"Really," Manuel said, "I don't like to talk about it a whole lot."
He has said the same thing about a number of players over the past few years, many of whom no longer inspire those types of questions. Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr., Wilson Valdez. The Game is an unforgiving beast. It does not reveal its intentions in a day or a week or even a month. So, the manager figures, just let 'em play. The Game will judge.
At the same time, would it really kill The Game to cooperate this time around? Because, let's be honest, the Phillies' lineup sure could use the help. And Manuel isn't reluctant to discuss that.
"If you are playing every day, there is a level you have to reach," Manuel said. "The type of player you are creates that. That's just how it is. If you are an everyday player, you have to fall in that level somewhere. You have to get to those kind of numbers."
The Phillies did not get those numbers from most of their positions this season, and they do not have many obvious candidates to provide them next year. Ryan Howard is a fixture at first base, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Carlos Ruiz at catcher and Chase Utley at second (and, if not second, then third). Everywhere else - third base, leftfield, centerfield, rightfield - there are questions with no easy answers.
The free-agent market is a great place to overpay for a flawed or aging player, but it is not where most championship teams are assembled. For every Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel and Carlos Beltran, there are plenty more Coco Crisps, Rafael Furcals and Clint Barmeses. The reality is that even 100 percent efficiency in dollars spent this offseason might leave the Phillies with holes. They have that many. And the market is that thin (and the righthanded power they need was more prevalent last offseason).
Which is why players such as Ruf and fellow outfielder Domonic Brown inspire so much intrigue among fans and media. As much as everybody will try to convince themselves that the 2012 season is something that can be fixed with better luck and a couple of shrewd signings, most understand that the Phillies are a team in desperate need of a few pleasant surprises.
"If you are going to find out how we get 750 to 850 runs, which is what it takes to have pretty good offense, well, how do we get that?" Manuel asked rhetorically.
The answer often lies in the pleasant surprises. Last year, the Cardinals received crucial contributions from third baseman David Freese, outfielder Jon Jay and utility man Allen Craig. None of them was heralded as a top prospect. None of them made his major league debut before his 25-year-old season. All of them were cheap.
This year's Nationals team has been bolstered by shortstop Ian Desmond, who turned 27 only last week and who is providing the kind of production Washington hoped for in the previous two seasons.
Sure, it is wishful thinking. Ruf is 26 and has yet to play a game at Triple A. Brown finished Wednesday night hitting .236 with a .704 OPS. Very little can happen between now and the end of this season that would alter the Phillies' plans for 2013. They need to hire a few good men for the bullpen, and a couple of bats for the outfield, and perhaps some depth for the rotation. But every hypothetical lineup you build at this point counts on the contributions of a young, unproven outfielder.
Manuel knows better than to project that kind of future. All he can do is hope.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/HighCheese.