SO THIS IS how it ends.
With a whimper, not a bang.
All summer long, and really, late in the spring, today was the day that it all could restart for the Phillies. They would trade that core they held onto for too long, pay off chunks of those big salaries Ruben Amaro Jr. awarded to the aging, homegrown guys and the long-in-tooth veterans he collected and valued like an antiques collector collects and values old lamps.
And the refurbishing project long anticipated and long delayed would begin in earnest.
Except it won't. Not today and not in the weeks ahead, after a barrage of their high-priced contracts are placed on waivers and Amaro teeters on or exceeds the minutes allowed on his cellular plan. He may move Antonio Bastardo because Bastardo doesn't cost much and maybe even A.J. Burnett because he might retire at the end of the season, but the rest of the brand names on the roster fall under two categories:
1. You can't (or won't) pay people enough to take them;
2. You can't get enough to justify their departure.
Chase Utley and Cole Hamels comprise Category 2. Each could leave this minute if Amaro decided to conduct the baseball equivalent of a back-to-school sale. It's instructive, though, that Utley is still here while the Giants and Tigers, two teams who profess to be all-in, still struggle to get production and defense at second base. And farm-rich young teams like the Royals, who desperately need a leader like the Phillies' second baseman to help them shake a 3-year bout with the yips, seem more interested in adding Burnett.
Utley, whose incentive-driven contract guarantees he will remain a Phillie only through next season, has said he would like to stay. So has Hamels, who this year earns $22.5 million and is guaranteed to receive $90 million over the next four seasons. They are cleverly clause-laden declarations, though, shifting the focus from their willingness to be traded to the willingness of the Phillies brass to trade them.
This stands in stark contrast to the departures of past homegrown stars Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling. (Yes, I know, but Curt became a star with the Phillies just as Shane Victorino did, and thus was homegrown). In both cases, the players became so disgruntled with the club's direction (or perceived lack of direction) they forced a trade. And in each case the return neither improved the team's current plight, nor its future one.
That's the danger of any trades based on a rebuild, a danger only magnified by the glut of overvalued talent on this team. Even those well-paid Yankees teams of the 1990s had more movable pieces than the cellar-dwelling, 2014 Phillies.
This was the team the Phillies vowed to never be. Remember? That's why they dealt Cliff Lee the first time, why they made the tough choices to trade away Victorino and Hunter Pence and watch Jayson Werth walk. Restock. Refurbish. Remain competitive as they blend younger talent with their homegrown stars.
Yesterday, Kyle Kendrick tried to explain the Phillies' abominable season by saying, "Guys just aren't producing. Guys just are having tough years, bad years." Well, he is, and Ryan Howard is, and the best-case scenario is that Domonic Brown is, too. But Utley has become an All-Star again and Marlon Byrd has exceeded most, if not all, expectations, and Jimmy Rollins has been pretty much Jimmy Rollins, at least the one from the last bunch of years.
Until recently, Burnett, hernia and all, was holding up his end of the deal that brought him here as well. It's why he may be the hottest name the Phillies have heading toward today's 4 p.m. trade deadline.
Except that it isn't. Not for the Phillies. Their deadline is Aug. 31, the last day a player can switch teams and still be eligible for the postseason.
And so, sometime after 4 today, maybe even within minutes, they will begin to bleed their rich past and peasant presence onto the waiver wire, taking one last stab at jump-starting the rebuild that was never supposed to happen.
They learned their lesson from those late '90s teams, they used to boast. They had a plan now, a good plan, and they had money now to implement it. Lots of it.
It wouldn't happen again, those 97-loss, 95-loss teams.
Except that it just did.