Inside the Phillies: The Phils can and should reload, starting with the bullpen

Cliff Lee is likely staying put. With the right moves around him, the lefty ace could help the Phillies contend in 2014. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Cliff Lee is likely staying put. With the right moves around him, the lefty ace could help the Phillies contend in 2014. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 29, 2013

By now, we all have trade-deadline fatigue.

For the last two months the debate has raged about how the Phillies should conduct their business before the Wednesday deadline that allows teams to make trades without players first going through the waiver process.

The key to all of this is how general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. views his job and, in one sentence, he has summed up his role on numerous occasions.

"My job," he has said, "is to make sure we are contenders every year."

That is a dead-on description of what a general manager whose team has one of the highest payrolls in baseball should be doing. The Phillies are not the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, or San Diego Padres. They do not have the luxury of rebuilding. They should always be reloading.

It can be done.

We've seen it happen in New York and Boston in the American League. We've seen the St. Louis Cardinals go to the postseason 10 times in the last 17 years with an 11th trip looking very likely as the season heads into its final two months.

Even those teams have an occasional hiccup and, as the Phillies complete their post-all-star-break road trip, it sure looks as if this is going to be a second straight acid-reflux season.

It should not be forgotten that the Phillies won five straight division titles from 2007 through 2011, and with the second wild card that is now in place they would have also been in the playoffs in 2005 and 2006.

The Phillies haven't had a losing season since 2002, so that's a pretty good decade run, especially when you factor in the World Series title, two National League pennants, two league MVP awards, a Cy Young Award, a perfect game, and a postseason no-hitter. Bet we could find a lot of buyers who'd be willing to trade what their favorite team has done since 2003.

More of the same is expected here and it should be. Citizens Bank Park and all the citizens who have filled it since it opened in 2004 are instrumental in the payroll's skyrocketing, and those fans have every right to demand annual excellence.

What Amaro does in the next couple of days will certainly shape the future, and this deadline could end up being a death certificate for this season. Whatever Amaro does, however, will not kill next season, which is why the Phillies were willing to break tradition and spend so much money for Cuban righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

It's also why they are likely to hold onto Cliff Lee and Chase Utley.

The opinion here is that's the right thing to do. If you're making a list of things that are wrong with the Phillies, those two are near the bottom of it. If you're making a list of why the Phillies might rebound and be contenders again next season, those two are near the top.

Yes, there is risk involved in extending Utley and his creaky knees, just as there is risk in signing an internatinal player such as Gonzalez. But the teams mentioned above have never shied away from risk.

The Cardinals, for example, signed Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal worth $26 million when he had averaged 96 games per year the previous three seasons because of his own creaky knees.

St. Louis signed Matt Holliday to a seven-year deal worth $120 million at the age of 30 and probably will not be getting a great return for the money at the back end of that deal.

What St. Louis also has done, of course, is develop its own players, which is the same formula the Phillies used for their sustained run of success. What's worth noting is that the guys who have emerged for the Cardinals were not considered elite prospects as they climbed through the minor leagues.

Second baseman Matt Carpenter was a 13th-round pick who never cracked Baseball America's top 100 list, but he did play for the National League in this year's All-Star Game. Allen Craig, who is fighting teammate Yadier Molina for the league lead in batting average, was an eighth-round draft pick who also never cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects. He, too, was an all-star this season.

David Freese, the MVP of the World Series in 2011, was a ninth-round pick by San Diego whom the Cardinals acquired in a trade with San Diego for Jim Edmonds.

It would be shocking and foolish if the Phillies did not trade some of their veteran players before Wednesday. Third baseman Michael Young, a free agent after this season, will almost certainly be playing for a contender next week and it wouldn't be surprising if Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon get that opportunity, too.

Young's departure would open the door for Cody Asche to get his big-league career going, and it's entirely possible Asche could emerge the way Carpenter, Craig, and Freese did for St. Louis. Lehigh Valley's Cesar Hernandez, a second baseman learning to play center field, also has that kind of potential.

What's most scary about the Phillies in the minor leagues is the same thing that has led to their demise at the big-league level this season. Amaro is on record as saying he did a lousy job putting together this year's bullpen, and no one raised a hand to argue.

That issue is likely to be addressed in whatever moves Amaro makes before Wednesday.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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