July 29 has always been the key trade deadline date for Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

That's when he acquired Cliff Lee from Cleveland in 2009, Roy Oswalt from Houston in 2010 and Hunter Pence from Houston in 2011.

Amaro does not have to make a move nearly that big this summer, but he cannot wait nearly as long to do what must be done.

The Phillies have a broken-down bullpen, and if the general manager waits another month for outside help, it's going to be too late, regardless of when Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay return from the disabled list.

Amaro and the Phillies acknowledged their bullpen issues before the team's series finale with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon.

In the morning, they shipped out Chad Qualls by designating the ineffective righthander for assignment.

Of all the offseason moves Amaro made, the signing of Qualls to a $1.15 million contract was the biggest mistake, although good, affordable relief arms can be difficult to find. Ask the New York Mets, who invested $15.5 million to sign Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco and so far have received results similar to what the Phillies got from Qualls.

The best relief signing in baseball was made by Tampa Bay, when they got Fernando Rodney for one year and $2 million, so there were better options than Qualls.

Amaro's past signing of Danys Baez and the re-signing of Jose Contreras leave the general manager's bullpen acquisitions open to plenty of questioning.

Let's just say that it has not been his strong suit.

Acquiring bullpen arms - and not always expensive ones - was one of his predecessor's greatest strengths. Before the 2008 season, former general manager Pat Gillick acquired Brad Lidge in a trade with the Astros, signed free agent Chad Durbin for $900,000 and re-signed free agent J.C. Romero. He also made an in-season trade for lefty Scott Eyre.

Those moves were all an integral reasons why the Phillies won the World Series.

What's done is done and what must be done must be done sooner rather than later.

So far, Amaro and the Phillies have performed the bullpen shuffle, replacing the injured and ineffective - sometimes they were one in the same - with a cast from triple-A Lehigh Valley.

By replacing Qualls on the roster, lefty Jeremy Horst became the seventh reliever to pitch for the Phillies and the IronPigs this season. Veteran Brian Sanches also got the call to join the Phillies from Lehigh Valley for the second time this season Thursday.

The Northeast Extension Connection also includes Jake Diekman, Michael Schwimer, Raul Valdes, Joe Savery and B.J. Rosenberg. Those seven are a combined 3-5 with a 5.15 ERA, and the Phillies are a combined 15-56 in their appearances, including 0-17 when Savery pitches.

Asked if Horst was the last viable option from Lehigh Valley, Amaro said, no, that is not the case.

Is that good news or bad news?

"It is a little bit of a balancing act," Amaro said. "You know, Diekman comes out and throws pretty well. There have been times Schwimer's come out and thrown well, and [Antonio] Bastardo needs to be a little more consistent. Again, it's a matter of these guys getting more opportunities. We'll see how they handle them and if there's an opportunity to improve the club in that area, we'll try."

It's not absurd to believe that some of the more inexperienced pitchers in the bullpen will get better with time. Diekman has a chance to be really good when he cuts down on his walks and deep counts.

After the Phillies got scoreless relief innings from Sanches and Horst in the loss to the Pirates, manager Charlie Manuel was asked for his assessment of the bullpen following the subtraction of Qualls.

"I think our bullpen is very young, and we have to get them as much experience as possible," Manuel said. "But we need to win games."

Developing and winning at the big-league level are quite often incompatible pursuits.

"It's pretty damn difficult," Manuel said.

Given what we've seen from the Northeast Extension Connection, it's difficult to imagine that the kind of help the Phillies need immediately can be found by someone currently wearing an Iron Pigs uniform.

Amaro cannot wait until July 29 to get help for the bullpen.