When the Phillies boarded their charter plane bound for Pittsburgh on Sunday, it was still June in Los Angeles. The illusion of contention had not wilted with one moribund series at Dodger Stadium. A 13-15 month of mediocrity accomplished that.
Ruben Amaro Jr. deplaned in the wee hours on Monday, facing a critical juncture in the franchise's future. The Phillies have revealed no concrete plans as they approach this season's July 31 trade deadline. There is no sense in displaying the "For Sale" sign until late in the month, when prices are highest.
The dilemma is more complex than a simple "buy" or "sell" choice. Amaro, the team's general manager for four years, must weigh a thin minor-league system against an impending television mega-contract, and the popularity of the current roster.
He has more to trade than perhaps any other team in Major League Baseball. The possibilities range from one of the most popular figures in team history (Chase Utley) to a player already thrice traded (Cliff Lee) to the city's longest-tenured athlete (Jimmy Rollins) and the best paid closer in baseball (Jonathan Papelbon).
Amaro does not need to trade anyone. He said there is no mandate from ownership to shed payroll, even as the team has experienced an average decrease of 5,871 fans per game this season at Citizens Bank Park. When the Phillies' TV contract expires at the end of 2015, they'll be signing a new one that could bring $4 billion to $5 billion. They'll need to maintain a shred of competitiveness to ensure its value.
"Our revenues can support an average payroll that will be fairly significantly north of most franchises," Amaro said Sunday. "That should allow me the flexibility, if I'm doing my job well enough, to be in contention every year."
His current roster, the second-oldest in the National League, begs for renovation. The team's best position-player prospect is 20-year-old Maikel Franco who is likely at least a year away from the majors. The top of the system is gutted from years of trades to feed the machine in South Philadelphia. This could be Amaro's chance at replenishing.
When asked if the Phillies would be willing to eat money in trades to ensure the highest return, Amaro offered a peek at the current market climate.
"That's usually the case with most deals in this era," Amaro said. "In the cases of the players rumored out there, like the Lees and Papelbons, taking back money is not going to be an issue because the talent is too high. That's not going to be debilitating for anybody. The teams who would be interested would be willing to take on the dollars associated with it. Particularly in those deals - I don't anticipate doing those - but it's about making baseball deals, not monetary deals. I haven't been mandated to go and shed payroll. I've never had that mandate."
Lee would have approximately $70 million remaining on his contract if he was traded at the end of July. Boston, the New York Yankees, Texas, and St. Louis could be interested. Papelbon, signed for two more years, is owed about $30 million. Detroit needs a closer.
Trading Utley would be more complicated. He will be a free agent at season's end and has displayed wonderful production when healthy in 2013. If the Phillies keep him, they can make a one-year qualifying offer this winter that ensures a first-round draft pick if Utley signs elsewhere. That pick carries great value. That means the return in any July trade must be significant.
Amaro said if any trade was right - on baseball terms - the team could assume some salary. He cited the Jim Thome trade in 2005 when the Phillies ate about $24 million of the first baseman's pay. But that is the last major instance of ownership taking such a measure.
"We learned to do it if it's something that makes sense for the franchise," Amaro said. He added that team president David Montgomery and the silent ownership partners have not allowed finances to restrict baseball decisions.
"They have given us a ton of flexibility to do a lot of things," Amaro said. "It's my job to make the right decisions. . . . We have some strong revenues."
One source will be the new television deal. The Phillies are expected to seek a long-term continuation of their partnership with Comcast. Blowing up the team, as some have suggested, would diminish the value of that contract.
Inside the clubhouse, there is an overwhelming sense that moves could come. Many of the same players watched the Phillies sell last July.
"I'm not worried at all," Rollins said. "As usual, players don't control that. Some players can if they're asked to be traded - they can say yea or nay. But for the most part it's up to the GMs making deals. If they don't, they don't. I don't think that's anything any player should be concerned with. I'm definitely not."