Hunter season for the Phillies?

Hunter Pence fits Phils' needs and wouldn't be a 2-month rental like the Mets' Carlos Beltran would be. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Hunter Pence fits Phils' needs and wouldn't be a 2-month rental like the Mets' Carlos Beltran would be. ASSOCIATED PRESS (Astros rightfielder)
Posted: July 25, 2011

IT'S KIND OF LIKE going to the beach. You go for a swim, the sun is out, the water's fine. You try to be careful, heed the lifeguard. You don't even realize you've ventured a little too far from shore until you feel the tug of the undertow.

Or you invest a few bucks in a sure-shot NFL game. Except that the ball takes a funny bounce. So you double up. The ref blows a call, or at least it sure looked like it on the replay. Pretty soon you're upping the ante, pushing your luck, scrambling to try to stay ahead.

With 6 days to go before the non-waiver trading deadline, the Phillies find themselves in a similar circumstance. It would be an exaggeration to see that they're imprisoned by their own success, but it at least has them backed into a corner.

They are an excellent team with an obvious need: a righthanded bat to balance out a lineup that starts four lefty swingers - Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Domonic Brown - most nights.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has claimed his pockets are empty and it's widely believed the front office would rather dine on burnt pheasant under crushed glass in the executive dining room than pay a penny of luxury tax.

The reality, though, is that this isn't really an option anymore. The Phillies are hooked, addicted to going to the World Series sellout crowds and the regular-season sellouts that result. Teams don't construct a roster with a $170 million payroll just to make it to the playoffs. For the Phillies, just making the first round is so 2007.

In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Roy Halladay started yesterday's 5-3 win over the Padres and, as usual when he pitches at Citizens Bank Park, the banner announcing that Doc's Patients were present fluttered in the breeze.

That's patients, not patience, by the way. So thanks, Ruben, for Halladay and Roy Oswalt and bringing back Cliff Lee. Now, who are you going to wow the fan base with this time?

It's impossible to predict who will ultimately step from behind the curtain or to even say for certain that Amaro will be able to pull off a deal. There are still too many baseballs up in the air, still too many sellers seeking top dollar in return, too many variables in play.

But there's no doubt who Plan A should be: Hunter Pence, of the Astros.

Pence hits for average. He has a decent on-base percentage. He's got some power. He may not be exactly the guy who will bat fifth and force opposing teams to challenge Howard - the market seems to be fresh out of those - but he'll at least make them think for a moment. And he's got a knack for making them pay for it if they pitch around the Big Piece. Oh, yeah, and he's only owed about $2.3 million for the remainder of the season.

The Astros will ask for a lot in return. And if the demands are too steep, the Phillies might have to decline. Brown ought to remain untouchable. After that, let's talk. Houston also could decide to hold onto Pence and rebuild around him, but this is the team with baseball's worst record that could logically be expected to trim payroll under new ownership.

The other big name that's been linked to the Phillies is 34-year-old Carlos Beltran, of the Mets. And every indication is that New York is also trying to pry multiple top prospects away from interested shoppers for what is nothing more than a 2-month rental.

Pence is younger, just 28. He's been more consistent over the past few years. And, most important, he's under control for two more seasons. That should set the outfield at least until 2014.

The peril of further depleting the farm system is real. Again, though, there may not be a real choice here. The Phillies' success has become a beast that must be fed. And if you're going to pay through the nose anyway, you might as well get the best return on your investment as possible. Sometimes you just gotta say what the . . .

Those who believe that Amaro doesn't need to do anything because the Phillies are doing so well miss the point. The game changes in October. Not to mention that two of the teams the Phillies might well have to get past to make it back to the World Series, the Giants and Braves, are reportedly looking for the same thing. This is no time to be one-upped. Yes, it's all about winning today. Still, whether they'll admit it or not, there's some pressure to respond to what the other contenders are doing.

"The better our team, the better chance we have at the end," manager Charlie Manuel pointed out.

Somewhere along the way, probably when Lee signed, the Phillies crossed that invisible line. Now there would be only one outcome worse than not at least making it to the World Series this year. It would be not making it after not making every possible effort to obtain Pence to give them their best possible chance a couple of months from now when the time of year they've been pointing toward since last December finally arrives.

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