Phils Role In Deadline Deals Is Still Unclear

The Phillies are technically in the thick of things for both a run at winning the division or picking up a Wild Card spot in the post-season. Even so, a few losses on the road this week could quickly change the outlook that the front office takes for the rest of the season.

The Phillies are one week away from having the course they take over the season's final two months decided. When July 31 arrives, the Phils will know whether general manager Ed Wade is putting them in a position to make a serious run at the postseason or trying to collect parts for 2006 and beyond.

No one will represent the direction the Phils take more than Billy Wagner. Since the flame-throwing closer is in the final year of his contract, he is by far the most desirable, trade-friendly, ninth-inning hired gun out there. The Red Sox want him. The Orioles are interested. The White Sox say they aren't, but Dustin Hermanson's shaky health could force them to reconsider. And who knows what other teams would put in bids if the Phillies put Wagner up for grabs.

Whether Wagner will be available is highly debatable. The Phillies (52-47) seemed to solidify their standing as a postseason contender when they swept the free falling Padres this weekend and moved within three games of both the Nationals and Braves in the NL East race.

However, you're only as good as your last series, and the Phils have a serious test in Houston. The Astros (51-47), in what seems to be an echo of 2004, are the hottest team in baseball after seemingly playing their way out of contention earlier in the season. The Phillies' mission, if they choose to accept it, is to figure out a way to win at least one game at Minute Maid Field against Houston's version of a pitching Murderer's Row in Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

If the Phillies can win the series in Houston, it should officially take Wagner out of the trade chatter. However, it isn't a lock that Wade is going to make any improvements to the roster, either.

There isn't much of a history between Houston's Big Three and the Phillies. The trio has combined for just nine games and seven starts lifetime against the Phils, with Oswalt (2-1, 1.72) having decent success, while Clemens (1-0, 5.40) and Pettitte (0-2, 6.32) have struggled.

The Phillies will miss Jim Thome when they go against Clemens. The first baseman, who is several days away from coming off the disabled list, is 21-for-57 (.368) with eight career homers against The Rocket. No other Phillie has a homer off Clemens.

Ugueth Urbina could start generating some interest from teams in need of a closer thanks to his impressive pitching in July, but as with Wagner, the Phillies aren't inclined to trade any key components of their bullpen now that they have played their way back into contention.

If Wagner is the most telling of the potential pieces of trade bait, then Vicente Padilla may be the most interesting. Padilla has pitched well lately and perhaps, other teams would overlook his frequent injuries and inconsistencies and make a move to add him to their rotation. The Yankees, Marlins and Rangers all appear to have interest in Padilla.

Speaking of the Yankees, they are looking for help in center field. The arrival of Matt Kata could play into that situation. GM Ed Wade said that in one of his last conversations with Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. before the trade was finalized, Garagiola told him that Kata was doing a good job of adapting to center field in the minors. Kata said he played "about 15 games" in center for AAA Tuscon. That could help the Phillies feel more comfortable trading either Endy Chavez, Jason Michaels or Kenny Lofton and going with Kata as the fifth outfielder. The Yankees continue to search for a capable defense center fielder, and Chavez is known to be on their list of options. It would be interesting to see if the Yankees would pursue either Michaels or former Yankee Kenny Lofton. Kata's arrival could also mean that infielders Ramon Martinez and Tomas Perez could be made available as either part of a package or in a smaller type deal either at the deadline or later.

As for who isn't on the table, Ryan Howard appears to have been taken off the agenda for the trade deadline. Howard is likely to stick with the club even after Thome returns, giving the Phillies some needed power off the bench and perhaps even some punch in the everyday lineup if Thome continues to struggle. Another youngster, Chase Utley is pretty much untouchable as well. Utley has truly taken over the second base job since the deal for Urbina that sent Placido Polanco to Detroit. "He's starting to do it all. I think that's leadership when you see that," said Manager Charlie Manuel when asked about Utley's progress.

A new contract for Jimmy Rollins seems to suggest that he's staying, as is newly minted superstar Bobby Abreu. Pat Burrell, David Bell and Mike Lieberthal could conceivably be available, but all have contracts that would be difficult to trade, much like Thome, who has been mentioned in some rumored deals. Outside of Padilla, the Phillies aren't likely to send any starting pitching out of town and relievers like Ryan Madson would appear to be safe as well. Names like Rheal Cormier and Aaron Fultz could be thrown into a package, but the Phillies are also pleased with having both in their bullpen. Fultz especially has been a pleasant surprise for the Phillies.


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