MONTY AND HIS Money Managers had themselves some week. They ran the greatest shell game since the days when big carnivals would roll into small towns, relieve the local yokels of the harvest money and move on.

The carny sharpsters had a signal they would holler if one of them was caught in his con by a sharp-eyed citizen. "Hey, Rube," they would yell. Roustabouts would soon be beating on the trouble-maker.

Hey, Ruben . . .

From the minute he called trading for Roy Halladay "an unlikeliness," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro and his carnies were running a double shell game with two American League clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays and rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos, and the Seattle Mariners and second-year GM Jack Zduriencik, guessing which of the six walnut shells would hide the slickly maneuvered peas.

It unfolded like a classic "Seinfeld" episode. After all the frantic head fakes, no comments, cloaked secrecy and tsunami of leaks that eventually nailed every piece of the puzzle, here's what happened in the context of the 2010 season:

Next to nothing. It was the equivalent of fewer than 30 minutes of dialogue between George and Kramer and Elaine and Newman and the latest girlfriends about to be dumpers or dumpees. Then fade to the quirky music and you're saying to yourself, "I don't know what that was, but it was pretty funny."

Whatever it was that Ruben Amaro just did, I don't know what it was, but it kept everybody hopping for the past 3 days or so.

And now, Great Oz, looking suspiciously like Pat Gillick, has stepped from behind the curtain and vanished, off, one assumes, to look for more prospects with high ceilings to meld into the next gambit. Which could be a Big Piece-keeping operation due to launch in summer of 2012.

What Ruben did was keep his payroll almost exactly where it was last season at about $140 million while swapping No. 1 starter Cliff Lee, Mr. Postseason 4-0, for enormously gifted righthander Roy Halladay.

Nothing else is different for 2010 than it was when Amaro acquired free agent Placido Polanco to replace jettisoned Pedro Feliz and signed free-agent catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder/first baseman Ross Gload. Nothing has changed at the back end of the rotation or in the next round of bullpen auditions.

Net gain or loss? Plus or minus a couple of victories, which hang only on Halladay's and Lee's seasons. We'll be running graphics all year on Lee vs. Halladay, I'm sure.

But on the other side of the smoke and mirrors, Amaro could go to bed last night knowing that for the three seasons following this one he will have a certified No. 1 pitcher with comparative cost certainty. When your ownership groups have been losing money faster than can be printed in their day jobs, that's critical.

Now, the Greek e-mail chorus thunders, "What about the prospects? What about the four turned over for Lee last summer and the three more A-listers just sent to Toronto and Oakland in a spinoff trade?"

Let me break this to you gently. My favorite, massive and massively gifted outfielder Michael Taylor, was not going to be here next season. He was being Ryanized by the 2 years remaining on Raul Ibanez' contract. He'll be a rookie of the year candidate in Oakland this summer instead of marking time in Triple A or taking up space as a No. 4 outfielder.

Kyle Drabek was not going to be here, unless the staff imploded. And I still think he's a lot closer to another Tommy John than to the Cy Young his dad won with the Pirates.

Travis D'Arnaud? Until 2 days ago, the catcher could have been a cognac brand for all the traction he had here.

The favorite phrase of baseball scouts is "high ceiling." Gillick, still a scout at heart, has spent half his life pursuing exceptional athletes who could learn to play baseball. I think in another life, Pat designed the Sistine Chapel. And what Ruben got back from Seattle was three well-scouted, "high-ceiling" prospects.

And that's fine because, paraphrasing a famed film bandito, the Phillies "don't need no stinking prospects." Not now. Who, exactly, in Charlie Manuel's starting eight is vulnerable? The next Willie Mays or Mike Schmidt will not be in Clearwater in March.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the drain of A-list prospects, including Drabek and Taylor. Some fear a minor league organization on the come has been returned to the dark ages of yore.

The Phillies will be in "can-and-should-win" mode for two to three more seasons. They ride in the curl of a perfect wave of core talent. Domonic Brown has a higher ceiling than the Wachovia Center. A very young centerfielder named Anthony Gose led all organized baseball in stolen bases last season and can flat defend. The last two drafts have been loaded with high-ceiling talent and many players will be reaching the critical Double A level and beyond just as the Phillies must take a harder look at life beyond J-Roll, Chase, Ryno, Shane, Chooch and the rest of the most compelling team in franchise history.

But all things considered, hey, Rube . . .

You done good. *

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