Phillies approach trade deadline in mediocrity sporting look of big sellers again

LOS ANGELES – There's been talk about cleaning out the Philadelphia Phillies' clubhouse for a good year now; the aged, the infirmed, the unproductive, the overpaid, the just-tired-a-lookin'-at-em, every last one.

Generally, these are good men, enough of whom played into not one World Series as Phillies, but two, and won one of them. Held a parade and everything. They'd gathered up the better part of three decades of sometimes rotten, sometimes decent, mostly unremarkable baseball, smirked, and made it not their history, but someone else's. Then they filled the joint and held a pretty reasonable party fueled by a new legacy, their own.

And it was all very nice in that edgy, beery, uniquely Philly way.

These Phillies aren't exactly those Phillies. Some of the names are the same. Even a few of the games are familiar, given the proper amount of distance and whimsy. Over five years, they'd hoisted themselves into the game's elite. Constructed by Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Jr. (and even Ed Wade), marshaled by the charmingly competent Charlie Manuel, encouraged by a long sellout streak at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies had their time. Yesterday was theirs. Today, though. What to do about today?

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They were the definition of mediocre last season. In this one, they're in a 15-rounder for mediocre, one they are at the moment losing. In the NL East alone, the Atlanta Braves have the better team, the Washington Nationals the deeper organization. A month from the trading deadline, the Phillies entered Sunday 8 ½ games out of the division lead, 7 ½ games out of a playoff spot, possess an offense and starting rotation that glitter with reputations yet are statistically average, and find themselves in the later innings swaying to the worst bullpen in the National League.

Last year's third-place finish cost them more than $170 million in player salaries. This year's payroll is in the neighborhood of $160 million. Five players – Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins – are on the 2014 books for nearly $100 million. And while Manuel's Phillies have always been a second-half team – their winning percentage post-All-Star Game since 2007 is .630 – the creeping reality says the Phillies have on their hands more problems than solutions.

So, the trading deadline. And Chase Utley, Lee, Rollins, Papelbon, Carlos Ruiz and Michael Young. And others. Amaro dealt Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Hunter Pence a year ago, and he'll be popular with the buyers again in the coming weeks. And once again, at a time of year that knows little sentimentality, he'll consider what some of these men have meant to the organization at the same time he considers their worth in younger, more eager, more cost-efficient players, a brighter future in South Philly and what it all means for today. How does one deconstruct a champion? With a toothbrush and a breeze? With a crowbar? With a sledgehammer?

Or, in spite of reasonable evidence otherwise, does one continue to believe?

"I think there's some of that," Amaro admitted. "But we're in a production business."

That includes him, of course.

"I love the guys that are our core guys," he said. "I've got quality guys. But they haven't performed as they have in the past, whether because of age, injury, whatever. But one of the things that always seems to happen, from July 1 on, we play better. That's because of the guys we've been blessed to have."

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At the moment, the Phillies will pay Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay a combined $65.5 million this season. (Remember the greatest rotation ever assembled?) Lee is having a wonderful season and getting bottom-15 run support. Hamels has the worst ERA and WHIP of his career. And is getting bottom-10 run support. Halladay is rehabbing a bad shoulder after seven starts and an ERA near 9.

After this season, Ryan Howard still has $85 million guaranteed coming, over three years, and just sat out two games in L.A. in order to get his swing straight against lefties. Papelbon is due $26 million over the next two seasons.

Lee can block trades to 21 teams. Young, Utley and Ruiz can be free agents after this season. Rollins is under contract through 2014. Amaro has said he'll wait, give those second-half tendencies time to breathe, but you get the sense yesterday's team might not be around for many more tomorrows.

Business is business. That doesn't make it any less squishy when it's time. These are the faces, the colors, of a championship, and not that long ago.

"We've been together a long time and we've been through a lot," Manuel said.

He grinned and added, "I look across there and these guys put a lot of money in my pocket."

He also sees a spry Utley, a breakout Dominic Brown, a hot Delmon Young, a dominant Lee. Hamels is pitching better. In spite of a brutal week, Howard has batted better than .300 for a month. Rollins was better in June.

"Since I've been here in Philadelphia," Manuel said, "we've gotten off to starts just like this. Here, you don't ever quit, you don't ever get down, you don't ever think you're whipped, stuff like that."

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Where this leaves the Phillies is at the start of a month that could redirect the franchise. That probably should redirect the franchise. Except it's not always so simple.

"One of the things people don't realize," Amaro said, "is these guys have been here. They know meaningful games. They know how to win them."

They'll need to get into those games first. Meanwhile, what to do about today?