MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

As Deadline nears, Phillies in unusual position

Justice: Odd to see Phils as sellers, not buyers

As Deadline nears, Phillies in unusual position
The Phillies want some breathing room. Is that what you call it? Payroll flexibility? Changing the mix? Sure, give it any name you want.

Whatever it is, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is open for business, listening to offers for Cliff Lee, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton, etc.

All around them, teams are tweaking their rosters for a stretch run. At least 20 clubs still have a legitimate chance to win a championship.

Amaro had hoped that getting the band back together would provide the spark for a sixth straight playoff appearance. After all, the Phillies had a history. In their first seven seasons under manager Charlie Manuel, the Phillies have the second-best record in the Majors after the All-Star break.

These Phillies won five straight National League East titles and have been to the World Series twice, winning in 2008. They're on their way to leading the Major Leagues in attendance for a second straight season and have sold out 270 straight games at Citizens Bank Park.

It was easy to think they could make another run, and Amaro waited until hours before Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, to begin trying to sell.

The Phillies are 8-9 since getting both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back in the lineup. Howard is hitting .214, Utley .235.

The Phillies haven't been out of last place in the NL East in more than a month and have eight teams to pass in the NL Wild Card race.

Now Amaro is looking toward 2013. He needs bullpen help and a third baseman. He's also not sure how much some of his veterans have left in the tank and doesn't see immediate answers in the farm system.

His problem is that seven players are on the books for $125 million next season. Pence and Victorino are among the unsigned players.

To be able to make real change, Amaro probably has to unload some of his productive players. Even then, he's promised nothing.

If Utley, Howard and Roy Halladay don't stay healthy and perform better, the Phillies are in a tough situation.

It's probably not the time to tell Phillies fans that this is one of the prices of success. Had management not re-signed Howard, Utley and others, they would have screamed about ownership.

But long-term contracts come with a risk. As players age, the risk of injury grows. Besides, what was management supposed to do? Break up a great team? Allow Utley, Howard or Jimmy Rollins to walk?

Twenty years from now, these Phillies will be the group every future Phillies team is measured against. They set a standard for excellence throughout the sport. They were known around the game for their raging competitive fires, for bringing it hard every single day. They did themselves proud in ways large and small.

Nothing that happens this season will change how baseball people think of the Phillies. They are one of the measuring sticks for excellence.

But nothing lasts forever, and you thought there wouldn't be anything profound in this article.

Amaro had extensive conversations with the Rangers on Monday regarding Lee. The Orioles are interested in Blanton, and the Giants are among the teams kicking the tires on Pence.

One team believes Amaro is still checking the market for his players before deciding his next move. In the end, though, the Phillies won't be competitive without Utley, Howard and Halladay performing at a high level in 2013.

The Phillies have won so much the past few years that it's stunning to see them buried in last place and to think they may not be a factor in these last few weeks. That Amaro waited so long is an indication he thought there was another run coming as well.

Over the weekend, when Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was asked if it was painful to ship out guys he had a high regard for, he had a quick answer.

"Yeah, but it's professional sports," he said. "You don't get the job done, they're going to find someone else. That's true of all of us."

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