PHILADELPHIA - Sellers.
There. In May, not July. Already.
Sellers. That's what the Phillies should be, long before the question will rage on the talk shows and in the papers. That should be the result of the game, the one that will surface at the trade deadline, as it has for the past three summers.
Should they try, one more time, to win with the nucleus they have clutched for so long and seek another arm, another bat, another aging if useful piece, theoretically to nudge them into the recently expanded postseason?
Or should they flake their arms, their bats, their still-useful pieces off, one by one, for something, for anything - younger players, different players, projects, prospects or promises?
Typically, that's a worthy debate, the reason a baseball organization exists. It's not one to be dismissed without deep consideration, particularly not for the Phillies, who have won only two world championships and can never afford to miss a chance to win another. But not this time. Not with this group. Not with attendance leaking, last place likely and a cracked clubhouse.
This time? Stop the fight, hurl in the towel, concede the hole, dribble out the clock.
They won't say that, not yet. It's not how the card game is played, which is fine. Even if they are plotting to sell at the July 31 deadline, there is little value in admitting it until noon on July 30. Make the buyers wait. Drive up the bidding.
But even before the Phillies would be swept in a two-game series by the Los Angeles Angels, there was no remaining indication that they have enough to make a reasonable championship push. A game earlier, they'd wasted a 4-1 lead and a chance to sweep the Mets, losing in 11 innings, 5-4, when the bullpen fizzled. And there was Ryne Sandberg, looking as if he was still suffering the food poisoning he'd contracted at CitiField, when asked about his bullpen. "This," he said, echoing a theme that Charlie Manuel consistently delivered late in his reign, "is what I have."
Larry Bowa his own honest self couldn't have delivered a more stinging shot.
Sandberg was talking about the bullpen, and specifically his bullpen when Jonathan Papelbon is unavailable with an accumulation of pains. But had he chosen, he could have extended that to his starting pitching, his everyday eight, his bench and his farm system, and he would have been within his grumbling rights. He doesn't have enough, he knows it, and the record reflects it already.
Even with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz healthy, hustling and producing, the Phillies are four games under .500 and awaiting a Friday night visit from the Cincinnati Reds. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have been strong, A.J. Burnett fine. Papelbon has looked like an All-Star. Marlon Byrd, signature offseason acquisition, has hit and fielded to all expectations or better.
So what happens when that aging core begins to tire, as it will sometime along the buck-62 marathon?
The Phillies misjudged Cody Asche, who cannot defend at a major-league level and is at best an ordinary hitter. They didn't surrender much for Ben Revere, just Vance Worley, but the centerfielder grounds out too much, can't throw and won't take a walk. Then there is Dom Brown, whom they could have included in a bundle and acquired Roy Halladay late in 2009. Had they done that, they would have won consecutive World Series and would never have had to answer another question.
Brown had half a good year last season, and that's when the Phillies should have unloaded him for value, but didn't. Now they are stuck with a one-time All-Star who has hit one home run since last August. Good luck trading him for a Hall of Fame-level pitcher for any more playoff pushes.
Ruben Amaro is not ready to surrender. His only chance at security as general manager is for this group to achieve. So he will wait and hope.
"Any more questions," he said the other night, the sarcasm thick, "about our 'flawed' team?"
Just the usual: Buy or sell?
And this time, the answer is simple. Already. Sell.
Follow Jack McCaffery on Twitter @JackMcCaffery.