Not the time for the Phillies to play it safe

Posted: October 10, 2011

THE PHILLIES have one pivotal decision, just one, that must be made before they buckle down and address the nitty-gritty details of picking up the pieces from their shattered dream and trying to put them back together again. If they get it wrong, nothing that follows will really matter.

They have to take a clear-eyed, hard-boiled look at where they are at this point in franchise history.

The easy conclusion would be to write off their premature postseason expiration date as a simple combination of too many unfortunate injuries and poor timing for the offense to go ice cold. To preserve as much of the core of the group that has won five straight division titles as possible and try, try again in 2012. Business as usual.

There is some historical precedent to support that approach, too. Most hardball historians agree, for example, that the 1977 and '78 Phillies that didn't make it to the World Series were actually more talented than the 1980 edition that won it all.

That would be safe. That would be comfortable.

And that would be a mistake.

Oh, sure, they should be one of the better teams in the National League next year. As long as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are healthy, they can compete and might well win the division once again. Clearly, though, that's not good enough anymore. Not after taking a baby step backward in each of the last three postseasons even as expectations were rocketing skyward.

After the Phillies beat Los Angeles in the 2008 NLCS, a high-ranking Dodgers official tipped his cap to the winners' intangibles. "They were just tougher than we were," he said.

Remember when the Phillies were that team? When it didn't matter if they fell behind early or trailed late because there was always a sense that they'd do whatever it would take to win? And so often did?

Even though they won a club-record 102 games this season, that sense has been missing for a while now.

In the book, "Moneyball," Oakland general manager Billy Beane's No. 1 rule is defined, in part, as follows: "No matter how successful you are, change is always good. There can never be a status quo."

The Phillies have adhered to that, sort of. They've made changes every season since winning the second world championship in franchise history in 2008. The turnover that followed has been significant. But they've done it mostly by signing or trading for older, established players. The nucleus - their status quo, if you will - has remained virtually untouched.

On paper, at least, the Phillies had the best talent in the league. The Four Aces. A lineup stuffed with All-Stars. Yet, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. So the search for explanations has to go deeper than that.

One clue might be found in the deadline deal that sent Bobby Abreu to the Yankees for a quartet of non-prospects in 2006. At the time, it was generally seen as a short-term step backward and even future Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick suggested at the time that it probably signaled that the Phillies wouldn't compete until 2008.

After Abreu's last game, they were 46-54. From that point to the rest of the season, they went 39-23 (.629), foreshadowing their team-to-beat first division title when it arrived the following season.

The lesson: It's not all about the stats on the back of the baseball card.

Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel would both later attribute the surge to the energy Shane Victorino added to the lineup when he became a fulltime player and the fact that it cleared the way for Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to take more of a clubhouse leadership role.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to reprise that line of thinking now. And it won't be easy.

Because it's not just a matter of shaking things up. It's a matter of remixing the clubhouse chemistry. The sense of unflappable certainty that everything would turn out for the best served this team well for a while. Now Amaro and his lieutenants have to find a way to insert a dash of urgency, a bit of an edge into the brew.

Because it will be tricky to balance the need to make possibly unpopular decisions against the potential backlash from a phenomenal fan base that has filled Citizens Bank Park more than 200 straight times.

Because this isn't an exact science and subtracting the wrong personalities could have negative, unintended consequences.

Because the fact that the seven potential free agents represent a potential $55.1 million off the books is misleading. Lee's salary jumps by $10.5 million next season. It will take a truckload of money to tie up Hamels before he can test the market next year. Every indication is that they're willing to cough up a competitive annual salary to keep free-agent Rollins, although the length of the deal could be an issue. If free-agent Ryan Madson isn't the closer in 2012, who is?

So many questions for the Phillies. But only after they answer the most important one first.

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