RYNE SANDBERG has no other options. That is his primary problem in leftfield. You saw it in the moments of hesitation he needed after each question to summon diplomatic words. You heard it when he said that every time Domonic Brown walks to the plate, "I have confidence that might be the time that he pops one." You felt it when somebody asked, "Where do you go from here?" and he answered, "Go through tomorrow and figure out a lineup."
Good luck figurin'. Even on a night when Brown's egregious misplay of a ball in leftfield led to all of the Marlins' runs in a 3-2 win over the Phillies, it was difficult to pinpoint where Sandberg should turn.
Tony Gwynn Jr.? He's hitting .151 with a .263 on-base percentage and two extra-base hits in 86 at-bats. Darin Ruf? Hurt. John Mayberry Jr.? Is it really that time of year again? The Phillies are so thin in the outfield that the last time they needed a replacement from the minors they summoned a kid who had a sub-.700 OPS at Double A. So you can't blame Sandberg for thinking that the Phillies' best chance at the kind of hot streak they'd need to consider themselves playoff contenders includes running Brown out there everyday with the hope that he suddenly finds the groove that he inhabited for a couple of months last season.
Of course, you also can't blame the manager if his thinking changes in the near future. As he was searching for answers to questions last night, Sandberg said, "Well, Domonic is our leftfielder," but then followed it with the words, "as we speak." The Phillies signed Grady Sizemore earlier this week after the one-time Indians star was released by the Red Sox. Sizemore's .216/.288/.324 line for Boston is actually better than Brown's current .217/.271/.322.
Whatever Sandberg decides, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Phillies are nowhere near the point where they should prioritize anything other than maximizing their ability to contend sometime beyond 2014. Not just because of Brown. (Although games like last night's are not the type a team like the Phillies can afford to give away, and with A.J. Burnett dealing shutout stuff, that's what Brown's miscue did.) But the team also has its veterans to consider, especially as Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz continue to cool down from their scorching starts (Utley's batting line over the last month is eerily similar to Brown's). The normal ups and downs of a season? Or aging players showing their wear?
After a refreshing stretch of competent baseball in Atlanta and St. Louis, the Phillies have used this series against the Marlins to remind us just how ugly things can get over the next couple of years. Last night was a microcosm of a bad baseball team's life, particularly when you looked at the stadium, and all you saw were empty seats and gaggles of kids who are still blissfully ignorant of what true awfulness is. The Phillies might not be at that stage yet, but they certainly have the potential, which is why it is once again time to wonder whether their inability to part with the past will cost them their best chance of making the future less revolting. They can talk all they want about retooling instead of rebuilding, but it is difficult to find the assets that will land them the necessary parts unless we are talking about Utley and Jimmy Rollins and maybe Ruiz (and, of course, Cole Hamels).
Last year, Marlon Byrd had an .848 OPS and 21 home runs when he was traded along with John Buck for a marginal prospect and a reliever with control issues. Byrd entered yesterday with a .794 OPS and 13 home runs, plus roughly $12 million owed to him through the end of next season, so it's hard to imagine him drawing more value than he did last year. The best the Phillies can probably hope for is a reliever who has a chance to develop into a late-inning piece but who isn't that piece yet.
The Phillies have been open to trading Mayberry for years and there is no reason to think they will be able to get anything of value now. Ryan Howard has no value, nor does Ben Revere (we are defining "value" as prospects who are more than organizational filler, as in, "Michael Young had no value last year"). Cliff Lee has next to none when you consider the money he is owed through next year and the fact that, even as he prepares to face hitters, he says something is "still there" in his elbow. Teams do not give up valuable prospects for 35-year-old pitchers with big contracts and flexor-tendon issues. They just don't.
And what the Phillies need right now are valuable prospects. Especially given the recent performance of one of their former ones.