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May 09, 2016

Uniform decisions: Which numbers will the Phillies retire next?

After the season ends, the Phillies will have some easy decisions to make when it comes to Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz. It’ll be time to say goodbye to the last two remnants of the greatest era in Phillies history. 

If the Phillies don’t make a deal that sends the Big Piece packing at the trade deadline, the club will buy out his final year for $10 million. When Ruiz’ contract expires in October, the Phillies will say goodbye.

But they will have some interesting decisions to make when it comes to retiring numbers of those who made the 2007-11 run possible. 

After the 2016 season, the tenth anniversary of the club’s second World Series championship will be on the horizon. It will be time to immortalize some of the players from that era. You can expect plenty of their faces to grace the Phillies' Wall of Fame, which gets a new member each year.

But the question today is, who is worthy of having his number retired?

You see, that's a much more exclusive club. 

Some very-good-but-likable Phillies -- see: John Kruk and Darren Daulton -- have failed to make the cut. Same goes for the exceptional-but-not-so-likable Curt Schilling, who emerged as a star with the Phillies but enjoyed most of his success elsewhere.

That's why, after 133 years of baseball, the Phillies have only retired five numbers: Richie Ashburn’s No. 1, Jim Bunning’s No. 14, Mike Schmidt’s No. 20, Steve Carlton’s No. 32, and Robin Roberts' No. 36. That’s nothing compared to the staggering 21 Yankees players who have had such an honor.

Give the Phillies credit for making it difficult to join their ring of honor. The five guys who sported numbers that will never be worn by anyone in red pinstripes again are Hall of Famers. That's an unofficial policy of the organization, so before any of these numbers are considered for retirement, the players who wore them will have to first win over the Baseball Writers Association of America and earn a spot in Cooperstown. 

But for the sake of this exercise, let's not worry about that requirement. After all, our four candidates are all still currently playing and won't even be eligible for the Hall of Fame for quite some time -- and arguing over whether or not they belong there is not the point.

What we want to know is whether or not they belong alongside likes of Schmidt and Carlton...

11 - Jimmy Rollins

When Rollins returned to Citizens Bank Park as a Dodger last summer, I asked him how much longer he would play. 

“For another five seasons, at least,” he said. “I’m in such great shape and I can still play.” 

J-Roll longs to record 558 more hits, which is what separates him from the magic number of 3,000.

Even if the relentless Rollins, now the starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox, falls short of 3,000, the diminutive lightning rod, at least according to this writer, is headed to the Hall of Fame. 

He was the leader of a sublime Phillies squad that won a World Series, a pennant and five NL East titles. Rollins wasn’t just the MVP of the 2007 team, he was their Nostradamus and did whatever was necessary to lead his team to the playoffs. 

If Charlie Manuel and company needed a triple, no problem. A big defensive play, you got it.

The numbers will enable Rollins to earn enshrinement in Cooperstown. He should retire with more than 250 home runs, 1,000 RBI and 500 stolen bases. Rollins already has more than 500 doubles and 100 triples. 

He also is one of the greatest defensive shortstops in the history of the game. Only six shortstops have four gold gloves and at least 2,000 hits. Rollins is one of them. And the only shortstop in history with at least 400 stolen bases and 200 home runs? Some guy named Rollins. 

At some point this season, Rollins should become the 12th player in history to have more than 2,500 hits, 500 doubles, 100 triples and 200 home runs. Each of those 11 players (Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Willie Mays among them), with the exception one (Johnny Damon, who is not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame) already has a plaque in Cooperstown.

Rollins is the whole package...and he was misunderstood on top of that. Despite a reluctant embrace by some Phillies fans, no player should ever wear number 11 again for the Phillies.

26 - Chase Utley

Unlike his former double play partner, Utley is not a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame. 

The quiet leader is borderline when it comes to Cooperstown. When examining his numbers, they’re comparable to Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, save career hits. And when you compare Utley to Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski, “the Man” has a chance at enshrinement. 

