Utley and Rollins, like Papelbon, should want out

Posted: July 14, 2014

Jonathan Papelbon said last week that he doesn't understand baseball players who are content to play with a non-contending team. It's not always easy to agree with the worldview of Papelbon, whose perspective rarely includes anyone other than himself, but there's no problem with that one.

People here predictably jumped up and down, of course, because Philadelphia is so prone to civic insecurity that the moment someone suggests he might rather be somewhere else, people light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks. You can ask J.D. Drew or Scott Rolen about that, even though the former's sin was to do exactly what he said he would do if drafted, and the latter's was to wish to escape back-searing artificial turf and Larry Bowa.

If a player said he wanted to leave New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, the populations of those cities would shrug and hold open the door. Philadelphians place a blood curse on him, his family, and his lineage until the final generation. It is not our best attribute.

Papelbon made it clear he would rather stay here if the Phillies were winning - which is like saying hell wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the heat - but also indicated that a trade to a contender would be more than welcome.

"Some guys want to stay on a losing team? That's mind-boggling to me. I think that's a no-brainer," he said.

If anyone can recognize a no-brainer, it should be Papelbon, who also didn't make any friends in the clubhouse last season when he delivered his I-didn't-come-here-for-this manifesto. As if the rest of the team did.

What he came for, of course, was four years and $50 million, and he took his chances that pitching for a contender would be part of the deal. Two and a half years into it, the team is nearly 30 games under .500 during that span, and the Phils would be happy to grant his wish if they can find a willing trade partner.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said changes will be made before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and it should be obvious - even to the most stubborn among the front office - that this time the no-kidding-around demolition of the past is in order.

The problem is that much of the past either has a no-trade clause or an untradeable contract. Papelbon is probably in the second group because teams don't overpay for closers anymore. (Another of the trends the Phils were somewhat late to recognize.) He can be moved, though, if the Phils agree to eat some of the remaining contract.

As for the others, mainly Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, that will be more difficult. Teams won't be willing to pay the price for what is left of Howard, a once-great power hitter whose slugging percentage of .395 entering the weekend ranked 100th in the major leagues. Utley and Rollins would be useful players for a contender, but don't appear motivated to leave the only organization they have known.

Maybe they are just being more circumspect than Papelbon - whose comments could be taken as backhanded slaps in their direction - but you wonder if, at 35, they are comfortable riding it out here. Rollins has a $15 million vesting option for next season that is about to become official (based on 1,100 plate appearances in 2013 and 2014, and that he is not on the DL at the end of this season). Utley is guaranteed for another season and then has three years of vesting options he should achieve if he stays healthy.

"A lot can happen between now and the end of the month, good and bad, and we will see how it plays out," said Utley, who has perfected the art of constructing weightless sentences like that one.

What does carry some weight, however, is what he says to Amaro. If he is as competitive and driven as we have always been led to believe, Utley shouldn't just accept a trade to a contender, but should insist on one. The same goes for Rollins, even if that means ending his quest to surpass Ed Delahanty's team record for triples or whatever arcane numbers he's still chasing.

It would be tough to see them go, but perhaps tougher to see them stay, delaying the overdue rebuilding and eating up payroll flexibility as the team limps along. If Utley achieves all his vesting options (based on maintaining 500 plate appearances per season), his contract will expire at the end of the 2018 season, three months before his 40th birthday.

That's not his fault, of course, and he has a right to play it any way he chooses. So does Jonathan Papelbon, and he chooses to play it for a contender if possible.

What Utley and Rollins really want is harder to know for sure. As the man said, while saying very little, we'll see how it plays out.





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