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Jimmy Rollins and Phillies face crossroads at trade deadline

As the trade deadline approaches, veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins reflects on a Phillies career that may come to a close sooner than he expected.

Jimmy Rollins has seen 13 non-waiver trade deadlines come and go, and he is by now well aware of the tenuous relationship between rumor and ultimate reality. "Every July 31st, people look at teams and say, in a dream situation, this is what’d happen," he said in the visitors’ clubhouse at New York’s Citi Field on Monday, just over 72 hours from this year’s deadline. "'A,' 'B,' 'C,' 'D,' they have all these scenarios. In reality, not even 'A' happens, most of the time."

For most of Rollins' 14-plus seasons as the shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies, the deadline has presented the club’s general manager — Ruben AmaroJr., since 2009 — with an opportunity to supplement what has become baseball’s steadiest nucleus of players for yet another playoff run. While the 35-year-old Rollins is the group’s senior fixture — he is now the longest-tenured member of any club in the National League and the third-longest in the majors after the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and the White Sox’ Paul Konerko — it has since 2006 also included four other players: Second baseman Chase Utley, first baseman Ryan Howard, starter Cole Hamels and catcher Carlos Ruiz. That quintet brought Philadelphia five straight NL East titles between 2007 and '11 and two World Series appearances, including a title in 2008.

Things are different now for the Phillies. Despite entering the season with the league’s third-highest payroll, at $180 million, they are in last place in their division and 10 1/2 games out in the wild-card race. By late Thursday afternoon, their longtime nucleus might be split, as part of what many would consider an overdue effort by Amaro to initiate a rebuilding process. But as of Monday, Rollins did not think it would happen. "Maybe if there were serious rumblings — 'This guy’s going there' — then you’d think something’s going on," he said. "But Ruben’s been quiet, so it’s business as usual. Of course, a lot of times this time of year, it’s when nobody hears anything about something that it actually ends up happening."

There was even the possibility that Monday represented the dawning of Rollins’ last week as a member of the Phillies. That seemed somewhat unlikely, for two reasons. The first is that last Friday, Rollins made his 1,100th plate appearance between 2013 and '14, thereby guaranteeing him an $11 million option for next season, making him less attractive to potential suitors. The other is that he, like Utley, possesses "10-and-5 rights," which permit any player who has 10 years of service time and the last five with the same team to veto any trade.

Rollins has generally maintained that he would exercise those rights, but on Monday, he admitted that if Amaro came to him with a potential deal, he would at least​ have to contemplate it. "I’d have to think about it," he said. "It doesn’t mean I’m going to think long. But I’m at least going to think about it. Thinking isn’t considering. It’s just thinking.”

Ryne Sandberg is in his first full season as the manager of the Phillies, and as such naturally has little sentimental attachment to the players who have for so long formed the club’s heart. "Am I expecting any [trades]?" he asked. "I don’t know one way or another. Just from what I hear, if there is, it would be very late in the process, sounds like.

"The thing is," Sandberg added later, "it’s all about 'might.' We’ll have to wait and see how everything pans out, and how it goes. I think some of our core players are productive, and going forward you want those types of players. So time will tell."

The current production of those players is indeed varied. Hamels is only 30, and with a record of 6-5 and an ERA of 2.55, he remains one of the National League’s premier pitchers. While he has a minimum of four years and $96 million remaining on the contract extension he signed in 2012, the Phillies have indicated that they would only part with him for an enormous return. 

The others might be had for a lesser price. Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, is struggling badly at the age of 34 — he is batting just .222 with 16 home runs and a .682 OPS — and the Phillies would likely be delighted with most any offer to take him and the $60 million he is owed after this season off their hands. Utley has had a productive season (he is batting .291 with nine homers and 54 RBIs), but he is 35 with balky knees and years removed from the days in which he was the game’s premier second baseman. Then there is Rollins, who remains an above-average defender and a run producing sparkplug (he has 14 homers, 47 RBIs and 19 steals), but who is also no longer the 30-30 player he was in his prime.

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"We’ve changed," Rollins said of the group of players of which he remains the leader. "We’ve become family men with kids. We learned what winning was, and we know what winning isn’t, together. We believed in what we had until it just didn’t happen. You never stop believing. It’s just, why isn’t it happening?

"I feel like I’m basically the same as a player," he added. "I find a way to be productive. Not as productive as I was. Why? I don’t know. I work just as hard. I’m smarter. It’s just, I don’t know.”

Deep down, of course he knows. It’s because even he and the rest of the Phillies’ once formidable nucleus are not impervious to the effects of time. "The max output just isn’t the same," he said. "You don’t have quite as much horsepower. Seeing young guys come up and the things they’re doing, you’re like, wow, sports is really for young people.

"Use tires as an example. When you first put a new set of tires on, they are absolutely great. Eventually, that tread is going to wear down. Doesn’t mean the tire isn’t any good. It just isn’t as dynamic, it can’t hug the corner like it used to. It can still go around the corner. You’re just going to have to slow down a little bit. Diminish is a harsh word, but it becomes less and less, and that’s the truth."

The larger truth is that the end is coming for the Phillies’ core, even if it doesn’t happen by dinnertime on Thursday. It came for Jamie Moyer, who pitched for the club between 2006 and '10, when he was 47, and played one final season, at 49, for the Rockies in '12. On Monday afternoon, Moyer, who is now part of the Phillies' broadcast team, sat in the visitors’ dugout at Citi Field watching the Mets take batting practice. "Just as quickly as it’s here, it’s gone," he said. "I can relate to it, back to Seattle" — for whom he pitched between 1996 and 2006. "Had a great run. Did we win a World Series? Never even got to the World Series. Then it was like all of a sudden, somebody waved a magic wand, and we got old. When you’re playing, you don’t see it. It just kind of runs together."

Rollins is right now in the midst of that process. "As long as you’re playing, you don’t reflect," he said. "You keep moving forward. Go get it. Don’t reflect. When I’m gone, when I retire and look at it all, I’ll probably think, 'Man, that’s a pretty cool little thing we did there in Philly.' But you can’t live in the past when you’re in the present."

Then, briefly, he reflected. "I’ve seen players leave, talked to players when they left, but I haven’t experienced that," he said. The Phillies are the only organization for which he’s played since they drafted him in the second round out of California’s Encinal High in June 1996, 18 summers ago. "To not be in Philadelphia? To not wear red and white? It’s fun to put on those colors. My red cleats, they look good."

There is a slim chance that Rollins will be wearing different colors for the first time in his professional career after Thursday. Still, he knows that he and his longtime teammates have already taken many more steps in their red cleats then they have remaining in front of them.