When the tearing down and rebuilding of the Phillies is finally complete, it will be possible to catalogue and rank the missteps that were taken on the steep, slick road from the team's five straight division championships and two World Series appearances to their present position in the dregs of baseball's deep barrel.

The ranking will take a while.

It isn't as if the Phils miscalculated here and there, or failed to recognize the collapse in just one or two ways. They basically messed up for the cycle.

Every fan will have an opinion as to which mistake was the worst, which pebble that lodged in the shoe during this long jog to the bottom hurt the most.

The law firm of Howard, Rollins & Utley will individually and collectively get plenty of votes, and with good reason. Since the team's last winning season, the organization will pay at least $218 million for their services, all of it coming after the players were 32 or 33 years old. The total could even have gone higher had Chase Utley been allowed to reach 500 plate appearances this season, which would have triggered a $15 million vesting option for 2016.

That's a lot to spend on a very few players for all those losses, and the money could have been better used on the farm system or free-agent acquisition or maybe as an organizational slush fund so the fans wouldn't have to keep paying more for less.

The fact is that big success leads to big contracts and the Phillies plunged down that rabbit hole willingly to keep their most popular players around.

Even as expensive as it was to keep the old pictures hanging on the wall, that isn't where the biggest miscalculation is found. It may change in the next week, but at the moment, the greatest error could be the 6-foot-4 closer whose talent should make him trade bait but is offset by the size of both his contract and his personality. When the One Great Scorer comes to write against Ruben Amaro Jr.'s name, He's going to mark "Jonathan Papelbon" in big red letters.

This is a rather amazing circumstance, since Papelbon is merely the franchise's all-time saves leader, a status he achieved during four seasons that weren't always replete with save opportunities. But that is the real problem. Having a great closer on a bad baseball team is like having a sunroof on a manure spreader.

It wasn't just one thing that the Phillies failed to recognize when the 2011 season ended with Howard sprawled in the dirt near home plate. They failed to recognize that their downturn would not be delayed with a patch here and there, not as long as the rest of the framework had grown so decrepit. All of the position players except Hunter Pence were at least 30 years old, as were three of the five starting pitchers. It might have been nice to look at that and feel everyone, except Howard, would be able to form another contender, but that's not what happened. The Phils went 81-81 and the loadout had begun.

In signing Papelbon, the Phils pushed aside Ryan Madson and committed large resources to a role that simply wasn't going to be vital, and hasn't been since. They also failed to detect a sea change in the baseball market, doling out big money to Papelbon just as the industry decided that closers weren't as specialized as once thought. The job could be done by committee, or by converting a failed starter who had one special pitch, but not two or three. The good ones would get paid, but not like before. Just put that on the list of changes the Phillies were slow to grasp.

The consequences of those miscalculations are visiting the Phillies right now as they try to trade Papelbon before the non-waiver deadline and find they aren't able to ask for very much, if anything, in return. Papelbon also brings baggage as a clubhouse lawyer who might, say, grab his crotch at the fans, or offhandedly rip the organization if he doesn't like how things are going. Team sources indicate Ryne Sandberg's exasperation with the closer contributed to the manager's resignation. What team wouldn't want to trade for an overpriced package like that?

Through this season, Papelbon will have earned $50 million from his Phillies contract. When he finishes a game for the 48th time this year (he had finished 34 entering Saturday), he will become vested for $13 million in 2016, which will make him, once again, among the highest-paid closers in baseball.

So, the Phils find themselves in a familiar position, in a corner with no easy way out. They can eat a lot of the contract in order to attract a trade partner, but still won't receive great return. They could send him home and pay off the remaining $4.5 million this season, but not be on the hook for 2016. They can just mark it down as a bad mistake and add it to the others.

The list has grown lengthy, but save a spot near the top for the signing of Jonathan Papelbon. He represents a special kind of mistake, a great talent whose presence cost even more than his price, and that was quite a lot, too.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

www.inquirer.com/

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