WHEN IS the time?
It wasn't in 2008, when the Phillies gave Raul Ibanez a third year on his contract to ensure that they would land his services.
It wasn't in 2009, when they included blue-chip catcher Travis D'Arnaud in a deal for Roy Halladay.
It wasn't in 2010, when they parted with a prized centerfield prospect in order to obtain Roy Oswalt.
And it certainly wasn't in 2011, when they dealt highly touted first-base prospect Jonathon Singleton in a package for Hunter Pence, then demoted outfield prospect Domonic Brown to the minor leagues to learn a new position.
Twelve games into a regular season is also not the time to start erring on the side of the future, particularly not when you still entertain hopes of welcoming two All-Star-caliber hitters back into the lineup.
But at some point in the next month or 2, Ruben Amaro Jr. and his legion of talent evaluators are going to have consider some tough decisions. At some point, the present dividend offered by veterans no longer offsets the benefit of the knowledge that every organization needs about the younger players it has in the fold.
Whenever that point arrives, the Phillies will need to look at their lineup and its body of work and ask themselves, "Is this unit capable of winning a title?" And they will need to consider the answer to that question as they consider the following:
Domonic Brown or Juan Pierre?
John Mayberry Jr. or Ty Wigginton?
Freddy Galvis or Placido Polanco?
Right now, the list of variables that helps determine the identity of Charlie Manuel's starting leftfielder does not include the fact that Pierre is 34 years old and Mayberry Jr. is 28. Nor should it. If a player's ability to reach base and play defense and drive the ball was decided by the birthday on his driver's license, there would be no such thing as the minor leagues. With all of the offseason hullabaloo surrounding the overall age of the Phillies lineup, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that a hit counts the same for an old codger like Lance Berkman, who hit .301/.412/.547 with 31 home runs for the Cardinals as a 35-year-old in 2011, as it does for a 24-year-old like Colby Rasmus, who hit .246/.332/.420 with 11 home runs before St. Louis traded him away.
That does not change the reality that Berkman is in the twilight of his career, or that Rasmus is just now entering the years that should be his prime. In a perfect world, the trajectories of the future and the present would intersect. A player like Rasmus would offer enough production to dissuade a team like the Cardinals from dealing him away for a free-agent-to-be like Edwin Jackson. The Cardinals would win the World Series while at the same time retaining their youth.
But as Amaro and his front office can attest, the world is not perfect, particularly for an organization that goes 5 years without a break from the pressure that comes with success. The Phillies have seen their win total increase every season since 2006, from 85 to 89 to 92 to 93 to 97 to 102. They have won five straight division titles. And in doing so, they have enjoyed little opportunity to focus on anything else except the present.
At some point, though, that time needs to come.
The current incarnation of the roster is little more than a series of decisions like the one Manuel faces each day involving Pierre and Mayberry. In 2009, the Phillies decided to sign Ibanez to a 3-year deal, knowing full well that the free-agent market offered few other options to replace Pat Burrell. Erring on the side of the present helped lead to another World Series berth, unless you think that Milton Bradley or Juan Rivera or Willy Taveras or Burrell would have enjoyed dramatically different fates after signing with the Phillies. But the third year of Ibanez' contract also meant no room for Brown, who was demoted to the minors and forced to change positions after the acquisition of Pence last July (despite offensive numbers that, while modest, were similar to the ones that were posted by the elder leftfielder).
The Phillies will tell you that Brown was not ready, that his defense was too raw, his approach unpolished. Catch them in an honest moment, though, and they'll admit that they cannot know for sure until they have a chance to see him play against major league competition on a regular basis. That not knowing was the biggest detriment of demoting Brown last season. Keeping him in the majors for 4 consecutive months might not have resulted in any more production than they ended up getting out of Ibanez. But it would have resulted in a body of work that enables them to make better-informed decisions. Now, they find themselves in a situation similar to a year ago with a struggling offense and a lack of production in leftfield and no way to know whether the raw prospect at Triple A can fix any of it.
Right now, the not knowing is the thing, same as it is for any team like the Phillies. The only time that changes is when said team finds itself with an underabundance of options or an overabundance of cojones. Galvis is in the lineup for the first reason - after a litany of spring-training injuries to potential second basemen, the Phillies simply had no other choice but to throw the kid into the water without any swimmies.
Robinson Cano is an All-Star for the second reason. On May 2, 2005, The Yankees found themselves sitting at 11-15, 6 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East. In eight of those games, they failed to score more than two runs. The time had come: Light-hitting 35-year-old second baseman Tony Womack was out. In his place was the 22-year-old Cano, who had produced solid numbers in the upper minors but was not considered an elite prospect.
In his first month at the big-league level, Cano struggled at the plate, hitting .237/.255/.376 in 26 starts. But he stayed in the lineup and ended up hitting .310/.334/.476 with 12 home runs in 429 at-bats the rest of the season. The Yankees lost in the ALDS that year. But they knew they had a second baseman.
At some point, the Phillies need to ask themselves similar questions. Can they win a World Series with a by-committee approach at first base? Or is their only hope that Mayberry can respond to uninterrupted playing time and become the power and base-reaching threat the lineup currently lacks? Can they win a World Series with Pierre in leftfield? Or is their only hope that Brown can respond to uninterrupted playing time on the major league level and become the player everybody thought he was when they labeled him a Top 10 prospect a year ago? Does Galvis have enough offensive ability to make it worth considering a move to third base?
The variables are numerous. Maybe Chase Utley returns and offers enough offense that the Phillies can focus their attention on first base and leftfield. Maybe it becomes clear that Galvis is not ready for major league pitching. Maybe Ryan Howard breaks through the current wall in his rehab.
But the timing is key. The Phillies have an opportunity to find out about Mayberry before the trade deadline. Whether it is in left or at first, they have the at-bats to provide and the lack of a clear-cut option in front of him. The will need that knowledge regardless of their situation in July. Maybe their place in the standings and the health of their returning stars dictates that they look to move a free-agent-to-be like Shane Victorino. Maybe it dictates that they look at add a veteran. Maybe it dictates that they give Brown a chance.
Whatever the situation, the knowing is the key. It is still too early to know whether the pursuit of that knowledge would sacrifice a significant edge in the daily pursuit of victories. But whenever that time arrives, the decisions need to be made, or the future of the offense could be doomed to the present.