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July 29, 2019

Paul Hagen: Will the Phillies be buyers or sellers at the deadline? It's complicated.

The Phillies squandered a late five-run lead in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, at the time officially the longest (four hours and 14 minutes) and unofficially one of the sloppiest (played through drenching rains) in history.

The Blue Jays won, 15-14. No team in had ever scored that many runs in defeat in the Fall Classic. After the clubhouse was opened to the media, a reporter walked toward John Kruk.

“Well,” the first baseman remarked before he could even be asked a question. “That didn’t go exactly as planned.”

Kruk, now a Phillies broadcaster, didn’t reprise that weary sentiment over the weekend.

But he could have...

The Braves came to Citizens Bank Park and, with all the subtlety of a punch in the nose, neatly demonstrated the chasm between where the Phillies are and how far they have to go to get where they want to be. Atlanta won the first two by a combined 24-9 and, honestly, the games were even more lopsided than the scores indicate.

Bouncing back for a 9-4 win on Sunday counted for something, but it required four home runs and an Aaron Nola start, neither of which happens every day.  

Now, in a way, this is barely worth getting worked up about. There are still two months to go in the season. The Phillies are 6.5 behind the first-place Braves. An uphill climb, but hardly impossible to overcome. They also remain on the fringe of a wild card spot.

What adds sirens and flashing red lights to the situation is timing — the trade deadline arrives Wednesday. So, the way we traditionally look at these things, general manager Matt Klentak and his baseball operations people now have just three days to declare themselves. Will they be buyers? Or will they be sellers?

Except that this isn’t always a binary choice. Especially for a team, like the Phillies, that operates in a murky purgatory between being good enough to dream but not good enough to push all its chips to the middle of the table.

They could be neither. They could be both.

Manager Gabe Kapler’s postgame postmortem after the series finale naturally included questions about how he believes the weekend’s results will impact what happens between now and the moment the clock runs out on Wednesday.

“I think we’re a talented club that has yet to come together all at once,” he told reporters. “We’ve seen stretches of good play. I believe we have a strong run in us in the second half of the season. And I think we’re positioned well to make a run. I don’t think the clubs we’re battling [for a wild card spot] are better than us.”

Should that be interpreted as a plea to his bosses to add reinforcements?

“I continue to maintain that our job is to develop the players we have in the room,” he said. “It’s not to speculate on what’s happening outside. Trust 100 percent that our front office is going to do everything they can to improve our club.

“We play our baseball. We play to our potential. And we are a strong club.”

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A couple weeks ago, club president Andy MacPhail offered the opinion that his team was more than one player away from having a realistic shot at raising the big shiny trophy late in October. It may not have been what fans wanted to hear, but give him points for honesty.

“If you think that you are very close to the ultimate prize and you’re one piece away, then your appetite for giving up something big to acquire that piece is pretty substantial,” he said. “If you’re a team (on the bubble) like we are now ... from my perspective you have to be a little more judicious with your playing talent if you think you’ve got a longer haul.”

He also said that, ultimately, what the players did on the field would determine the direction the front office would likely go. Since then, they’re 8-7. Not exactly the sort of record that would inspire the front office to go all in to try to win this year at any cost.

But let’s examine what MacPhail said a little more closely. He didn’t say the Phillies wouldn’t give up prospects. He just said the team would be “more judicious” about it.

So, no, don’t expect to see them overpay for a starting pitcher (say, Madison Bumgarner of the Giants) who can be a free agent at the end of the season. But they might give up more for a starting pitcher (say, Matthew Boyd of the Tigers) whose contract they can control through 2022.

It’s interesting to note what Klentak has done recently. Since the All-Star break alone he’s quietly added Jose Pirela, Drew Smyly, Mike Morin, Logan Morrison. That could be interpreted as simply making small moves in the margins. Or it could be viewed as being prepared in case multiple minor leaguers are packaged to get somebody who would not only provide a lift for the rest of this season but also moving forward.

You never know how things are going to work out, either. When future Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees at the deadline in 2006, it was widely viewed as a white flag move. Even Gillick said at the time he thought the team was two or three years from contending.

Abreu was a really good player who will rightfully be added to the Phillies Wall of Fame on Saturday. He was also a quiet veteran who the younger players deferred to. When he left, it allowed Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino and others to express their personalities more openly.

Before the trade, the Phillies were 46-54. From then until the end of the season, they were 39-23.

The next year, they won the first of five straight division titles and in 2008 they won the World Series.

So will the Phillies be buyers or sellers this year? That's really not the question. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

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