By the diminished standards of their season, the Phillies got good news on Wednesday regarding their star cleanup hitter.

In other years, good news about Ryan Howard would involve a home run streak or a hot month of production that lifted the entire offense around him.

This year, the good news was that the arthroscopic surgery on Howard's aching and inflamed left knee was not only successful, but revealed fewer issues than feared. He will begin his rehabilitation right away, and the optimistic view is that Howard will be back on the short side of the estimated six-to-eight-week recovery window.

Like the team's recent stretch of decent play - notwithstanding Wednesday's letdown against the Nationals - the prognosis on Howard is giving the organization pause before it commits to the strategy it will pursue at the non-waiver trade deadline. There's plenty of time to decide because the flurry of trades almost always arrives at the end of the month, but it wasn't that long ago when there didn't even appear to be much of a choice to make.

"We still have a lot of question marks about where we're going to go in the next couple of weeks. Right now, the team is making decisions a little harder on me, which is fine and which is good," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I'd rather be in this situation than thinking about 2014 right now."

The question that has to be answered before the start of August, however, is whether the team can get to the start of September without Howard and remain in contention. In a best-case scenario now, that's when Howard would return and, also in the best-case scenario, when he would return with something that resembles his previous ability.

Amaro had a meeting with some of the front-office staff earlier this week and posed the question around the room. Can the Phillies stay in the expanded postseason race until Howard gets back?

"It's a good question. I don't think there's a real answer because we don't know how [Darin] Ruf and some others will do," Amaro said. "But I think we're playing OK, and we're getting pretty good starting pitching. If [that] keeps up, we can be optimistic, I think."

Optimistic is one thing, but realistic is a good thing, too, and it's more likely the Phils will have their hopes readjusted at least one more time before the July 31 deadline. At the moment, their outlook is brightened by a division race that is still within reach, and by the expanded wild-card system that keeps more teams hanging around waiting for late-season lightning.

"There are some teams that get opportunities to be in it. Whether you think you're delusional or not, it can happen," Amaro said. "Who knows how many wins it's going to take? Is it going to be 87 wins or 92 wins? I don't know that. But at least right now we're in a position where we're playing better baseball, so we can look to the plus side rather than the minus side."

You can't blame anyone in the organization, much less the fans, for not wanting to see the long run of trying to win with this core come to an end. If the starting pitching can hold up and the team can patch the bullpen and strengthen the bench, and if Howard comes back healthy, well, sure, but that is more ifs than a clear-eyed general manager is supposed to accept.

The team could have reached .500 Wednesday night, but Cliff Lee allowed the Nationals to sit on his fastball and the offense couldn't get much generated against Gio Gonzalez. The Phils are 71/2 games behind the Braves and trail the Cincinnati Reds, who hold the second wild card at the moment, by 61/2 games.

To reach that mythical minimum of 87 wins - which might not be nearly enough - would require playing to a 42-28 record. The Phillies aren't that team anymore. They have gone 126-128 since the start of the 2012 season. That's a reasonable sample and a reasonable representation of what kind of team they are now, regardless of their recent stretch of decent play. By comparison, the Reds need to go 36-35 to reach 87 wins.

As Amaro said, strange things can happen and the arithmetic of July can be erased and redrawn in the final two months of the season. Just because it can happen doesn't mean that is the way to bet, however.

The general manager knows what he almost certainly has to do with this team. Because of some wins that came along unexpectedly, and because of a moderately encouraging report from the operating room, and because the deadline is still three weeks away, he doesn't have to come out and say it yet.

In a season of lowered expectations, even that qualifies as good news.