COMMENTARY | Right now, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is between the proverbial rock and hard place. The Phillies just won two of three games from the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves, putting them 7½ games back in that division.
Here's where we are:
The major league trading deadline is about three weeks away and it remains unclear if the Phillies should be buyers or sellers.
The Braves started the season very well and of late have looked fallible, losing five of their last six. At this writing, the Phillies are about to begin a four-game series with the Washington Nationals, who have underachieved thus far this season. If the Phillies get through this home series and a weekend set with the American League's Chicago White Sox in good shape, they'll enter the All-Star break with a quandary.
What should they do?
It's no secret the main trading chip is All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee, one of the best in the game. He also turns 35 years of age at the end of next month. Trade him now and he'll likely to get some major league-ready prospects in return, prospects the Phillies desperately need moving forward.
That's because the Phillies are an aging team with some expiring contracts belonging to several key players, all aged 33 or older. Slugger Ryan Howard isn't one of them, but he was scheduled for an MRI exam on his left knee on Monday and conceivably could be lost for the season if surgery is required.
In other words, the time seems may appear ripe to cut bait and start the rebuilding process as soon as possible.
On the other hand, the Braves have a history of fading in the second half. The Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds have settled down after some fast starts. In other words, if the Phillies can somehow find some consistency in the second half, there's no reason they couldn't contend for a playoff position or even an NL East title.
Yet that's a big "if." They've been wildly inconsistent all season. They've still lost more games than they won. There's also no reason to believe this pattern will change.
Getting a headache? Imagine what Amaro is going through. Let's summarize:
The Phillies probably could trade Lee, closer Jonathan Papelbon and second baseman Chase Utley and net a nice return of young players. Third baseman Michael Young, catcher Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Jimmy Rollins are also trade options, probably for lesser prospects but prospects just the same. Lee is the guy who will bring back the players most likely to impact the future in a hurry.
Should they do that?
If the Phillies trade Lee, they're essentially telling their fans the 2013 season is over and the future is now. They could opt keep him and his big contract for two more years, make some lesser trades and hope to rebuild enough through free agency next season to contend again soon. The Phillies are reportedly in negotiations for a huge television contract that will make them among the most financially secure teams in the game.
Let's not forget Lee might just lead them to a second-half charge that will allow this aging team one more shot at glory, Howard or no Howard. They could keep Papelbon, Utley and the rest of a group which has won before and just go for it.
Should they do that instead?
Good luck, Ruben. You may need it.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime Phillies follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards. He covered the 1980 World Series, the first championship in Phillies history.
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