Inside the Phillies: Lesson for Phillies: It's tough to stay on top

Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. wants to see how the Phils do once the core returns. Charles Fox / Staff
Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. wants to see how the Phils do once the core returns. Charles Fox / Staff
Posted: June 24, 2013

The New York Yankees of the National League.

That's what people were calling the Phillies a couple of years ago. The label still fits only if you consider the Yankees an old team with some difficult-to-trade contracts.

The intended meaning, of course, was that the Phillies had become the envy of the National League, a team with a beautiful ballpark, a substantial payroll and the ability to contend year after year after year.

Philadelphia was a place the best free agents wanted to come and the place veteran players did not want to leave.

What is it now?

It all depends upon who you ask and we heard some interesting voices from within the organization last week.

A message of hope was sent from general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and team president David Montgomery. Their battle cry: Restore the core and see what happens.

With the return of second baseman Chase Utley on Friday night against the New York Mets, it is as restored as it possibly can be while Roy Halladay rehabs in Clearwater, Fla.

Amaro and Montgomery have to hold onto the hope for at least a few more weeks as the team devises its strategy for the July 31 trade deadline.

The more interesting and perhaps more ominous statements have come recently from the clubhouse. It started with Cliff Lee when he was asked about the possibility of being traded because of the Phillies' precarious position in the standings.

"I want to win," he said in several different interviews.

He didn't say, "I love Philadelphia because it's the greatest city in the world. I don't know where else I could get this kind of Italian food. Charlie Manuel is the greatest. These fans are wonderful."

He said he wanted to win. That was it. When prodded, he said he'd prefer to win with the Phillies because this is the place he signed, but it was clear the excitement that washed over him and the city when he rejoined the Phillies in December 2010 is gone.

So much has changed in that short time and even when you're making enough money to support your great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, winning is still a lot more fun than losing.

Cole Hamels fueled the fire after the final game of the recent 3-7 road trip when he was asked if he thought the Phillies were a playoff team.

"I'm not going to comment on that one," he said. "You can ask the other guys that one."

Closer Jonathan Papelbon joined in three days later by questioning the Phillies' ability to play fundamental baseball in what could be construed as a direct shot at a number of different people, including teammate Ryan Howard.

For those of you scoring at home, that's three damning comments from pitchers making a combined $57.5 million this season. More proof that money can't always buy happiness or championships.

The frustration is understandable, but it should not be understated. Chemistry, as difficult as it is to define, plays just as big a role as talent in professional sports.

Too much frustration can tear apart a team and create clubhouse chaos. The Phillies have not experienced that in quite some time, but there is danger of it occurring if the hope that Amaro and Montgomery have for this team turns sour.

Amaro was asked last week if another American League East team might serve as a model for putting the Phillies back together. After a monumental collapse in 2011 and a miserable 2012, the Boston Red Sox are back at the top of the standings.

"It's a little different in their case because they had players at the major-league level with large contracts that people still wanted and that may not be the case for us," Amaro said.

The Los Angeles Dodgers - speaking of money and unhappiness - took on an astronomical amount of salary to acquire Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez from Boston. Those subtractions, by most accounts, helped the clubhouse atmosphere. There was also enough talent still on the Boston roster to get things back on track without making an overwhelming splash in free agency.

It's the St. Louis Cardinals who have the best National League record and model right now. Baseball America ranked the Cardinals' farm system the best in baseball in March and St. Louis has had an influx of young players and pitchers who have allowed them to remain a postseason contender even after losing Albert Pujols in free agency.

The Phillies, of course, are aware of the importance of developing their own players. That's how they got to the top in the first place. Now, they're finding out how difficult it is to remain there.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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