Paul Hagen: Big move possible but unlikely for Phils

Posted: July 09, 2009

THREE HOURS before the first pitch, Charlie Manuel sat in the dugout as the players filtered onto the field to begin stretching and endured his daily give-and-take with reporters.

"Was that our real team last year or were we just on a really hot roll?" the manager asked at one point, a reference to the extraordinary mid-September through late-October streak that lifted the Phillies in quick succession to the division title, the National League pennant and the world championship.

A few minutes later, Ruben Amaro Jr. sat in almost the same spot and, unprompted, revisited almost the same subject. "Were we the best team in baseball last year?" the general manager asked rhetorically. "I don't know. But I do know that once you get into the dance, you give yourself a chance."

Now, as interesting as such speculation might be over a cold postgame brew, it hardly matters. The Phillies won the World Series last year so they were, by definition, the best team in baseball last season. The team wearing the big gaudy rings gets bragging rights. That's just the way it works.

At the same time, the eerie coincidence of having both manager and general manager wondering aloud along the same lines, one after the other, opens the door to a couple related lines of inquiry. Such as:

Are the Phillies, as currently constituted, good enough to assure themselves of earning a berth in the postseason?

Has a front office that has historically - and openly - been content to try to get lucky when it matters most instead of making the sort of big, over-the-top move at the deadline that fans crave changed its philosophy?

No and no.

It tends to have become lost in the flurry of World Series trophy, photo-ops, nonstop championship-related marketing, White House hobnobbing, running tally of the total number sellouts at the Bank (33 and counting!) and endless self-congratulatory promotions. But until they swept the Brewers in a four-game series in the waning weeks of the schedule that triggered a 13-3 run and closed the regular season with a flourish, it was a coin flip at best that the Phillies wouldn't be sitting home watching the postseason on television.

The Phillies passed the mathematical midpoint of their season Tuesday night. Asked yesterday to assess the first 81 games, Amaro's evaluation was unflinching.

"Clearly, we're not playing like a championship club right now," he said.

Clearly. And the fact that starting pitcher Rodrigo Lopez (who had replaced the injured Antonio Bastardo, who in turn had replaced the injured Brett Myers in the rotation) had to leave last night's thrilling, 3-2 win over the Reds with what was announced as right shoulder inflammation doesn't help. The only saving grace is that, because of the All-Star break, they won't need a fifth starter until July 20.

Even before that, the prolonged slump of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the inconsistency of closer Brad Lidge, the heavy workload shouldered by the bullpen to this point and the early difficulties of Cole Hamels left the Phillies looking suspiciously vulnerable.

There are reasons that five of the last six teams to appear in the World Series didn't even make it back to the playoffs the following year.

Now, it's true that a hallmark of Manuel-managed teams has been to have a better record in the second half of the season than the first. Amaro made a point of mentioning that.

It's also true that, just because it has happened in the past doesn't mean it will automatically kick in this year.

There's a further level of comfort from the fact that the National League East doesn't appear to have a team capable of mounting a stiff challenge. The Mets have a bulging disabled list and, so far at least, seem unwilling or unable to make a season-changing trade. The Braves have terrific pitching but a popgun offense. The Marlins are hanging in there, but the bullpen has been a black hole that could eventually sabotage their hopes.

Still, unless the Phillies can put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division, they leave themselves at the mercy of the sort of sudden, unexplained slump that can be costly. Especially if it comes at an inopportune time. Just ask the Mets.

Despite all that, though, Amaro doesn't seem prepared to step far, if at all, outside the carefully drawn boundaries that the Phillies have traditionally adhered to, the "get to the dance and you have a chance" mantra.

He made a point of mentioning last summer's pressure to acquire CC Sabathia or Manny Ramirez. He left unsaid that the Phillies beat Sabathia and the Brewers in the NL Division Series, then Ramirez and the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series to make it to the World Series.

"Our starting rotation is going to have to pitch better overall for us to get anywhere," he said.

Then he added: "I think it would be helpful [to add a pitcher]. Do we have to? I don't know yet."

Hey, it's 3 weeks until the trading deadline. Nobody can fault Amaro for being publicly noncommittal.

But there are no hints that winning the World Series last year has changed the Phillies' fundamental approach. If anything, it may have convinced them more than ever that they don't need to. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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