The real question concerning the Phillies is no longer what will happen to them this season. That much is pretty clear. They needed a lot to go right in order to contend again, and a whole lot more has gone wrong. They needed to catch lightning in a bottle one more time, and instead the season has turned into a Molotov cocktail that will explode in their hands sooner than later.
No, the question that matters now is what the organization is going to do about the team now that the gods of baseball have made it clear there will be no storybook ending to the great run of the last seven years, a span that saw the best sustained baseball in the 130-year history of the franchise.
The standings tell a small lie - that redemption is still possible this season - and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will repeat that untruth right up until the moment he pulls the cord and makes it clear the team is playing for something further down the road.
As the Phils traveled to Washington for the weekend, the Braves held a 41/2-game lead over the Nationals and a 51/2-game lead over the Phillies. With slightly more than two-thirds of the season remaining, it doesn't look like that large a gap, and it is a reason Amaro can sell the notion that contending is still within the Phils' grasp.
The problem, however, is trying to figure out what might keep that gap from growing to 11 games after two-thirds of the season or 17 games by the end. There is nothing about what has happened so far that was really a shock - with the exception of the poor start by Cole Hamels and the unforeseeable good one by Kyle Kendrick.
If those two surprises balance out, then the rest - old guys getting injured, role players underachieving, age eroding production - is pretty much what might have been expected, barring the miracle the organization hoped to receive.
Third baseman Michael Young has a decent, if somewhat empty, batting average, but the other offseason position-player acquisitions, particularly Ben Revere and Delmon Young, have been disappointments. Among the organization players looking to build something, only Domonic Brown's offense has been encouraging, and even that is faint praise when you consider how much congratulation is being heaped on a .248 hitter.
Pitcher Jon Lannan barely found his spot in the parking lot before he got hurt. Roy Halladay fought his frayed shoulder as long as he could before giving in to surgery. Mike Adams, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley (now on the disabled list) are either battling or recovering from injuries at the moment.
No, the unfortunate truth is that the team overachieved and still played below .500 through the first 47 games. Given all that has gone wrong, and given where the team ranks among its National League opponents, that the Phillies are just one game under .500 is shocking. It isn't a reason to believe, however. It is a reason to assume that the next 115 games won't be as forgiving.
Well, what to do about it? Amaro will probably have to sell dollars for dimes when the non-waiver trade deadline gets closer. The Phillies gave out contracts to their legacy stars that only made sense for them, and divesting themselves of some of those contracts - the ones they can get rid of - will be done at a severe markdown. When it is all over, they will have eaten so much contract they will be burping notary seals.
In the meantime, in these two months before Amaro obtains whatever leverage he can from the urgency of the deadline on those teams still competing, the Phils have to keep playing. He has two options to choose between: limp along as they have been, learning nothing new and playing around .500; or try something new, maybe learn a few things, and probably play significantly worse.
That's the second part of the two-part question: Does the organization have the courage to move past the familiar core of the team and use the rest of the season to give substantial playing time to all the maybes and might-bes about whom they will have to learn eventually? The best example is Darin Ruf. In this season that means nothing, wouldn't getting him 350-400 at-bats against major-league pitching be a good idea? It would either help him improve or give the team a clearer view of him. Either is a better outcome than the alternative.
This won't be an easy call. The organization will find it hard to give up on what it has known for quite a while now. Everyone always knew the day was coming, however. The hard part is recognizing that it has finally arrived.