David Murphy: Phillies cannot afford to sell if they want to remain contenders

Posted: July 06, 2012

NEW YORK — Echoing through the concourses and stairwells of Citi Field were the sounds of yesteryear, "Let's Go Mets" and "Phillies Suck" combining with the hoots and hollers of a joyful fan base exiting the premises on a wave of hope. In its wake, quietly milling around the visitor's clubhouse, was a team overcome by another case of shell shock, Jonathan Papelbon claiming responsibility for the 6-5 loss, Cole Hamels talking glumly about how he could have done more to prevent it.

Such moments have been plentiful this season, and each one brings you closer to agreeing with the sizable contingent of fans and pundits who have already decided that 2012 is a lost cause for the Phillies organization. Ten games under .500, 13 games out of first place, every aspect of the team sharing in the blame. All of it makes you want to join the chorus that says they should cut their losses and sell the salvageable parts.

Except they do not have that luxury.

Nights like Thursday are not an indication that the Phillies are in need of rebuilding. Rather, they are an indication of the challenge they must overcome to avoid the death spiral of plunging attendance and unsustainable payroll that can sink a franchise for a decade. Teams that have $114 million guaranteed to nine players for the following season, as the Phillies do for 2013, can never be sellers. Teams that have at least $73 million in payroll committed through the 2015 season cannot place their hope in prospects. Teams with that much invested in the here-and-now cannot prioritize the long term.

Ruben Amaro Jr. acknowledged this before Thursday's game, and his team's latest late-inning meltdown should do nothing to change his vision.

"We plan on being contenders in '13, '14, '15 and '16," the general manager said. "We're not blowing this team up. That's not going to happen. Regardless of what happens over the next couple of weeks, we plan on being contenders for the next several years. Even if we don't get to the finish line this year, we still view ourselves as contenders after this year."

He also said: "We've got a lot of players that are pretty damn good that I expect to be playing next year for us."

The Phillies cannot use 2012 as an excuse to fortify a depleted farm system, because they have to worry about 2013. And competing in 2013 requires them to maintain their strength by re-signing Hamels, and it requires them to seriously consider any available player who has the potential to counteract the continued decline of an aging core of hitters. If acquiring such a player requires the Phillies to trade somebody such as Shane Victorino to compile a satisfactory package of prospects, well, that's the closest they can get to considering themselves a seller at this year's July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

The priority should be third base. The offseason free-agent market will present plenty of opportunities to fill centerfield, where Victorino is scheduled to become a free agent. Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Melky Cabrera, Victorino himself. Leftfield can be filled by some combination of Domonic Brown, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix, or a free agent such as Nick Swisher.

Third base is where all the talk about selling for the long term breaks down. Because the Phillies are not building for the long term. And the short term offers few options at third. Forget about internal options. There is none. The free-agent market is likely to be headlined by perennial strikeout king Mark Reynolds and steadily aging Kevin Youkilis. We use the word "headlined" loosely.

The Phillies cannot afford to take another chance that Chase Utley will stay healthy for an entire season, especially if they are already planning on taking a chance on Brown or Nix or Mayberry or some combination of the three in left. That means they cannot sacrifice offense at any position, something they are doing at third base, where their .640 OPS ranks 15th out of 16 National League teams.

If the Phillies hope to restore some semblance of offense to a traditional power position, they need to talk to every general manager not married to his current third baseman. Which means, according to various reports, they need to talk to Josh Byrnes about Chase Headley, the 28-year-old Padres switch-hitter who has posted a .281 batting average, .373 on-base percentage, and .409 slugging percentage while playing good defense over the last two seasons. He is in his prime, he is under club control through the 2014 season, and he carries a career .299/.366/.445 batting line away from offensively challenging Petco Park.

The package of prospects it would take to land such a player would be, and should be, significant. But the only prospects the Phillies should worry about are their prospects for contention in the next two seasons.

"It's more about retooling than it is redoing," Amaro said.

They do not have another choice. n

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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