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May 19, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (26) singles in the 6th inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Reds, 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Ruben Amaro Says Phils Are A Contender Unless They're Not Anymore

May 17, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee (33) celebrates with manager Charlie Manuel (41) after defeating the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Reds 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are giving me bipolar disorder.

One day I think they’ve got a shot at competing in the National League East, given how they’re still just 5 1/2 games behind Atlanta and only one game behind Washington, are 14-10 in their last 24 games, and one game under .500, at 23-24. They’re still in the conversation in the NL East.

The next day I think they have no chance, as evidenced by the parade of former All-Stars either already on the disabled list – Roy Halladay, John Lannan, Carlos Ruiz, Mike Adams, and Chase Utley – or guys who are currently hurt, namely Ryan Howard, with a run differential that indicates their record should be much worse than it is (-31, 4th worst in the NL), and an offense that clearly has had its problems.

If you look at it analytically, the Phils are still in the hunt. But if you use your eyes, this team does not have a prayer at winning the World Series this year.

I’m a confused and scared mess right now, guys.

And I’m not alone. The baseball community is a bit mixed up as to what the Phillies should do in the next couple months. Some, like ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield, think the Phils will be buyers. Others, like CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe and Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, think the Phillies will be sellers.

“My guess is this is not a contender,” Rosenthal said in his online video blog. “And if the Phillies are not a contender, then they have to do for the second straight season something  that they don’t really want to do, and that’s deconstruct. Cliff Lee, Michael Young, you can go right down the line, Jonathan Papelbon. I can name virtually any Phillie and at least the Phillies could entertain the idea of maybe getting rid of some of these guys.

“Now, you’re not going to get a ton of talent for Cliff Lee when he has so much money left on his contract, but you could pick up a number of those dollars and perhaps make it work that way. Clearing the money alone would be useful to the Phillies for the future, getting young talent would be even better.”

There’s no doubt the Phils are going to be the most interesting team to watch as the trade deadline approaches. And if you listen to Ruben Amaro, it sounds like a decision on whether to double down on 2013 or punt for the future, could be coming sooner rather than later.

“We still have good players,” Amaro told MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki. “We just haven’t put it all together yet for whatever reason. They haven’t gotten going offensively in particular. We still think that they can, but they haven’t. The real question is: How long can you wait? Right now, we’re willing to wait, because no one is crazy and running away with it. We’re willing to wait, and how long we’ll wait is a decision I’ll have to make. Right now, I view us as buyers.”

Within that statement is the key question.

How long can you wait?

When it comes to their most tradeable stars, the Phillies are going to have to wait. Utley and Ruiz are both on the DL, so no one is going to touch either of those guys with a 10-foot pole until they come back and prove they’re healthy and productive. Roy Halladay would have been a commodity for some, but his broken shoulder rendered that moot.

And while Michael Young and Delmon Young are both free agents after the year and would likely be on the block should the Phils sell, neither player costs very much and would bring back much in terms of talent, so there is no urgency to trade either of them in the next week or two.

Of course, there is the walking trade rumor Cliff Lee, who everyone and their mother has been trumpeting as the Phillies’ top commodity. And, with Utley hurt, he is their most attractive potential selling piece. But as Rosenthal noted, Lee still has a bunch of money left on his contract, about $77.5 million after this year. Unless Amaro is willing to eat a lot of that salary, the Phillies probably won’t get a top-notch prospect in return.

And sure, there are other guys who could go, but all have salary situations like Lee’s. Papelbon is still owed a ton of money, Rollins has about $30 million left on his deal after this year (if his fourth year option vests) and Howard probably couldn’t get dealt under any circumstances with all that money left on that albatross.

The Phillies are not a terrible team. But they’re also not a good team. They are a middle-of-the-pack baseball team. And with two wild card spots now up for grabs in the National League, middle-of-the-pack teams can hang around and legitimately call themselves “contenders” for a very long time. It’s more than likely the Phillies will be in the same position at the trade deadline as they are right now, hanging on the edge of playoff contention, doing just enough to stay in it, but also doing just enough to look lost in the wilderness.

“I view us as a contender,” Amaro said to Zolecki on Wednesday. “My job is to be a contender every year, whether or not the guys are old or young or whatever the case may be. Our job is to find the right combination of players on the field to contend every year, contend for the National League East and hopefully for the World Series. And, yes, our core players are not getting any younger, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be productive and we can’t try to find players, either internally, develop them ourselves, or find them outside the organization to cover any deficiencies for things they may not be able to bring.”

“If the guys play like they have on the back of their baseball cards, then we’ll be OK.”

Hopefully, Amaro is not looking at the stats on the back of their baseball cards to determine how they’re going to perform this year. Because Howard’s 2009 home run totals and Utley 2007 OPS numbers are NOT an indication of what they’re capable of today.

These are different players, older players, more injury-prone players, who are not capable of doing what they used to do.

But what about buying? Is it possible Amaro could go out and trade for a pitcher like Matt Garza, or an outfield bat like Andre Ethier? Does he even have any minor league talent left that is good enough to get them a player that would truly make a difference?

It would be irresponsible for Amaro to get rid of more young talent for a player who is unlikely to help this team win a World Series in 2013, but it would also be irresponsible for him to give up on the season before everything has fully played out.

What’s really depressing is that it seems like no matter what they do, there isn’t much the Phillies can do that will move the needle all that much. The talent they currently have in the minors isn’t good enough to trade for true difference makers, and the talent they have to trade is so expensive or so broken down that it isn’t likely to land them an impact player for the future.

And if that’s the case, you’re looking at pure salary relief, which may not be a bad idea, either.

What would truly help the Phillies and their decision-makers is a streak. Any kind of streak. The Phillies have not had a winning streak longer than three games this year, but have also not had a losing streak longer than four games.

A big winning streak, starting this weekend in Washington, would go a long way to proving the Phils can be a contender and buyers at the deadline. A long losing streak would actually be just as helpful, cementing the Phils as true sellers.

The standings show the Phillies still have a chance. Other statistical indicators and a growing DL list show otherwise. And the Phils probably have no more than 3-4 weeks to show they can truly be a contender.

Good thing the Phillies have the smartest general manager in all of the world making these tough decisions.

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