NEW YORK - If today is going to be a defining day in the life of this Phillies' organization, nobody has told the players. They dressed in silence yesterday afternoon, some of them fiddling with their smart phones, most of them making a quick exit to the bus. All 25 eventually boarded. Next stop: Washington. The Phillies Express rolled on.
The truth is they are immune to it by now, this chatter about buyers and sellers and no-trade clauses. Most of them have been through enough losing Julys to understand that very little ever really changes. When they look around the clubhouse, they do not see any evidence of the previous years' purges. Ethan Martin and Seth Rosin made pit stops, but that's the extent of the talent the Phillies recouped in trades that sent Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence and Michael Young and Jim Thome out the door. Most of the players who have a chance to move on before today's 4 p.m. nonwaiver trade deadline are players who were just passing through to begin with. When the dust clears, most of the familiar faces will still be there: Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and Cliff Lee and Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz.
"The deadline talk has been going on since the beginning of the month," Ryan Howard said.
And, frankly, very little of it is pertinent to them, at least as individuals. A baseball player learns early on that his life is one of change. Their mere presence in a big-league clubhouse puts them in a small minority who found a way to leave the bulk of their minor league teammates behind. It is a game of self-sufficiency.
Wholesale change? The kind the Phillies desperately need but are unlikely to create?
"That's not for me to worry about," righthander Kyle Kendrick said.
The only one in a position to worry about it is the manager, who yesterday spoke mostly of a desire to move past what has been a month of uncertainty.
"Just to know what we're doing," Ryne Sandberg said.
Chances are, he won't even get that, at least not by the end of today. The Phillies are not sellers in the traditional sense. They are not under any financial pressure to save a million bucks or two by giving away veterans like A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon. Those remain the four players most likely to move today, but two of them lack even a moderate market for their services. All but Bastardo are almost certain to clear waivers, which would enable them to be dealt to a contending team at some point during the month of August. In a best-case scenario, Byrd will land them a Triple A pitcher with limited upside who can slot into the back of their rotation. Otherwise, the departure of Burnett will simply reinforce one of the most dire truths the organization must confront moving forward: There is nobody to replace him. Righthander David Buchanan wasn't overwhelmed in the 10 starts he made in place of Lee, posting a 4.40 ERA with strikeout and walk rates nearly identical those of Kendrick, whom he will likely replace next year.
"After that," Sandberg said, "it gets thin."
Papelbon's departure would enable the Phillies to take a look at Ken Giles in a closer's role, but it would also reinforce another of those unenviable truths. The club's bullpen is back to where it was at the start of the season. Yesterday, it allowed seven runs in two innings after Kendrick allowed four in six. Over the last third of the season, the bullpen has posted a 4.69 ERA in 98 innings. Over the first third, it posted a 4.95 ERA. In the middle third, it posted a 2.42 ERA. Giles has been electric, but Bastardo and Papelbon are the only two relievers who have sustained back-of-the-bullpen-level success over the long haul.
If you were to list the obstacles the Phillies will have to overcome to return to competitiveness, number one would be pitching. And that is saying something, given the lackluster performance of the lineup. Very little of what ails the franchise will be remedied via trades of players like Byrd, Burnett, Bastardo and Papelbon. The most important story line of the next 4 weeks will be the performance of Lee, whose departure could provide some of the dramatic impact the Phillies need, provided he returns to top-of-the-rotation form. Otherwise, the only thing that this supposedly critical juncture will yield is the realization that there is no easy fix, and that the present is likely to get even uglier before true growth begins.