Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro last week responded to a text seeking an interview with six very direct words.
"Yes. But I'm not trading anyone.''
Amaro's position is understandable at this time, what with nobody running away yet in the NL East (though the Braves generally have played well). A few days later the Phillies are no better off, at 36-40, and 7 1/2 games out, and while Amaro still may not trade anyone at this moment, people familiar with their situation suggest they may consider dealing a few veterans if things don't improve in the next few weeks -- though they'd be much more inclined to move some than others.
Word among folks in the know is that the two players Amaro is least inclined to trade are, no surprise, the very two players who will garner the most interest on the trade market. Star starter Cliff Lee and star closer Jonathan Papelbon are deemed by Phillies people as vital, though no one's quite untouchable in the Phillies' world.
The reason for their value to the Phillies goes beyond the fact that both are still on top of their game. Just as big a factor is that both pitchers are under contract through at least 2015, so even if the veteran Phillies team can't get it together this year, there's always next year or the year after. The Phillies aim to win year after year, so while it's plausible to see them taking a step back in a year they are struggling to play .500 ball, it's much less so for a season that hasn't even been played.
"I never say never. But it's our job to win, and these are guys who are hard to replace,'' Amaro said by phone about Lee and Papelbon.
The Phillies' commitment to winning remains foremost, and even the high salaries of Lee, who has $76 million to go through 2015 (and $90 million through '16, assuming he reaches his very makeable vesting requirements), and Papelbon, who has $33 million to go through '15 (and $46 million through '16 if his deal vests) won't spur the team to deal them.
Much more likely to be dealt if the Phillies ultimately decide to trade would be veteran positional stars Chase Utley and Michael Young, who are in the last year of their long-term deals. Young has just over $8 million left on his $16 million 2013 salary, and Utley has about $8 million to go on his $15 million salary.
It's possible it could be a repeat of last summer, when the Phillies held on to their coveted pitching and instead dealt outfielders Shane Victorino, who was in the last year of his deal, and Hunter Pence, who had two years to go. Even after the Dodgers claimed Lee and made a trade proposal, the Phillies hung on to him.
Young has been solid at third, hitting .287 with four home runs and 18 RBI, while Utley looked good earlier and recently came off the disabled list with a rib-cage injury. The longtime Phillie is hitting .263 with seven homers and 25 RBI.
The Royals are one team with a second-base issue that might consider either veteran infielder. Young could possibly fit the Yankees depending on the development of rookie David Adams and health of rehabbing Alex Rodriguez.
As for Lee and Papelbon, multiple teams will come calling no matter what the Phillies' message is. The Red Sox and Tigers, in particular, are expected to be in the market for a closer. Lee holds the right to reject trades to 21 of 29 teams, but he made clear in this space his main goal is to pitch for a winner, suggesting he's open to trade possibilities.
Many teams will be clamoring for Lee and Papelbon, who carry the potential to be the best starter and closer on the market. But it is quite clear at this point: The pricetag on either would be astronomical.