David Murphy: Phils beat Nats, but now it's about 2013

Posted: August 03, 2012

WASHINGTON — On the first day of August, the topics of conversation were John Mayberry Jr.'s development and the organizational depth behind Kyle Kendrick. Welcome to Grapefruit League North. Same weather, same plotlines, more expensive beer.

While 2013 will not be won or lost over these next 2 months, the outlook for it will come into much clearer focus. By the time 2012 reaches its merciful end, we should have a pretty good idea of what lies in store for next season. Because the players who will likely make or break the Phillies' chances are the ones who will be using August and September as an extended audition.

One of the unfortunate realities for this Phillies team is that the opportunities to upgrade the lineup are limited. They are already spending $25 million on a first baseman and $15 million on a second baseman and $11 million on a shortstop. The crop of third basemen on the free-agent market is going to be weak, with the talented but aging Kevin Youkilis as the headliner. After that, it is Mark Reynolds, who has six errors in 15 games at third base this year and has spent the last couple of seasons transitioning into a first-base/designated-hitter type. In other words, the Phillies could not spend big money on a free-agent third baseman if they tried.

In centerfield, Michael Bourn's name has been tossed around, but the last thing this roster needs is another lefthanded hitter, particularly one who is represented by Scott Boras and is in position to command top-of-the-market scale. Melky Cabrera? He's had a nice couple of years. But any time Chipper Jones deems it appropriate to rip a player's professionalism, you would be wise to do some homework. At the corners, there isn't much once you get past Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher.

So you can understand why the Phillies' decision to trade away Pence prompted some head-scratching. He was, after all, very much the type of player they will be in the market for this offseason. But he was also in line to demand upwards of $15 million in his final year of arbitration. And the one thing that was proved by the Phillies' trade deadline machinations is that the money is not limitless. It's why you heard Cliff Lee's name mentioned in one rumor, and Jimmy Rollins' name mentioned in another, and you heard that a potential trade involving Joe Blanton fell apart because the Orioles would not agree to eat an acceptable amount of the salary remaining on the righthander's contract. Where there is smoke, there are smoke signals, and the ones the Phillies sent were loud and clear. They need to maximize every dollar, and paying Pence $15 million would have meant scrimping elsewhere. They made that mistake this past offseason, sacrificing certainty in leftfield and the front of the bullpen so that they could sign Jonathan Papelbon to a 4-year, $50 million contract.

By the end of September, you will have a pretty good idea of whether it will work. Roy Halladay will enter the offseason either close to his old form, or with a giant question mark hovering over his right shoulder. Domonic Brown will either show some signs of developing into an everyday major league player, or he will remain shrouded in uncertainty. Josh Lindblom will either offer some hope of being a cheap option in the seventh and eighth innings, or his fly-ball and home-run rates will make you question whether he can be effective outside of Dodger Stadium. Outfielder Nate Schierholtz will get an opportunity to show that he can play on an everyday basis.

In Wednesday night's second straight win over the Nationals, 3-2, Schierholtz homered, and Lindblom retired two of three batters he faced in the eighth, including Michael Morse on a strikeout. The Phillies had already lost eight games when they held a lead heading into the eighth inning. For at least one night, they did not lose a ninth. Brown made a game-changing throw to home plate to prevent Edwin Jackson from scoring.

Rollins hit two home runs, but he was an afterthought. Because right now, the focus is on the future. The Phillies cannot afford to have it anywhere else.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. Read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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