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The Phillies As Sellers

The Philadelphia Phillies aren’t accustomed to hovering around the .500 mark, let alone falling on the wrong side of it. Winners of five straight division titles, the team and its core members are used to playing solid baseball and firming up grasps on playoff berths. Throughout this recent run of success, the front office has used the trade deadline to bolster the roster, fix a glaring weakness, or just strengthen an area not previously considered an outright strength. All the while there was never substantial doubt that they would contend.

The situation may play out differently this season, as the Phillies are now 29-33, four games under .500, and eight games behind the first-place Washington Nationals.

While their struggles were somewhat predictable given the extended absences of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard — which were known before the season — and the in-season injuries to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley, Carlos Ruiz, Jim Thome and Laynce Nix, the fact remains that the team isn’t playing good baseball and doesn’t really seem primed to right the ship.

With a number of roster decisions on the horizon, their play of late has raised questions about when the team should legitimately consider selling off assets in an attempt to replenish a depleted farm system and regroup for next year. Seeing that they are eight games behind the Nationals and 6.5 games behind the second wild card team, that time may be fast approaching.

Obviously, the recoveries of injured stars plays a major role in that decision. If Halladay returns on or ahead of schedule and both Howard and Utley return over the next two weeks, the Phillies could still turn things around with enough time to make a strong push. In that situation, trading legitimate contributors is silly, as the Phillies could be far scarier in October, with everyone healthy, than they are right now.

But that scenario seems unlikely. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has intimated that Howard wouldn’t return in June, and there is still no true timetable for Utley either. There is also the matter that neither is guaranteed to contribute at a high level upon returning. Having them back in the lineup brings the potential for greater offense — they would replace Hector Luna, John Mayberry and Mike Fontenot — but they probably won’t double-handedly fix issues right away.

Halladay may seem like a machine, but his injury requires three or four weeks of rest before even testing the shoulder with throwing. The team was shorthanded entering the season and the situation has only worsened.

The season still isn’t even halfway done, so it’s still somewhat early, but the Phillies have a few attractive pieces that could extract decent returns from truer contenders, and a relatively poor farm system in need of replenishing. The team also has numerous talented players under contract next season and arguably the marquee pitching free agent for whom more money than originally anticipated may be required.

It’s possible that they could sell a player or two this year and get right back to contending next year with a healthier Halladay, Howard and Utley and a newly re-signed Hamels.

They could conceivably find a way to re-sign Cole Hamels without making any major moves, but it sure seems easier to find the money if Hunter Pence and his potential $13 million in 2013 is removed from the books. It also becomes easier if the team acknowledges that Shane Victorino won’t return. Both players could be viewed as missing pieces to playoff contenders that have far less value to a reeling Phillies team that continues to move further and further away from a playoff berth.

The Phillies don’t need to overreact and try to trade Halladay or Lee, who are under contract for a little while and are elite players, but if the situation continues to worsen the team needs to take a serious look at where it is and where its going and act accordingly. It’s already unlikely that Victorino returns next year, and while he isn’t easy to replace, valuable centerfielders don’t grow on trees and could bring back a decent haul.

The Phillies could go with a stopgap measure before finding a long-term solution and save money for Hamels in the process. The Phillies also have Dom Brown waiting in the wings, and a trade of Pence could open up everyday playing time for a player who really deserves an uninterrupted shot of big-league action.

There is also the elephant in the room — if the Phillies continue to fall out of the race and believe their chances of re-signing Hamels are slim, they may find it more prudent to move him now if the price is right.

It’s obviously difficult to see how the Phils would factor into free agent negotiations with the Dodgers and Yankees likely willing to pay a boatload for his services, but the Phillies have to weigh the likelihood of losing him and getting compensation picks against the likelihood of turning things around and contending this season.

If his return is unlikely, and the team doesn’t want to continue re-signing aging players like Victorino, the 2012 season might represent a last hurrah of sorts, where everyone needs to trust that, when healthy, the team will make a push.

The problem is that by waiting and taking that approach, the team might miss out on opportunities to help their future without much cost to their present. They aren’t at the point of no return yet, but are inching closer with each loss. Their play over the next three weeks could determine the future of the organization that, at the start of this run, had all the makings of being able to sustain long-term success.