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Phillies 2014: the Russian Nesting Dolls of Waiting

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The trade deadline. The merciful end of the season. A change in the front office. The development of prospects. The emergence of a clue.

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I’ve long thought that one of the ironic aspects of modernity is that the speed and efficiency with which we now can get most anything we want has made the process of waiting for anything a good bit more painful than was once the case. (Witness the Simpsons episode in which Moe boasts that his new industrial strength fryer can flash-fry a buffalo in 40 seconds, to which Homer moans, "But I want it now!") Maybe this—in addition, of course, to the shitty baseball, and to the indignity of rooting for a team that, in its deep and broad stupidity, just seems so hopeless—is why this Phillies season has been so agonizing. This week, with the trade deadline a bit more than 48 hours off as I write, is maybe the perfect microcosm of the whole.

The team has a glorious recent past, a deeply lousy present, and a seemingly bleak future—all of which dictates that they should be sellers. This is doubly so in a market that should heavily favor sellers, particularly given the glitter (Cole Hamels) and utility (Marlon Byrd, Antonio Bastardo) of the items for sale. But as the hours and minutes tick down toward 4pm on Thursday, there’s a distinct sense that the Phillies might do next to nothing, and some question whether they even truly want to divert from a course that everyone outside the team's executive suite agrees is disastrous.

But waiting for the deadline is just the start of it. Those of us who are convinced that the current decision-makers don’t have what it takes to turn things around—and I think that’s almost all of us—are waiting for the end of the season. At that point, perhaps, an ownership group always trying to navigate the tension between their innate (I’d say "blind") loyalty and the currents of public opinion will look at plummeting attendance figures and TV ratings, survey the blasted landscape of print, online and broadcast coverage, look around for other scapegoats, find none, and then maybe, hopefully, give Ruben Amaro his long-deserved dismissal. Granted, since this is the Phillies the form this is likely to take is a kick upstairs; so be it, so long as someone else is calling the shots. (Plus Amaro might well represent an improvement over David Montgomery as team president.) If it’s not the winter of 2014-15, it’ll be the winter of 2015-16, when Ruben's contract is up and another 90-100 loss season will be in the books.

One reason the situation seems so grim going forward is that, in relative terms, the Phillies don’t have much help on the horizon. Per mlb.com by way of @mattwinks, they have three prospects—shortstop J.P. Crawford (37), pitcher Aaron Nola (48) and corner infielder Maikel Franco (61)—among the top 100 in the game. There are probably another half-dozen to a dozen guys in the minors worth keeping tabs on, though only a couple (Kelly Dugan, Roman Quinn) have everyday upside and might show up in Philadelphia within the next two years. For them, too, we wait, and for the next two (at least) drafts, when the team is all but guaranteed to draft top ten and should have good odds of getting a usable piece for the future. In a division where pretty much every other team has a current or potential difference-making player or two under 25—Matt Harvey, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez, Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman—this is thin gruel for hope. But it’s all we have to eat.

And that brings us to the thing I’m really waiting for: some basic reason to feel more excited about the next era of Phillies baseball. I don't think it would actually take that much. I’m not a big basketball fan by any stretch, but I find the 76ers fascinating just because GM Sam Hinkie so clearly has an idea what he wants to do. Obviously it’s going to require a few years, and there’s no guarantee it’ll work. But just by having a plan, informed by a clear sense of the tools at their disposal, they’ve managed to energize some portion of the fan base. (In hindsight, this is how I think of the 1997-99 Phillies--a bad team that pretty clearly was building towards something. Ideally it won't take another eight years to get there next time, but those teams still were more interesting than their immediate predecessors.) If you’re going to lose anyway, having a plan makes it more interesting, and that might be enough.