TODAY AT Citizens Bank Park, 7 weeks and 3 days before the Phillies' season begins at the 12-year-old ballpark, an equipment truck filled with everything from baseballs and batting helmets to bubblegum and sunflower seeds will begin its annual trek south.
It will arrive at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., at some point this weekend. The truck will empty and all of the pieces will be properly put into place before pitchers and catchers take part in their first official workout on Thursday.
If the Phillies' roster as of last night is the same one that takes the field for that first workout, the winter rebuild will be an unmitigated disaster.
Well, that's at least the take from every out-of-town writer chiming in on Ruben Amaro Jr. and Company's inability to trade Cole Hamels. And the team's failure to shed most of the 30-something veterans from their going-nowhere team.
But do the Phillies consider their offseason "a big fail," as one prominent national columnist put it? Attempts to reach team president Pat Gillick were unsuccessful yesterday, but given his words from 5 months ago, when he first took the reins from David Montgomery, we can probably take an educated guess at that answer.
"Let me say this," Gillick began on Sept. 2. "One of the more difficult thing to do in professional sports - and not only baseball but all sports - is to be patient. It's very difficult. It's very difficult for the fans to be patient, it's difficult for the media to be patient, it's difficult for ownership to be patient. But sometimes when you get challenges . . . Right now, we're in a situation where we know where we're headed, and it's going to take some time to get us where we want to go."
Gillick spoke those words 6 weeks before being the first member of the organization to publicly declare that the Phillies were entering full rebuild mode, while also saying that he didn't expect the club to contend again for 2 to 3 years. Nothing has changed in the 4 months since; anyone who expected the Phillies to do something this winter to magically turn the team into a contender probably also has an affinity for certain hallucinogens.
But anyone who believed the Phillies would completely empty their roster of their overpriced veterans also had unrealistic expectations. You can't just press a button that will make another major league team arrive on the scene and happily take Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz off your hands.
Trading Papelbon is problematic, because he's still the owner of the largest contract ever awarded to a relief pitcher, and he has a partial no-trade clause, and he has attitude issues (he served a seven-game suspension in the final 2 weeks of the 2014 season for an obscene gesture disguised as an equipment adjustment).
Howard still has a minimum of $60 million coming his way in the next two seasons. But, from the apparent lack of interest from every other team in baseball, including American League teams that employ designated hitters, he's not even being considered a worthy $10 million-a-year player. The Phillies would happily take on the majority of Howard's salary to consummate a deal, but it still takes two teams to consummate a trade. Crazy, huh?
Utley has shown no interest in waiving his full no-trade clause, as Jimmy Rollins did 2 months ago to go to the Dodgers. Ruiz is a well-rounded catcher who has an attractive .282/.356/.429 slash line in the last three seasons, but the oft-injured vet has also averaged only 105 games in those three seasons, turned 36 last month, and has at least 2 years and $17.5 million remaining on his contract.
When you're saddled with problematic contracts and over-the-hill players, there's no such thing as a quick rebuild. You can't snap your fingers and watch Utley turn into a fleet-footed 22-year-old centerfielder with pop.
What the Phillies should be able to do, of course, is trade the 31-year-old Hamels. As their only premium player still in his prime, Hamels would bring back the most in a trade, and thus, expedite the rebuild.
But, why should the Phillies settle for whatever they believe to be the best offer of the winter? Sure, it's risky sending Hamels to the mound in your uniform in 2015, since he can succumb to a career-altering injury on one pitch (here's looking at you, Cliff Lee).
But isn't it just as risky sending your best asset away for three prospects you aren't all that impressed with?
Even the so-called can't-miss prospects occasionally miss.
Matt LaPorta and Justin Smoak were once a pair of power-hitting prospects, key pieces that landed their former teams CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in trades. Smoak was designated for assignment by Seattle in October after hitting .202 with a .614 OPS in 80 games last season. LaPorta spent 2014 in the Mexican League.
The Indians had demanded a power prospect like LaPorta in any deal for Sabathia. It's why Joe Blanton, and not Sabathia, ended up with the Phillies in July 2008. Like the Phillies, the Indians made out OK despite LaPorta going bust: The player to be named later they got from Milwaukee was an outfielder named Michael Brantley.
Brantley was an American League All-Star in 2014, six seasons after the trade.
If (when?) Amaro does trade Hamels, some segment of baseball people (and fans, too) will rejoice. But it's difficult to label the Phillies as winners, no matter what kind of haul they score for their former World Series MVP.
What they'll end up with is more uncertainty.
Prospects are nice, but it took Brantley a handful of years to arrive as a key piece in Cleveland. In Kansas City, Lorenzo Cain found stardom in the Royals' plucky postseason . . . nearly 4 years after he came over in the trade that sent ace Zack Greinke out of town.
And those are the success stories.
While the Phillies should entertain offers for Hamels - and move forward with a deal if their high (but understandable) price is met - there are cautionary tales, too.
Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa and Travis Lee (for Curt Schilling). Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin (for Scott Rolen). C.J. Henry, Jesus Sanchez, Carlos Monasterios and Matt Smith (for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle). Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez (for Cliff Lee). Nate Schierholtz, Tommy Joseph and Seth Rosin (for Hunter Pence).
They are the names that rattle through the heads of Phillies executives - executives who signed off on those trades and still work for the team, by the way.
Rebuilding is tricky, and, as Gillick said, it requires a healthy heaping of patience. For both fans and Phillies executives, proceed with caution.