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With or without Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Phillies need creativity to become a contender | David Murphy

Offering a historic contract to Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado? Not a tough decision. But the Phillies need to consider other ways to add talent.

Do the Phillies need more than Bryce Harper (left) and/or Manny Machado to contend?
Do the Phillies need more than Bryce Harper (left) and/or Manny Machado to contend?Read moreAP

It's worth repeating: The biggest impediment standing in the way of taking another step forward this offseason is that the Phillies  have very little idea of where they are standing to begin with. That's not a knock on the navigational abilities of Matt Klentak or the front office that surrounds him. It's just the unfortunate reality of the Phillies' current situation.

There is very little that the Phillies can do this offseason to become a legitimate World Series contender if they do not also see a significant appreciation in the pieces that they have spent the last three-plus years putting into place. Where once there was a variety of methods for cobbling together a pennant-winning roster, there is now a formula that seems to get more universal with each offseason. You develop a foundation of three or four young hitters with base-reaching ability and 20-home-run power, you prioritize value while building a deep inventory of starters, and then you spend whatever money you have on whatever the top of the free-agent market has available.

All three parts of that formula are important to keep in mind as Klentak and his fellow general managers gather in California for their annual meetings starting Tuesday. For most of the last year, the narrative surrounding the Phillies has centered almost exclusively on their desire to make a big splash in this year's free-agent market, which officially opened for business this weekend.

At times, the public perception seemed to hold that the last couple of seasons were nothing more than a biding of time until John Middleton could ride in on his credit line and conjure the ghosts of 2008 with a stroke or two of the pen. But waiting for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to reach free agency was never going to be the hard part of the process. After all, that was inevitable, much more so than persuading them to actually sign here in Philly.

The disconcerting thing about the Phillies' current position is that the heaviest lifting was supposed to be done by now. This offseason was never supposed to be make-or-break. Four years ago, when the former regime finally acknowledged that the organization was on the precipice of a lengthy rebuilding project, there were a number of different road maps one could envision for the return trip to contention. The one commonality they shared was 2019 as a destination: if not a culmination of the previous years' work, then certainly one of the final rest stops before the state line.

There is still a chance that will end up being the case. A year ago at this time, the assumption was that the Phillies had the makings of that base layer of success. In Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera, they had two top-half-of-the-order hitters who were in the early stages of well-below-market contracts. In Aaron Nola, they had a cost-controlled, top-half-of-the-rotation starter. In Scott Kingery, J.P. Crawford, Mickey Moniak, and Adam Haseley, they had a pool of promising talent from which another hitter or two could emerge.

None of those players is yet a sunk cost. Kingery and Crawford wouldn't be the first Top 50 prospects to bounce back from awful rookie seasons. Moniak wouldn't be the first top overall pick out of high school to take a few minor-league seasons to find his game. Haseley finished the year with a strong performance at double A and could be in the majors soon.

Yet when you look at the teams that have made it to the World Series over the last few seasons, you see lineups that were well ahead of where the Phillies' is at junctures similar to where the team is now. Five of the last six participants in the World Series had at least three young hitters who were more or less homegrown who each logged an OPS of .800-plus.

>> READ MORE: The Phillies need a pitcher. Here are four options.

The one exception, the Cubs, featured two such hitters who had MVP-caliber seasons (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo) surrounded by several other young, cost-controlled bats. The Astros had George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve. The Dodgers have featured Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, and Joc Pederson. Same goes for the Indians (Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis), and this year's Red Sox (Mookie Betts, Xander Boegarts, Andrew Benintendi).

At the moment, Hoskins is the only Phillies hitter who has a full .800 OPS season to his credit.

Add a hitter such as Harper or Machado to the mix and you could see how the current mix could work. If Carlos Santana is counted on to be only a five- or six-hole hitter behind Hoskins and an MVP-caliber newcomer. If Odubel Herrera is free to swing away out of the six- or seven-hole. And so on.

But the Phillies also might be at a point where they need to start taking some chances in the trade market. One area where they have been rather quiet is in procuring cost-controlled talent from somewhere other than the amateur markets. This is particularly true in the pitching market, where in recent years the Indians acquired Trevor Bauer, the Red Sox acquired Rick Porcello, the Dodgers traded for Alex Wood, and the Cubs landed Jake Arrieta.

Up to this point, patience has been a viable strategy, but the time for making tough decisions has arrived. Offering Machado or Harper the biggest contract in big-league history is not a tough decision. Parlaying the promise of the Phillies' current assets into legitimate first-division big-league talent could be the venue where the future is won or lost.