The Philadelphia Phillies will be one of the most-talked-about teams in baseball leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline -- whether they're buying, selling, or doing some of both.
Based on their play so far, it won't be a surprise if the Phillies trade veterans for a second straight year. They are 9-13, closer to last-place Miami than first-place Atlanta in the National League East.
Sure, it's early. But there is particular urgency to this season in Philadelphia, for two main reasons: The team has an aging core, and it hasn't won a playoff series since 2010. If the Phillies are below .500 at the All-Star break, could they really justify doubling down on the same group in 2014 -- when everyone is one year older?
Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Michael Young, Carlos Ruiz and Delmon Young will be free agents after this season. Given the postseason bona fides of those five, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could acquire a number of intriguing prospects if he put them on the market.
Obviously, Amaro would rather not pursue that course. But in a conversation this week, he acknowledged that the team is arriving at a critical point.
"The next four months are very important for our organization," Amaro told FOXSports.com. "We have a lot of potential free agents -- Chooch (Ruiz), Chase, Halladay, Michael Young, Delmon Young. Do we want to go younger, or do we move forward with the guys we've got?
"We're going to have to turn left or right. We have to decide."
Amaro said he hopes he's buying at the trade deadline, but he also allowed, "We could be very young next year." Amaro is excited about the team's farm system, from pitchers Jonathan Pettibone (already in the big leagues), Adam Morgan, Ethan Martin and Jesse Biddle, to catcher Tommy Joseph, third baseman Cody Asche, second baseman Cesar Hernandez and left fielder/first baseman Darin Ruf.
"We've got guys who can play," Amaro said. "They're legitimate prospects. The question is whether they will develop into championship players. But I like what we have, close to the top."
Sometimes, younger is baseball code for cheaper . The Phillies have the third-highest payroll in baseball this season at $165.4 million, according to the USA Today salary database. Asked if his team's payroll will remain in its current range, Amaro said, "I would think so. How many people are in the ballpark means a lot to us. Attendance is a larger factor of our revenue than for other clubs because of our marketplace."
To that end, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb reported some significant information this week: Over their first 12 home games this year, the Phillies' average home attendance was down 7,895 fans. Projected over a full season, that could bring a very meaningful change to the team's bottom line.
If the Phillies finish with a losing record, see diminished numbers at the gate and adjust their payroll even slightly, one wonders whether the likes of Halladay, Utley and Michael Young will fit on the 2014 Phillies.
Halladay, who turns 36 next month, has strung together three consecutive quality starts after his first two raised such alarm. Utley, 34, has been the Phillies' most productive hitter this season, with a .904 OPS and team-leading 16 RBI. Michael Young has a .316 batting average and .789 OPS in his first season as a National Leaguer. At that performance level, each would have significant trade value in July.
Then there's the other, more dramatic possibility -- Philadelphia's version of the Red Sox Reboot. In the midst of a disappointing 2012 season, Boston general manager Ben Cherington seized upon the opportunity to unload roughly $250 million in future payroll obligations through the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers when the Sox unloaded Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in one swift move. The result was added flexibility last offseason, which he used to transform the team's clubhouse. With the Red Sox tied for the American League's best record, Cherington looks like a genius.
Amaro passed up the chance to move left-hander Cliff Lee (and the entirety of his massive contract which owes him $25 million per season through 2015, plus a vesting option that could pay him $27.5 million in 2016) when the Dodgers claimed him on waivers last August. Would the GM be more inclined to trade Lee if the Phillies miss the playoffs for a second straight season?
The chances are close to zero that star shortstop Jimmy Rollins (signed through '14, with full no-trade protection) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (signed through '15) would be available. But we would have said the same for Crawford, Gonzalez and Beckett at this time last year.
Asked about Boston's approach last summer and over the winter, Amaro said, "They had some veteran players they decided to stay with, and they had some young players they decided to stay with. They made good decisions. Ben's a smart guy. They had needs they were able to address. Each circumstance is different."
With so much veteran talent, the Phillies can very easily reclaim their former place at or near the top of the NL East. And if they're in contention at the deadline, they can use some of those high-level prospects in trades to fortify their core for one more championship run.
But if the 2013 Phillies only prove to be mediocre, the scope of their change could influence the trade deadline plans of just about every team in the major leagues.