The non-waiver trade deadline arrives Wednesday at 4 p.m., and it may prove a handy way for the Phillies to unload additional inventory and rearrange the deck furniture a bit, but it will probably do little to change the direction of the franchise or even indicate what that direction might be.
If that is a disappointing fact - that neither buying nor selling is a cure for what ails the franchise - just put it on the tall stack of regrets that have piled up since the 2011 season ended with Ryan Howard on the ground. The team has struggled to get up ever since, and while trying to trade Michael Young for some seedlings that may never take root is the right play, it doesn't change the plot significantly.
That goes for whatever else might happen prior to Wednesday's deadline. In all likelihood, the trading deadline of 2013 will produce only the same type of result as the previous season's deadline. The Phillies unloaded Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, two guys who outlived their usefulness, in exchange for some prospects, none of whom has made much of a mark yet.
Moving past Young and giving an opportunity to Cody Asche at third base is the same sort of move. If the Phils are able to get an acceptable deal for Jonathan Papelbon or Delmon Young on Wednesday, they will take those, too, collecting more prospects in the process. The franchise-changing move - say, Cliff Lee for someone's can't-miss phenom - looks more unlikely every moment.
As it stands now, the Phillies will play out this frustrating season and then hold their annual February reunion in Clearwater with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz still on hand to represent the Class of 2007. If that seems somewhat repetitive, the organization doesn't have many options.
Utley appears on the verge of getting a contract extension, Howard is untradeable because of his deal, Ruiz is declining rapidly, and Rollins said he won't waive his no-trade clause because he'd like to finish atop some of the franchise's lists for individual achievements. (He took the career doubles crown from Ed Delahanty this season, so he's got that going for him, and prior to Tuesday's game, Rollins was 107 hits behind Mike Schmidt's team record of 2,234. Is this a selfish pursuit by Rollins? It's probable some within the organization might feel that way.)
Put Lee, Cole Hamels, a recovered Roy Halladay, and a $40 million Cuban defector in the rotation around that fossil display, fill in the missing positions with whatever is available, squint at the bullpen, and, sure, the Phillies can contend in 2014. Then, some of those prospects they collected turn into real big-leaguers, Ryne Sandberg transforms himself into an inspirational motivator, Howard regains his home run stroke, and we build a stage behind the barn and put on a show to save the orphanage. It's so crazy, it just might work.
Except it won't. Not for long, anyway. This is where the Phillies find themselves, however. They invested heavily in the players who carried them during their five-year glory run, and those players are still the most innately talented in the organization. They just can't show it as consistently as they once did. The Phils are essentially house-rich and cash-poor, stuck with these stately mansions that are expensive to operate but getting draftier by the year.
Teams mired in this place - with true talent that can't be moved and a bottom end of the 40-man roster that isn't attractive to other teams - don't dig their way out of the predicament at the trade deadline. They have nothing much to trade. The Phils will have to buy their way out on the free-agent market and then depend on the farm system to provide the remainder of the relief.
It doesn't matter if you call it "rebuilding" or "retooling" or whatever, the process is going to take a while, and the moves of this non-waiver deadline probably won't be remembered as landmarks along the way.
Looking back to 2012, the Phils got pitchers Ethan Martin and Josh Lindblom for Victorino, and outfielder Nate Schierholtz, catcher Tommy Joseph, and pitcher Seth Rosin in exchange for Pence. Martin and Rosin are poking along in the minors with ERAs over four runs per game, Joseph has been on the disabled list three times this season, Lindblom was sent off in the trade to acquire Michael Young, and Schierholtz was encouraged to sign somewhere else, which he did.
That's not exactly a haul, but it was as well as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could do last year, and expecting him to do much better with the same realities in play this time around isn't reasonable. The awful truth is the Phillies aren't good enough to be either buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. For the moment, they are mostly onlookers, and the view isn't all that great.