pat Gillick give up for their run of success? And along those lines, what's to make the Phillies believe that they'd get anything back that will actually help them for cutting ties with a Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon or Jimmy Rollins?
There is another contingent that seems to care a great deal about keeping money in the pockets of an ownership that is due to likely sign an approximately $14 billion TV deal in the coming year. They care as if they're getting taxed on players. Lets make something abundantly clear -- money is not an object any longer with this ownership group. Was it a tad ludicrous to give Ryan Howard a $125 million extension when they did? Sure. But by no means will that or a slightly overpaid and re-signed Utley on a two-year deal be detrimental to the Phillies spending to acquire additional free agent help where they feel they need it.
What Amaro has in front of him is a conundrum that will likely shape his legacy. Right now, we'll remember him as the GM who was handed the keys to a Jaguar and drove it maniacally down a windy baseball road. For years, fans complained that the Phillies never went out and sought the pieces they would need to be a winner. When their homegrown core finally made them a winner, Amaro went into the marketplace like an NBA player who just got his first signing bonus. Spend. Spend. Spend.
No one complained while this was happening. We all had a great time at the party and now that the bill is due we're looking around saying, "What, did I break a window?"
The fan in me would be infinitely crushed if they unloaded Chase Utley, simply because he is a joy to watch play this game, night in and night out. I would be saddened at the departure of Rollins, the best shortstop to ever play in this town hands down, the guy who ignited the fuse to the most enjoyable era of Phillies baseball in my lifetime. But life is full of disappointments. You move forward. You get over them. I would much rather the Phillies move Michael Young or Papelbon -- players that don't warrant a bill of gratitude for their efforts here. But I don't get to make that choice.
After the July 22 trade of Matt Garza from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers brought in blue chip but struggling third baseman Mike Olt and three other players, I began to lean more toward selling. I believe in September baseball. Maybe that's because for so many years it was never meaningful. Now that we've procured baseball relevance, every game in our ninth month has resembled a playoff game. I'm hard-pressed to give that up by dismantling this team. I mentioned there's no guarantee prospects will pan out. Likely, most won't. But if Garza can bring in a four-player haul, some of the Phillies might bring in enough pieces to roll the dice.
But it's not about making up for the youth we lost. It's not about cutting payroll. It's about coming to terms with loss. The window on this era of Phillies baseball is closed. Only Carlos Ruiz, Rollins, Utley, Howard, Hamels and Kendrick remain from the 2008 World Series team. So, you see, a page has already been turned but we see that nucleus and want to continually turn back and read it again.
For team president Dave Montgomery, a man of advancing years who may think he doesn't have time to wait for a new golden age to develop, it's tough. For Amaro, who has yet to get it done with this group and feels there's unfinished business left on the table, there is reticence.
Turning a page is a lot easier than closing a book. You're damned if you do. You're damned if you don't.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has covered the Phillies for more than three years and followed them since Mike Schmidt had curly hair. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber 14.
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