EVEN FROM the perspective of somebody who has spent much of the last 4 months chronicling the struggles of this Phillies team, the sight of Hunter Pence fielding questions about trade rumors from a swarm of reporters before Tuesday night's game was a jarring one. The rightfielder appeared to feel the same way, his voice carrying with it a hint of incredulity as he said all the right things about the speculation.
These are unprecedented times at Citizens Bank Park. For all of the on-the-job training Ruben Amaro Jr. received under Ed Wade and Pat Gillick, nothing could have prepared him for the decisions he will face in the 7 days that remain before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. His clubhouse seems intent on making those decisions as difficult as possible, the latest example coming in the eighth inning on Tuesday night, when the Phillies scored six runs to seize an improbable 7-6 victory over the Brewers. The energy that pulsed through the ballpark was impossible to ignore. All of the ills that had plagued the team during the first half of the season appeared to be cured, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard drawing pivotal walks to load the bases, Carlos Ruiz following them with a game-tying three-run double, and Pence following that with a bloop single over the second baseman's head to plate the eventual game-winner.
"Something positive to write about," Howard said as he stood at his locker.
You could only wonder whether the positive vibes infiltrated the executive suite at the ballpark, where the Phillies' decision makers have been preparing for the potential of trading away parts of their roster while also watching that roster put together three straight dramatic victories. How much is too little? And how late is too late?
The Phillies have been buyers before, and once upon a time they were sellers. But they have never been in the position of adding and subtracting at the same time, which is the strategy the front office seems likely to pursue as it attempts to correct the glaring imbalance on its roster and payroll so that the first 4 months of 2012 do not repeat themselves in August and everything after. When you look at things rationally, it is the logical course of action. Even though they have won three straight games and are 7-4 since the All-Star Break, the Phillies are still 44-54 and 9?1/2 games out of the wild card, with six teams standing between them and the final postseason spot.
Asked what he would tell Amaro to do, Charlie Manuel laughed and said, "I'd say hit leather."
Upon noticing the quizzical expressions on reporters' faces, the manager explained, "That means buy. I'm a buying kind of guy."
Amaro's exact course of action will depend largely on the outcome of the contract talks he is holding with Cole Hamels, who will have to decide whether 2 months of worry-free pitching is worth the money he would sacrifice by removing himself from the offseason free-agent market. There are strong indications that the next couple of days will be pivotal. Hamels is scheduled to start against the Braves on Friday, and it makes sense for both sides to reach a resolution before he takes the mound for that start. If the lefty is confident he will end up re-signing, it makes sense to do so before he again exposes himself to the physical risk of pitching. If the Phillies are going to trade Hamels, it makes sense to expedite the proceedings, thus avoiding the potential of an injury that scares off suitors.
As of Tuesday evening, talks between the sides were very much alive, sources indicated to the Daily News. A New York Post report said Hamels had not accepted a 6-year contract in the neighborhood of $140 million the Phillies offered. But nonacceptance is not the same thing as rejection. According to one source with direct knowledge of the situation, negotiations between the sides are still fluid. A source with knowledge of Hamels' thinking said that the pitcher still has hope the talks will yield an agreement that keeps him with the Phillies well beyond 2012, but that several issues still need to be worked out before such a deal is consummated. The identity of those issues are not known, but a no-trade clause and an option year are common sticking points.
Paying Hamels an average annual salary of $23 million would leave the Phillies with $136.7 million in 2013 payroll committed to 10 players.
Several of the remaining roster spots can be filled with low-cost players, but even when you factor those, you can still count on nine slots to fill with about $28 million to go before the $178 million luxury tax threshold. Because Pence will receive a raise from his current $10.4 million salary, and because corner outfield is a spot where there should be some cheaper options on the free-agent market that still provide righthanded power, the Phillies could explore trading him for a package of prospects and signing his replacement in the offseason.
The most confounding block in the Rubik's Cube is third base, where Placido Polanco is unlikely to have the option is his contract exercised. There are no clear upgrades in the system or in free agency.
A week remains before July 31, and the clock will not stop ticking. Neither, it seems, will the Phillies.