Each of the previous two uninspiring Phillies seasons have included a brief gasp for life. Two years back, it was a three-game sweep of the Brewers featuring nothing but come-from-behind 7-6 wins. Last season, they strung together five wins in a row in early summer, not knowing that it would be easily outmatched by their losses, which at one point stacked up eight in a row.
This year, the inspiring run came again - a June sweep of the Braves in Atlanta, a 5-2 road trip, a bullpen reborn, a Jimmy Rollins hit streak - and winning 10 of 15 was identified as an attempt to scuttle up from the bottom.
Unfortunately, the Phillies ended June much like it had begun. They split a home series with Miami and then suffered a four-game sweep by the Braves, undoing their work and burying them under a demoralizing eight-game deficit in the NL East. Each of the previous two gasps were isolated events on a draining schedule that ended after a mere 162 games. This one appears no different.
Despite a sustained lack of success going back to 2011, Phillies president David Montgomery stated that the team will not be rebuilding any time soon, as it would hurt attendance numbers too hard.
“In 1998, what were we drawing? Where were we ranked of the franchises in the city? We were last,” Montgomery said. “When I took over, we thought it was a moral victory to go 44-46 in the second half and still lose 97 games, drawing a million and a half and we couldn’t get into a new ballpark.
“Some people say that the Phillies worry too much about attendance. Yes, we do. When you are low in attendance, the risk is only on the upside. When you are (drawing well), the risk is dropping any further. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. may have accidentally offered some insight into this hair-raising plan to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal:
“We’re not going to be in a five-year plan, be really bad for five years."
[It's safe to assume the "five years" in question would start now because, if not, the Phillies are already halfway there.]
"I don’t believe we’re in the market to do that, and where we have to do that,” Amaro said.
“Guys like Cole, Chase and some of the others can help make the transition faster. Having them be part of the transition would probably be more beneficial to us unless we can get two, three or four pieces that we know can be part of our core going forward.
“In this day and age, how many teams have that? Very few. And how many teams are going to give that up?”
So, without giving up Cole Hamels or Chase Utley, the Phillies will have grizzled vets to act as spirit guides. But who exactly will be playing the role(s) of the trembling newcomers? This isn't a rebuild, remember.
Perhaps those not mentioned by name - Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd - are more likely to be shipped out in exchange for minor leaguers. But the Phillies have not proven to be adept in this era at acquiring prospects.
Prospects are a gamble, and exchanging a proven asset for a handful of them is not a simple task. But the sole survivor of the 2009 Cliff Lee deal is the run-hemorrhaging Phillippe Aumont; a bad omen as the team begins researching a Lee trade for the second time.
At the heart of this, though, is the notion that Montgomery and the Phillies don't want to scare you away from the ballpark by putting a bunch of nobodies out there as they try to become worth your attention over the course of a few years. What was so exciting about watching some nobody hit a grand slam for his first Major League hit? What was so stimulating when a cocky kid with dreads hit .321 as a callup in another meaningless September?
Anybody looking for that kind of baseball experience can hit up Minute Maid Park in Houston, where a franchise is cool with meandering, pointless tactics like studying, nurturing, and developing young players and taking a frugal stance on deals until they have a farm system churning out roster after roster of promising prospects. The Phillies understand that you don't want to see Jonathan Singleton or Jarred Cosart on the field, homering or flirting with no-hitters in their first Major League appearances.
Change is born from risk, and the Phillies are in a place that requires change. A team that's been unable to contend for three years believes that they can push into the next era of success by skipping an important step and avoiding the risks of a rebuild. But there's not a lot at risk in last place.