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Busy days for Marlins, but still trail Phils

From the size of the mushroom clouds hovering over Dallas when the baseball winter meetings broke up, you would have thought it was a nonstop, swap-and-sign meet.

The Phillies have won the NL East for five straight years. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
The Phillies have won the NL East for five straight years. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)Read more

From the size of the mushroom clouds hovering over Dallas when the baseball winter meetings broke up, you would have thought it was a nonstop, swap-and-sign meet.

But for just about everybody but the Angels and Marlins, the days spent cruising the Hilton Anatole lobbies were mostly for taking of pulses, re-evaluating needs and rearranging priorities.

Also, a lot of sober reflecting on whether what was available was worth the cost.

There remains a massive unsigned free-agent class. But the Halos and Fish shook things up, to be sure.

A lot of American League managers had trouble swallowing after owner Artie Moreno opened the Swiss-numbered-account segment of his fortune and locked up Albert Pujols for 10 years and lefthander C.J. Wilson for 5. All it cost to potentially flip the AL West balance of power was about $331 million. Or about a half-hour of interest on the national debt.

But you could give less of a stoop and strain about the American League West. The Miami Marlins tightened up the NL East with a flurry of moves ranging from spectacular to solid. Once Hanley Ramirez, the face of the Marlins franchise, gives his wounded sense of machismo time to heal and accepts the move to third, he and shortstop Jose Reyes will be the best infield left side in the game. Think A-Rod and Derek Jeter in their primes. Force-of-nature Mike Stanton should do damage in Miami's minimalist retractable dome. And he better be strong. Despite its 37,000 capacity, the dimensions will be vast, with deep, yawning power alleys. Unlike Sun Life Stadium, where a stiff easterly wind prevailed, there will be no wind-tunnel effect on balls hit hard to left. Once the rain and heat season sets in, the roof will be closed. It will be like the Astrodome, where the ball did not carry.

Once the acquisition pace resumes after Jan. 1, there will be a better sense of whether the Phillies are still the Beast of the NL East.

Always the careful gardener, Ruben Amaro did his trimming and pruning before and after the meetings, edging his roster to give Charlie Manuel some options as Ryan Howard's rehab proceeds. While Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez did heroic work filling in for Chase Utley, Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins, the offense was short when they played.

Nobody dreamed the slick utility infielders would total 482 at-bats. But they produced just four homers and 54 RBI filling in for All-Star veterans who normally batted Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the order.

So the additions of elderly power bat Jim Thome, outfielder Laynce Nix and Ty Wigginton, a corner guy who can play both a little first and third, are a palpable upgrade that softens the loss of Raul Ibanez' production. How they are used and how often will depend on how much time Howard misses, how swiftly Polanco recovers from two surgeries and the condition of Utley's chronic housemaid's knee.

J-Roll is the wild card in all this, of course. I don't see this standoff dragging on too long. The shortstop has become about as unpopular with the fan base this offseason as he was popular his MVP year. That counts for something when there are 45,000 residents of Phillies Nation in the house each game. Think back to how fast Cliff Lee was moved to Seattle when his agent balked at the same terms Roy Halladay had accepted.

Whatever, the Phillies will not be the same team without Rollins, even if Freddy Galvis is ready for big-league play. And fans, please, please, stop suggesting Polanco as a stopgap at short. He was indifferent there in St. Louis, in his prime.

Neither the Nationals nor the Mets did anything in Dallas but talk and listen. I don't envy Mets GM Sandy Alderson, who was forced economically to let his best player walk away while trying to convince a cynical fan base his team is not rebuilding. They made a sideways move with the Giants, dealing centerfielder Angel Pagan for centerfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez. Is that all there is? Well, the Dodgers appear interested in first baseman Daniel Murphy. And Alderson is counting on healthy returns by David Wright, Ike Davis and salary anchor Johan Santana.

The Braves have basically the same young but power-challenged roster that fainted last September and could not even win that fateful final game the Phillies put away in the 13th - getting a win from Triple A reliever Michael Schwimer and the save from David Herndon. And a date with the Cardinals. Ah, but the Bravos have that young killer bullpen, and if sophomore slump-plagued Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones can soldier through another season, this is a dangerous team.

GM Frank Wren still is holding a pair of valuable trading chips in Martin Prado and righthanded pitcher Jair Jurrjens.

The Nationals also have made their list and are checking it twice, but the buzz now is that Jayson Werth might move to centerfield to make room for 19-year-old Bryce Harper in right. Some of the studio seamheads feel the Nats will run hard at posted Japanese ace Yu Darvish to back Stephen Strasburg.

Hey, there are miles of cell phone minutes to go before spring training.

But after the Marlins' whirlwind meetings - they also signed lefthanded pitcher Mark Buehrle and All-Star reliever Heath Bell - have the free agent-stymied and Howard-crippled Phils lost their once-clear favorite role?

Not so fast, for the following 12 reasons:

Halladay. Lee. Hamels. Worley. Blanton. Kendrick. Papelbon. Bastardo. Contreras. Schwimer. Herndon. Willis.

However, all bets might be off if the the Fish become the Whales by signing Cuban defector Yoennis Cespedes.