DETROIT - A cold breath of air carried more than a hint of autumn into Comerica Park yesterday morning, a fitting reminder that football season is less than 2 months away.
There were few other condolences on a day when reality finally seemed to descend upon this once-confident team. It was an ugly loss, the kind that Phillies fans used to see from opponents who were undermanned and overmatched and playing out the string against a bona fide World Series contender. Everything unraveled in the sixth inning, the Phillies fielding the baseball like it was made of anthrax, the Tigers taking advantage to score eight unearned runs. The final score was 12-4, but that was irrelevant. The Phillies, one game over .500 less than 2 weeks ago, dropped their eighth straight game.
As the players milled around the clubhouse in preparation for the flight back to Philadelphia, they offered none of the protestations that had been commonplace over much of the previous 2 months. In a pair of series against two of the leading contenders for the World Series, the Phillies offered barely any resistance. They allowed 42 runs and scored just 10. They did not hit a home run. Since beating the Mets in their first game out of the All-Star break, the Phillies have fallen from one game above .500 to seven games below, 49-56.
"You can't sugarcoat it," Michael Young said. "Whatever possibly could go wrong went wrong."
"Embarrassing," Jimmy Rollins said.
Charlie Manuel agreed.
That's good news, at least for those who would rather not spend the next 2 or 3 years watching the Phillies languish in a mediocrity propped mostly by their payroll. While you have to think that Ruben Amaro Jr. and his financial backers harbored a more realistic appraisal of their team than the ones they offered to the public, the on-field incompetence the Phillies displayed against the Cardinals and Tigers removed any doubt about the front office's strategy for the days leading up to Wednesday's non-waiver trade deadline.
There are still pertinent questions to be answered: Is the team willing to part ways with Chase Utley? Is anybody interested in acquiring Jonathan Papelbon? What kind of offer would it take to trade Cliff Lee? But the most important one has been answered. The 2013 season is not worth the effort it would require to salvage.
Now, about the future . . .
When Amaro blanches at the suggestion that he might become a seller at the trade deadline, his reluctance stems from the implication rather than the words. The Phillies cannot afford to be "sellers" in the traditional sense. It is virtually impossible for a team that will pay six players $102.5 million next season to tear down its infrastructure and rebuild. The Phillies need money to sustain their payroll, and their chief source of revenue is ticket sales (although, admittedly, a new television deal is on the horizon). Heading into the upcoming homestand, the Phillies are on pace to finish with about 540,000 fewer tickets sold this season than they had in 2011. Even at a conservative estimate of $30 in club revenue per ticket sold, the difference between 2011 and 2013 is in the neighborhood of $16 million.
In addition to the $102.5 million committed to next year's payroll, the Phillies have $90.5 million in obligations for 2014 and $70.0 million for 2015. The last thing they need is an exponential death spiral where losing seasons beget diminished revenues and diminished revenues beget losing seasons, finally bottoming out in 2017, when Ryan Howard's contract is off the books. Unclear? Look at the Cubs for a glimpse of the ghost of Phillies future.
The best way to avoid such a fate is to acquire talent that outperforms its contracts, thus lessening the smothering inefficiency that plagues the current roster. Domonic Brown is one player whose performance should far exceed his market value for at least the next 3 or 4 years. Now, they must find at least one more, and then they must pair Brown and the newcomer with a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat. They have spent the last 2 years counting on Howard. They cannot waste another.
Look at the Phillies' payroll long enough and you can concoct a way for them to afford the kind of hitter they need. But they are not going to be able to buy their way out of this mess, not with all of the layers of grime that exist. Amaro and Co. can no longer hope to subsist on premium-priced players alone. They brought in the best closer money could buy, the best setup man money could buy, the best starting pitcher money could buy and added them to a core that in 2013 is making $22.5 million (Cole Hamels), $20 million (Roy Halladay), $20 million (Howard) and $11 million (Rollins). They shopped exclusively at the top of the market, favoring quality over quantity. In the end, quantity mattered. Instead of a $20 million first baseman and a $2 million outfielder, perhaps the Phillies would have been better off with $11 million players at both positions. Instead of a $13 million closer and a $6 million setup man, perhaps they would have been better off with five $4 million relievers.
There is a reason Manuel has been forced to run out lineups that would barely be legal in the Grapefruit League. Yesterday, it was Darin Ruf, Laynce Nix, Delmon Young, John Mayberry Jr., Kevin Frandsen and Steve Susdorf rounding out the order. There is a reason the Phillies are out of options in the bullpen. There is a reason you are forced to sit through sequences like the one that unfolded in the sixth inning yesterday, when the Phillies used everything except a clown car to hand the Tigers eight unearned runs. All of these things happen when a team does not have the depth to make it through a 162-game regular season.
Dating back to the Roy Oswalt trade in 2010, the Phillies have displayed a curious understanding of opportunity cost, the notion that for every dollar they spend in one area, they have one less dollar to spend elsewhere. For a couple of seasons, they acted as if their resources were limitless, as if they would simply keep on spending. But then they entered a season with Ben Francisco in rightfield, and another season with Mayberry, Juan Pierre and Nix in leftfield, and a third with an injured Delmon Young as their answer in right. All of those players had something in common besides their lack of qualifications for an everyday job on a contending team: They worked for cheap.
Already, they are over-leveraged for 2014 and 2015. The upcoming offseason is a critical one, and the Phillies need to enter it armed with all possible information. They need to bring up Cody Asche today and spend the next 2 months evaluating whether he is a realistic option at third base. They need to do the same thing with Cesar Hernandez. They need to say goodbye to Delmon Young, move Domonic Brown back to right, and play Darin Ruf every day in left. They need to do whatever they can to trade Papelbon, although with his diminished velocity and his contract-albatross, it might be too late.
They need to float every asset that a contending team might be willing to overpay for in the hopes of landing the kind of young talent that might avert a complete destruct-and-rebuild. Whether the people currently in charge are the right ones to execute such an endeavor is debatable. But Amaro and David Montgomery do not appear to be going anywhere. You just have to hope they prove themselves capable.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy