A CROSSROADS is no place to get sentimental, and the Phillies have the mother of all of them looming on the horizon. Forget about whether they can claw their way back into contention.

What happens on the field over the next couple of months will have little impact on the dire situation that will greet them come November, when they will no longer have three of their most productive hitters in the order under contract.

Second base, third base and catcher: Good luck filling them. The stark truth is that the three players the Phillies currently feature at those positions will likely be their best available options for next season.

Unless you consider Omar Infante, Kelly Johnson or Mark Ellis to be viable replacements at second base (or unless you think the Phillies can and should outbid the Yankees to sign 31-year-old Robinson Cano). Unless you consider Kevin Youkilis or Wilson Betemit to be viable replacements at third base (hey, there's always Brandon Inge, Juan Uribe or first baseman Mark Reynolds). Sure, you could concoct a scenario in which it would make sense for the Phillies to make a play for 30-year-old catcher Brian McCann. But keep in mind that every team could use an experienced catcher with an .826 career OPS who averages more than 20 home runs per season. It could get pricey, and when you factor in a potential salary of $8 million for Kyle Kendrick in his final year of arbitration and another $4 million for Antonio Bastardo and Ben Revere, the Phillies already have about $115 million in likely salary obligations for the 2014 season. For nine players.

All of that suggests that is time to talk about one of those players.

Trading Ryan Howard will not be an easy task, but it should be No. 1 on the Phillies list of priorities if they hope to have a fighting chance at contending in 2014 and beyond. That's not to say that they are a better team without him, or that they should unceremoniously jettison a player who was one of the driving forces behind Philadelphia's baseball renaissance. It's just reality.

As of the July 31 trade deadline, Howard will have roughly $93 million left on his contract at the trade deadline, including a prorated salary of $8.3 million for the rest of 2013, a salary of $25 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and a $10 million buyout of an option after the 2016 season. The Phillies are unlikely to find a team willing to take on that kind of money for a 33-year-old player who posted a .253/.346/.488 batting line with 33 home runs the season before his Achilles' injury and who has a .270/.308/.492 line with six home runs this season.

Still, this isn't about money. The Phillies are going to be paying Howard regardless, and with a free-agent market that features potential replacements like Mike Morse, Corey Hart, Mark Reynolds and a gaggle of bounce-back candidates, the Phillies could pay Howard the bulk of his salary to play for another team and use the remaining dollars to sign a capable replacement. This is about the talent the Phillies need at the premium positions that they are going to need to fill, and if trading Howard and eating a significant chunk of dollars can land them a potential second baseman or third baseman or shortstop of the future, they would be wise to move heaven and earth to make it happen.