CLEARWATER, Fla. - The notion that the Phillies do not have a plan for the future is misguided. It just depends on which future you're talking about.
Exactly what the plan is for the impending trade deadline, which is closing fast on general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., remains a mystery probably even to him. The smart money, especially after another lost weekend at Citizens Bank Park, continues to be on the trade-the-veterans-for-prospects strategy.
The long-term solution, meanwhile, requires a patience that has mostly grown thin for fans who had become spoiled by nine consecutive winning seasons and five straight division titles before the ongoing collapse that started in 2012. As the Phillies entered the all-star break Sunday by taking a beating from the Washington Nationals, the long-term future was on display north and south of Philadelphia.
Up in Minneapolis, the organization's two best position-player prospects - third baseman Maikel Franco and shortstop J.P. Crawford - were participating in the Futures Game at Target Field. Down in Clearwater, Fla., the two best pitching prospects were hard at work.
Jesse Biddle, the Phillies' 2010 first-round pick, is trying to clear his head as he remains on the temporarily inactive list after going 0-4 with a 12.64 earned run average in four June starts. He was nowhere to be found at Bright House Field, where the man on the mound Sunday was Aaron Nola, the seventh overall pick in this year's draft. For now, Biddle is working in the morning at the Carpenter Complex, the practice fields attached to the Phillies' spring-training park.
After just four professional outings, Nola already has passed Biddle as the organization's top pitching prospect, which means nothing if he fails to tap the potential he showed while posting a 30-6 record and a 2.09 ERA in three seasons at Louisiana State.
So far, so good are the reports on the embryonic stage of Nola's professional career with the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies' advanced single-A ball club. By his own admission, the 21-year-old righthander was not at his best Sunday during his five-inning Florida State League stint against the Palm Beach Cardinals, but you can shrug off a 3-1 loss in the minor leagues and chalk it up to another step in the development process.
"A little shaky" is how Nola described his fourth professional outing. "My command wasn't very good today."
It was an honest assessment, especially since he did not walk a batter and needed only 57 pitches to cover five innings. He made two huge mistakes, and both resulted in home runs by Luke Voit, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound first baseman who attended the same high school (Lafayette in Wildwood, Mo.) and college (Missouri State) as Ryan Howard.
"I was throwing strikes, but they weren't quality strikes," Nola said. "I was missing over the plate on a couple of them, and a guy hit two home runs off me."
Nola tried to beat Voit with inside fastballs in the second and fourth innings. Voit hit a 1-0 pitch into the left-field bullpen in the second for a solo shot. The second encounter was more entertaining. With the infield in after centerfielder Roman Quinn misplayed a ball into a leadoff triple, Nola got Voit into an 0-2 count. The pitcher tried to get the cleanup hitter to chase a couple of breaking pitches out of the zone, but Voit laid off.
"I knew he was eventually going to try to come back in with his fastball, so I sat on that," Voit said.
He slugged a two-run homer to give Palm Beach a 3-0 lead. Nola had just one 1-2-3 inning and allowed seven hits. He struck out two, and his fastball velocity was slightly down from his previous two outings. He consistently pitched at 88 to 91 m.p.h.
"He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was the last game, but he still threw only 57 pitches through five innings," Clearwater pitching coach Bob Milacki said. "The big thing is just getting his feet wet in professional baseball and getting in the routine of professional baseball. I think he's starting to get to that."
That means Nola has a lot to learn before he shows up at Citizens Bank Park and tries to help the resurrection of a once-great team. He knows it. He said he needs to be better when he doesn't have his best stuff and command.
He also needs to know that the other team is aware he's the seventh overall pick.
"I saw his stats in college," Voit said. "He is a really good pitcher, so it was pretty cool to do that against the No. 7 overall draft pick. It was like a challenge. You want to beat him."
The Phillies know they need to be patient with Nola. It's all part of the long-term plan. Someday, Franco, Crawford, Biddle, and Nola will be part of the Phillies' next generation. In the meantime, the trade-deadline clock is ticking and there's no telling what the Phillies' 2014 roster will look like when it expires.