Is The Phillies Fire Sale Coming?

Ruben could start the fire sale in 2014. - David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

If the Phillies stumble out of the gate and are struggling at the trade deadline, a long-awaited fire sale could happen.

Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels. Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley. Marlon Byrd. Kyle Kendrick. Jonathan Papelbon. Carlos Ruiz. Ryan Howard. Domonic Brown.

If the Phillies are eight-to-10 games out of a wild card spot as the 2013 season meanders into late July, every one of the players listed above could be gone. At the very least, you can bet the Phils would probably listen to offers on all of them.

Yes, even Chase Utley.

The Phils are preparing for one last run at the playoffs, even though they appear to be satisfied with a rotation that features Lee, Hamels and three #5 pitchers and an offense that will see its only upgrade come in the form of Byrd, who is coming off a career year at 35 years old.

Ruben Amaro is already moving heaven and earth to try and get rid of Papelbon, apparently with not a lot of success. It was rumored he was willing to receive offers on Lee and Hamels, although any conversations involving those two pitchers appears to not have been all that advanced. And even though Amaro says the team is depending on Howard to have a bounce back year, it's likely the Phils would move him too if they could find a taker.

That being said, the Phils signed Byrd and re-signed Ruiz so they could allow their aging core one last shot at the playoffs. But it's obvious that the Phillies are not truly "all-in." If they were, they would have already overpaid for Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza, or would have been in on Nelson Cruz, Jacoby Ellsbury or Carlos Beltran.

If they truly were "all-in," they would have spent like the Yankees have spent.

Obviously, the off-season isn't over. If the Phils sign Masahiro Tanaka or sign Shin Soo Choo (both of which are highly unlikely), then it is a sign the team is truly pushing all their chips into the middle for 2014.

But that doesn't appear to be happening, and probably for very good reason. The Phils seem content on keeping their payroll right around where it was last year, at around $159 million, far below the $189 million luxury tax threshold.

This all points to one thing. The Phillies are hedging their bets. And, if things don't go well in April, May and June, the fire sale will likely begin full-force in July.

The Phils had a chance to start the fire sale last year, but instead chose to re-sign Utley to a two-year extension and not listen to offers for Ruiz. They didn't move Papelbon, although they probably would have if they could. Lee stayed put.

This year, however, things will be different.

Everyone can see the window is virtually shut. It would take a borderline miracle for it to re-open for 2014. But the Phillies have left themselves a very small window of opportunity here. It is a crack. And if the team hasn't started crawling through that crack by mid-July, Amaro and the front office could very well slam that window shut themselves.

It would take a lot for the Phillies to move Utley. He is their franchise player and he has a full no-trade clause as a 10/5 man. Same with Jimmy Rollins. Howard's contract would be unmovable unless the Phils decided to eat a lot of it. No one appears to want Papelbon unless the Phillies eat a lot of his deal, too.

Hamels is owed a ton of money and he's the type of pitcher around whom the Phillies could build. However, he is still a bona fide ace and could generate a hefty haul in return. Same with Lee. And no one seems to want Papelbon, although a solid first half next year could re-generate some interest league-wide.

Marlon Byrd and Kyle Kendrick would both easily move to other places. Brown would garner a lot of interest too.

Not all these players would leave in a fire sale, but ALL would be available for the right price.

Now, the argument against the fire sale is what is assumed to be a big cable TV deal on the horizon, and the assumption that the Phillies would not want to jettison their well-known players with that deal still not signed. It's not publicly known where those negotiations stand right now. It's possible a deal will be done by then, or could still be in the works. But another losing start would be just as harmful to TV ratings as trading players away, and the team's cautious approach to this off-season indicates they know the sands may have just about run through this team's hourglass.

If the Phils are not at least on the periphery of a playoff spot by the time the middle of August rolls around, the team could look substantially different come August, TV deal or no.

The Phils need some wins early next year, or get ready for the fire sale.

For real, this time.

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