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Phillies need to look toward future

Will the Phillies pay up to keep fan favorites like Chase Utley?
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

Fans are smarter than teams think.

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I’m not talking about the knuckleheads on Twitter who concoct lopsided trades and offer knee-jerk criticisms.

No, I’m talking about the fans who are more informed about their favorite clubs than ever before, fans who are savvy enough to understand when their team is truly a contender and when it is not.

I’m talking, I believe, about most Phillies fans in 2013.

They’re watching their team daily. They’re seeing a club that is 49-50 with a minus-46 run differential. They’re sensing that the first-place Braves are vulnerable but wondering how their Fightins’ — without first baseman Ryan Howard and center fielder Ben Revere, not to mention right-hander Roy Halladay and reliever Mike Adams — can erase a deficit of 6-1/2 games.

Maybe they can, maybe they can’t — even in the Phillies’ own clubhouse, players are full of conflicting opinions. But at some point, whether it’s before the July 31 non-waiver deadline or not, the Phillies will face a reckoning. At some point, they will need to stop using their fan support as an excuse for keeping their older, fading club intact.

Now don’t get me wrong — it’s noble when teams act out of obligation to their paying customers, and generally good business. But the best way to make money in this game, as the Phillies know from their recent history, is to win. And the worst place a team can be in its competitive cycle is caught in between.

So, when Phillies CEO David Montgomery talks about the “tremendous fan identification” with the team’s longtime stars entering into the club’s buy-or-sell equation, I get it and I respect it. But fans can tolerate rebuilding, even fans of big-market clubs like the Mets and Cubs. All they need to see is a coherent plan.

Oh, I’m not saying that the Phillies should sell, even after losing two of three to the Mets in their first series after the All-Star Game. True, it was disturbing that the team’s lefty aces, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, took losses in the final two games. But the Phillies stood no chance against Mets righty Matt Harvey in the finale; manager Charlie Manuel and several of the team’s veteran hitters said Harvey was the best pitcher they had seen all season. One of the hitters said that Harvey was the best he had ever seen.

So, the Phillies march on to St. Louis and Detroit, where they will face two of the best teams in the majors. A poor trip is quite possible, yet even that might not be enough to persuade club officials to concede. Not when 34 of the Phillies’ next 50 games are at home. Not when the Braves are 43-42 since their 12-1 start. Not when the Nationals, who trail the Phillies by a half-game, are next-to-last in the NL in runs scored.

The division is just bad enough for the Phillies to dream — “it’s there for the taking,” one player told me. “A little ‘pen help, and we’d have a shot.”

Other team members, though, were less optimistic.

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One cited the Phillies’ poor defense — the team ranks 23rd out of 30 in the majors in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the rate at which a team converts balls in play into outs.

Another said, “A lot of things will have to go right for us — a lot of things.”

Still, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said before the game that he remained in “buy” mode, seeking a reliever or two and a part-time center fielder. No shock there: Amaro would be in “buy” mode if his wallet were empty and his favorite store was picked clean.

In fairness, Amaro traded outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence and right-hander Joe Blanton last season. But he’s aggressive by nature, wildly aggressive at times. And he is not without a stake in all this: He’s the one who built this team at an Opening Day cost of $165.3 million, third-highest in the majors.

So, as much as the odds appear stacked against the Phillies, Amaro and Montgomery understandably will want to take their best shot. Well, someone needs to look ahead to the offseason, when catcher Carlos Ruiz, 34, and second baseman Chase Utley, 34, will be among the Phillies’ free agents. In the name of “fan identification,” will the Phils give Utley and Ruiz three-year deals?

The Phillies already have either A) overpaid or B) kept most of their top players for too long. Howard, 33, appeared in only 71 games last season, and is stuck on 80 this season. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, 32, is losing velocity and effectiveness. Even Lee, who turns 35 on Aug. 30, is suddenly a bit of a concern, having allowed seven homers in his past two starts.

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If Howard had stayed healthy, the Phillies could have tried to be this year’s Red Sox, requiring any team that wanted Lee to also take Howard and clearing a combined $137.5 million in commitments from 2014 through ’16. But such a move, if the Phillies are even willing to do it, will have to wait; Howard figures to be out until at least September after undergoing surgery on his left knee.

Remember: July 31 is only one checkpoint. Most of the Phillies’ expensive veterans will clear waivers, making August trades a possibility. The offseason will present further opportunity — and frankly, greater opportunity, given that teams will be more flexible with their rosters.

By then, it will all be over.

The Phillies likely will be coming off their second straight postseason miss. Third-base coach Ryne Sandberg likely will replace manager Charlie Manuel, who is in the final year of his contract. A new era will be dawning. The team will have reason to enact dramatic change.

The Phils might not want to start just yet, might not want to trade even Papelbon and Young, much less Utley and Lee. OK, fine, the team might get hot for a month or two, make September fun. But at some point, the Phillies will need to stop avoiding the inevitable, stop clinging to their past.

Their fans could tolerate rebuilding. At this rate, they would downright welcome it.

Tagged: Mets, Phillies, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard

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