Utley’s stats took a hit due to his injury issues. But when he played, it was impossible to take your eyes off of him. Every time Utley stepped to the plate for the Phillies, it was as if he was moving to the dish a half-step faster than everybody else. He walked to the batter’s box with palpable bad intent.

“Just watching Chase Utley run from home to first is reason enough to buy a ticket to watch the Phillies,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before the 2015 season commenced.

Utley may finish his distinguished career with more than 250 homers and 1,000 RBIs, but it’s much more than the numbers. It was how Utley played the game. 

He was the best baserunner I’ve ever seen. It’s not only the stats -- Utley stole 144 bases and was only caught 18 times. His head was always in the game. He was hard-nosed like Pete Rose.

“If I had to pick a player who plays now, who is the most like me, it’s Utley,” Rose said in 2014.

When the Phillies needed a big play, Utley made it. 

Think back to the heady move when he made the throw to the plate in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series in which he nailed Jason Bartlett. How about when he made like Reggie Jackson and hit five homers in the 2009 World Series?

There was the talent but also the grit, which is an increasingly rare combination. Utley would run through a wall like Aaron Rowand but he also will be remembered for that sweet, compact swing, which is the antithesis of most of his peers today.

Few remember that Utley was an average-at-best second baseman when he was called up in 2003, but he worked hard enough to become an elite fielder.

Another reason number 26 should be retired is due to his popularity. 

The last Philadelphia athlete who was as beloved as Utley was Julius Erving. He was a rare local star, one who was never booed in Philadelphia. The fans got it right this time. 

Utley, who also connected with the fan base courtesy of his surprising oratory skills during the World Series celebration, is an athlete to be cherished.

6 - Ryan Howard

There will be considerable debate about whether to retire Howard’s number. 

The Phillies cleanup hitter is not going to the Hall of Fame and he was never the same after the Achilles injury he suffered during the final at-bat of the 2011 NLDS, which also marked the end of an exceptional Phillies era. 

Howard has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching and has never been a strong fielder. But despite all of that, his number should never be worn by another Phillie.

Everything that could have gone wrong to Howard did. He was never as popular as he could have been, but he is the second-greatest slugger in Phillies history and will finish his career in red pinstripes with nearly 400 homers and possibly more than 1,200 RBIs. What no one can take away from Howard is his historic production from 2006 to 2009, during which he averaged 49.5 homers and 143 RBIs. His OPS was never less than .881 any of those seasons.

There is a myth floating around Philadelphia that he was never clutch. And that just isn't true. 

Howard drove in a myriad of runs to tie or give the Phillies a lead. How about Game 4 of the NLDS against the Rockies in 2009? The Phillies were up two games to one but found themselves trailing, 3-1, in the ninth against closer Huston Street. Howard was six deep in the order. 

“But he said, 'Just get me to the plate, boys,'” Shane Victorino recalled. “We got him to the plate and he delivered.” 

Howard doubled home a pair of runs to tie the game and scored the decisive run on Jayson Werth’s single.

“There is no way we win that World Series or the pennant the next year without him,” Werth said while looking back last season. “People can say what they want, but Ryan Howard was huger than huge during that run. There’s just no doubt about that.”

So, yes, three-quarters of that Phillies infield deserves to be honored.

35 - Cole Hamels

King Cole was front and center during the entire run and he was superb, save 2009. 

Unlike Rollins, Utley and Howard, he will make a big impact during his post-Phillies days for the Texas Rangers and perhaps another organization. If he plays at a high level for another six years, will he be remembered more as a Phillie or as a Ranger?

In terms of accomplishments, Hamels is on the bubble. Hamels is the best homegrown starting pitcher since Robin Roberts. He also won the NL MVP and World Series MVP honors in 2008. If the organization didn’t go off the rails and Hamels stayed, there would be very little doubt about it. 

Unfortunately, that didn't happen, so this could go either way.