Jul 152010

July 15 By Phil Sheridan Inquirer Sports Columnist

On the day major-league teams reassembled in the cities where they will resume their seasons, the Atlanta Braves made a bold statement that should resonate with the Phillies and their fans.The Braves, back atop the division they owned for a decade, plan to stay there.

In Atlanta, Wednesday’s shortstop swap was met with mixed emotions. Yunel Escobar was considered the Braves’ best player last summer. At 27, he still has a high upside, his career mostly ahead of him. So it was no small risk for general manager Frank Wren to ship Escobar to Toronto for 33-year-old Alex Gonzalez.Gonzalez has an uncharacteristically high 17 home runs already this season. Escobar had an absurd and abnormal zero. Gonzalez has driven in 50 runs playing in the pressure-free atmosphere of Toronto. Escobar has driven in just 19 runs. On top of that, he has angered some fans by failing to hustle or play the right way on more than one occasion.

Still, Escobar is a superior defensive player, he’s younger and he could well fulfill his potential elsewhere. So this deal is clearly all about sacrificing for the long term in order to maximize the Braves’ chances to hang on to their division lead. It is the classic win-now move.

It is, in other words, the kind of move the Phillies have made over the last few, division-winning seasons.

It is, in other words, a shot across the bow of Ruben Amaro Jr., Wren’s counterpart in Philadelphia. Amaro was surely looking for ways to improve his own team, but Atlanta’s trade raises both the bar and the temperature. The bar, because the Braves will now be that much more difficult to surpass; the temperature, because Phillies fans accustomed to bold moves will be that much more demanding now that someone in the division has fired the first shot.

First, throw out the notion that Amaro might approach the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline as anything but a buyer. He must treat the Phillies as a postseason-bound team. Nothing else would or should be acceptable to the fans who overflow Citizens Bank Park for every game. Injuries have been a major problem this year, but it’s Amaro’s job to solve problems, not shrug and write off the season.

Wren was able to procure a solid, professional infielder with some pop in his bat. That won’t be lost on Phillies fans watching Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro play every night because of injuries to Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco.

But the main reason Amaro must treat the Phillies as contenders is that they are. This team is perfectly capable of rallying to win the division again – not least because the Braves are perfectly capable of a second-half decline. They are in first place on merit, to be sure, but they also rely on 38-year-olds at third base (Chipper Jones) and at closer (Billy Wagner). And Wagner, who was part of two epic collapses with the Mets, is pitching with a surgically rebuilt left elbow.

If the Phillies keep pressure on the Braves, anything can happen. They learned that by cashing in on those Mets free falls in 2007 and 2009.

That’s why Amaro should consider moving Jayson Werth only if he can get two or more upgrades in return – a starter and reliever, for example, or an everyday infielder plus a pitcher. Otherwise, it would be too risky to meddle further with the chemistry in both the lineup and the clubhouse.

It would be impossible to move Raul Ibanez’s contract, but that doesn’t mean the Phillies have no alternatives in the outfield. If they decide it is time to bring up top prospect Domonic Brown, for his own development or to give the lineup a spark or both, Charlie Manuel can find him at-bats.

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