The Phillies are starting to feel like that beautiful sports car whose engine won't turn over. You remember that one: The roadster which gave you 5 straight division titles, 2 World Series appearances, and that amazing parade down Broad Street in 2008.
The check engine light came on last year when Chase Utley couldn't start the season in the Majors due to knee problems, but you ignored it, because "We've got the 4 Aces plus One!" The light eventually turned off on its own as the team won 102 games in a thrilling regular season that seemed as simple as a cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway.
But then there was that National League Division Series. It gets to Game 5 with Roy Halladay on the mound, so put the top down and relax. Then the potentially unexpected happens: the car won't start. Sure Halladay pitched a brilliant 1-run gem, but the offense couldn't get out of the driveway, and to make matters worse, the check engine light comes on again as Ryan Howard's Achilles' fails under the weight of trying to carry a stagnant offense. The car has to go to the shop.
Enter the off-season of 2012. General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., the mechanic, has to fix some breakdowns. Ryan Howard's injury won't have him ready for the start of the season, Chase Utley's knees are still a question mark, and what about that putrid bench?
So Amaro went to the part shop and found Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Chad Qualls, and Jim Thome. 2 solid, but not sterling, infield pieces, a reliever with plenty of effective, but excessive, mileage the last two years, and Thome, the late-model car who still can put on a show, but way over 100,000 miles on the back.
Some of the moves worked: Wigginton's 8 homers and 33 RBI have to be slightly above expectations, while Nix was hitting .326 before suffering a strained calf back in May.
Some of the moves didn't: Jim Thome didn't adjust to the Part-Time 1B/PH role. His back put him on the disabled list when he wasn't going 1-for-16 as a Pinch-Hitter. The best success for "Big Jim" came when he hit 4 homers and 14 RBI in the 9-game stretch through the American League parks last month. He was supremely loved by everyone in the clubhouse, perhaps only Carlos Ruiz's success brought more smiles to teammates, but just not a National League fit at this time of his career.
Then there is the story of Chad Qualls. The right-hander who had thrown in at least 77 games for all but one year since 2005 was coming off a bounce-back 3.51ERA season for the Padres last year and looked to be a potential solution. Qualls pitched scoreless baseball in 13 of his 15 June appearances with the Phils, but of course fans will remember those 3 runs in the 11-7 loss to Pittsburgh, which got him released the next day. Had he pitched too much? Perhaps.
So with those off-season moves getting mixed results, the Phillies opened the season with a 1-0 win by Roy Halladay over the Pirates on Opening Day. The first place team was on its way again, except that 1-0 start became 1-3, and then 3-5, 7-10, and eventually 15-19. There was the 6 game-win streak to get back over .500, but then a 4-game losing streak after it. That car has been teasing you. They even got the margin to 2.5 out on June 1st. While still in last place, hope was alive "Here comes 3rd gear!"
Except, it hasn't worked. The Phillies are 8-20 since that day, having dropped 11 games behind the Nationals on Monday night. Washington has the makings of a 2013 Lamborghini with Bryce Harper, Steven Strasburg, and Ryan Zimmerman just getting up to 65MPH with plenty of track to go.
So what will happen next? Major part number one re-entered the lineup as Chase Utley is batting .294 since his dramatic home run-filled return last Wednesday against the Pirates. The problem? He can't play every day still, and the Phillies are 0-6 since he came back.
The next hope is Ryan Howard, who hit his first rehab home-run Tuesday night with Lehigh Valley, but the sense is he will need at least until 2013 to get his true speed and power back. He might not be the platinum "Big Piece" he usually is, but hey 90% of amazing is still pretty good right?
The question becomes what else can Amaro do? The team is already maxed out on its credit limit as they are butting heads with the luxury cap.
- TRADE SHANE VICTORINO: Perhaps the part you can get the most for, but the centerfielder has been the one position player who stands up and talks to the media each night. While you could argue that doesn't matter, clearly people want to know what the team is thinking, and Shane has been that person, even trying to help calm things down even as the car has been stalling. Also, if he goes, you figure John Mayberry ends up in CF, and Charlie Manuel has been reluctant to play Juan Pierre against southpaws, so that could open up a hole in left.
- TRADE COLE HAMELS: Would it really be throwing in the towel to get rid of arguably one of the 5 best young left-handers in the game right now, especially when it's your best producing homegrown piece at this point? Trying to get him re-signed at this point would seem to be tricky, is he in a hurry to re-up with a last place team with aging parts? The problem here: There is no way you get "fair-market value" for someone who could walk from your team after another half a season. Unless someone really gets desperate for an ace starter (Yankees?), this option doesn't sound likely.
- TRADE CLIFF LEE: $11million for a half season and $25m the next 3 for a pitcher who hasn't won a game yet this year? While many of the games aren't his fault (that 10 inning no-decision ring a bell?), he hasn't been anywhere near the 17-win, 2.40ERA pitcher who netted that deal last season. The Phillies don't seem to have many options but to wait a turnaround out, or swallow up at least $30million to watch him pitch somewhere else.
- STAND PAT: This would be the "Hope Ryan Howard comes back at All-Star level" option. There is a reality that the team will get better with Howard, and Roy Halladay in the lineup. The question is how much, and being 10 games under .500, it would take a 2011-ish second half to get back into any sort of race. The danger here is you probably lose Hamels and Victorino for virtually nothing immediately.
One thing is for certain; you know Amaro has the wrench out. The question is will this be a tune-up for a miracle 2012 run and hopeful return to full speed in 2013, or is it time for an overhaul of the speedster that gave you perhaps the best 5-year run in franchise history? It looks like a flag is about to be waived, is it Yellow, Checkered, or White?
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