THE PHILLIES are like an Indy 500 racer who growls to the green flag with no spare parts in the pit. If something goes wrong, there isn't as much as a spare tire, timing belt or suspension part to keep Team Goosebumps running.

Pat Gillick, the gentleman general manager who appears to fit so well in the country-club trappings that make club president Dave Montgomery "comfortable," should be having grave second thoughts about the situation he is in.

He waded into the big mess left by Ed Wade and a generation of Baseball The Phillies Way. Gillick must have been blinded by the light glinting off what on the surface was a ballclub on the come.

Jimmy Rollins . . . Chase Utley . . . the unexpected Wow! Factor of Ryan Howard's epic sophomore year . . . Brett Myers . . . Cole Hamels, ready to be the latest "Next Steve Carlton."

There was a lot to like, to be sure, for a man with blood as blue as it gets in the rough-and-tumble world of old-school general managing.

But the master plan was starting to trail blue smoke by the trade deadline last July 31. Jim Leyland, the manager Wade refused to hire to replace Larry Bowa because his brutally frank MO ran counter to the Phillies Way, had asked - no, demanded - that Pat Burrell, David Bell and Mike Lieberthal be moved.

Leyland's reasoning is on display nightly, performing with no distinction in the No. 5 hole and currently batting a fruitless cleanup while Howard rests his aching quad and battered ego.

After trading sweet-swinging but marshmallow-soft Bobby Abreu for next to nothing and jettisoning some fender skirts, cupholders and other useless add-ons, Gillick spoke frankly. He sent a shudder through Monty and the Teflonics by stating the Phillies might not be ready to contend in 2007.

But Atlas shrugged and picked up the ballclub on his broad shoulders. National League MVP Howard had a second half to remember, Rollins and Utley flashed All-Star and future MVP-candidate form. The Phillies treated us to another wild-card near miss. Pat did a "Never mind."

Even while winning eight games fewer than the plus-five Gillick figured it would take to play baseball in October, it somehow seemed as if the Phillies had actually improved. But four players had carried them - Howard, Utley, Rollins and Hamels - not 25.

In our fading effort to will the moribund 2007 edition to the glory many of us wrongly predicted, some important truths have been forgotten. A year ago, the Phillies had come off the traditional 10-14 April with a May sizzle that produced a season-high nine-game winning streak and a 13-of-14 spurt. It carried them into second place and back into the hunt.

A loyal man by nature, Gillick gave a nod to two of the three teams he previously general managed. His main offseason trade was for White Sox veteran Freddy Garcia, who was a young smokeballer for Pat's Seattle Mariners. Unfortunately, where there appears to be fire, there is not always smoke.

Pat signed an obscure Mariners minor league journeyman named Greg Dobbs, who had a cup of latte in Seattle. Turning to his Baltimore days, Gillick acquired oft-injured and recently dumped Dodgers disappointment Jayson Werth, the Orioles' first-round draft pick in 1997.

Plentiful and cheap is the operative phrase to describe how Pat has assembled Charlie Manuel's bench. But there was nothing cheap about righthander Adam Eaton, signed for No. 2 money to be a No. 4 starter.

The Phillies are deservedly proud of the homegrown talent that has served as the nucleus this century. Even with Lieberthal and Randy Wolf gone, half the starting eight plus Hamels, Myers and Geoff Geary are established big-leaguers drafted by the Phils.

But the hot minor league roll ended when Wade went on the free-agent binge that was supposed to bring an instant pennant. The lack of high draft picks and some poor scouting decisions have left the system a shambles.

How bad is it? When Triple A Ottawa, Double A Reading and high A Clearwater played Tuesday night, a total of 38 players saw action. A staggering 23 of them - 60.5 percent - were drafted and signed by other clubs, most cut adrift to be signed as minor league free agents or in the minor league phases of the Rule 5 draft. Reading's best hitter is Joey Hammond, 29, a 10-year minor leaguer. Catcher Jason Hill is 30.

The Ottawa Lynx stunned the baseball world in Louisville. Lou Collier, 33, playing in his 15th professional season, hit a three-run homer. What's the big deal, you say?

Well, it raised Ottawa's home-run total for the season to two. Two!

The best players at Reading and Clearwater include base-stealers Javon Moran and Greg Golson.

And why not? Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Burrell caddie Michael Bourn have been carrying Manuel's anemic attack with their legs.

Meanwhile, a bullpen minus expensive closer Tom Gordon and setup man Ryan Madson now features Opening Day starter Myers, a quartet of minor league suspects and an aging former closer who will need all of his extra fingers and toes to keep track of his appearances.

Bullpen terror probably explains Manuel sending Eaton to the plate to hit for himself in a 2-2 game Tuesday night in Arizona with two outs, runners on first and third and Howard available. Charlie's reason for not hitting for Eaton was the essence of straight-line simplicity: "I thought if I did that [send up Howard], they would walk him."

Oh, well, who the hell would want leadoff hitter pro tem Aaron Rowand batting with the bases loaded and the ballgame on the line?

Gentleman, start your engine . . . *

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