Richard Justice

Phillies have decisions to make as Deadline approaches

Justice: Phillies have Deadline decisions

Phillies have decisions to make as Deadline approaches
PHILADELPHIA -- When we remember this generation of Phillies, we'll probably think first of second baseman Chase Utley. He was tough, intense and productive, and he had the ability to put a team on his shoulders. He played every game like it was his last, a blue-collar player in a city where fans want players to care as much as they care.

During his 10 seasons, there has never been a question about his desire to be great or his commitment to winning. These last three years have been incredibly tough, as the wear and tear on his body has forced him out of the lineup for 294 games. His 2012 season likely will begin Wednesday after four months of rest and rehab on his aching left knee.

Utley said he feels better than he has in a long time, and that he's confident he can still be productive. Manager Charlie Manuel will put Utley right back in the third spot in his batting order, saying the five-time All-Star has earned the chance to prove himself again.

Now, about the Phillies. Is it getting late? Has the time come to break this team up and restructure the roster? Long-term commitments to Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, etc., likely will prevent wholesale changes, and Utley will go a long way toward deciding the rest.

He said he still believes in the Phillies, even with the club four games under .500 and struggling to stay out of last place in the National League East. Utley isn't into the numbers. He thinks these Phillies have another run left in them, maybe a sixth straight division championship. Once Howard returns, once Roy Halladay is back, the Phillies will be whole again.

"There's no doubt in my mind, there's plenty of time," Utley said Monday. "I know our guys have not given up on this year. We have strong-willed guys on this team."

When he looks around the clubhouse, he sees players who have done so much that it's almost incomprehensible to think their time has passed. When teams have played the Phillies the last few years, they knew they were going to get their best shot, whether it was a meaningless game in June or the game's largest stage in October.

If the Phillies don't put together a significant run between now and the July 31 Trade Deadline, general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. almost certainly will consider making significant changes.

Those changes would begin with trading Cole Hamels as he approaches free agency. Likewise, Shane Victorino could bring a young prospect. Even Hunter Pence, who is a year from free agency, could be a hot commodity.

To break up a group that has finished first five years in a row, a group that has distinguished itself with its approach and professionalism, would be excruciatingly difficult.

The Phillies are good enough to win again if Utley, Howard and Halladay get healthy, and if Amaro can add an arm or two to the bullpen. If Amaro thinks the Phillies might win again, he might hold off on dramatic changes.

But change is coming.

The Phillies have $113 million in salary commitments for 2013, and it's unlikely Amaro will have the resources to keep the club together.

Again, it comes down to winning. If the Phillies get going in the next few weeks, Amaro could stay the course. If the Phillies can just get to the playoffs, they have enough starting pitching to play deep into October.

If Amaro takes the plunge, he has players with enough value to get a nice start on the roster restructuring that lies ahead. But the Phillies will lose something magical, and there's no formula for getting it back.

The Phillies began Tuesday eight games out of first in the NL East, and with four teams to face to get the final playoff berth. There's plenty of time left, but they have to start playing better, and fast.

Their rotation has been mediocre, their bullpen bad. But the track record of the starting pitchers is better than the numbers indicate. Manuel has brilliantly mixed and matched the everyday lineup to produce runs.

In other words, there's hope for the Phillies. But it's getting late. These next few weeks could decide so much, for the Phillies and for Chase Utley.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.