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Poor drafts, big contracts contribute to end of dominant run for Phillies

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PHILADELPHIA - An old, familiar chant is back after a long absence at the Philadelphia Phillies' cozy ballpark. It goes like this: "E-A-G-L-E-S!"

The Phillies are last in the NL East and headed toward their second straight losing season and third in a row missing the post-season. So, fans are turning their attention to the football team.

Cheering for the Eagles during a Phillies' game is the ultimate sign of apathy, a flashback to the way it used to be around here before the baseball team won over the city.

Less than three years removed from a dominant run that featured five straight NL East titles, two pennants and one World Series championship, the Phillies barely resemble the team that captured the hearts of a sports-crazed town.

Attendance is down, of course. After seven straight seasons of drawing at least three million fans, the Phillies are on pace for a half-million drop this year. They had a consecutive sellout streak of 257 games — the third-longest in MLB history — between July 7, 2009 and Aug. 6, 2012. Now, empty, blue seats fill the stands.

Several of the star players who led the most successful period in franchise history are still here — Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz. They're getting paid for past performances and each — except Hamels — is well past his prime. That's part of the reason why the Phillies are in this mess.

Thanks to the big contracts general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. gave the stars of '08 and money spent on Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd, they have the highest payroll ($184 million) in club history and third-highest in the majors.

All that produced a 42-53 record before the All-Star break, putting the Phillies 10 games behind Washington and Atlanta. With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching on July 31, major changes are expected. The Phillies twice flirted with inching their way into the playoff race by winning five straight games only to fall further back in the standings.

"Regardless of how we play, they're still going to make their decisions for the future of the team," Rollins said. "I remember back in '05, '06 we started making trades and we started winning. It's like, you take this guy out and you say we're not going to compete this year but we have the last say in that, and hopefully that is something that's going to happen this year."

Rollins and teammates are clinging to hope they can turn things around. They're ballplayers so they have to think like that. Reality says it's time for the Phillies to rebuild.

Declining veterans are only part of the problem. Young players haven't stepped up and a dearth of talent in the minors leaves little hope for a quick turnaround.

Domonic Brown was a heralded prospect who finally lived up to expectations last year when he was an All-Star in his first full season as a starter. But he's batting just .227 with six homers and 46 RBIs this year and running out of chances.

Ben Revere doesn't appear to be the answer in centre fielder of the future. He's hitting .295, but has a .316 on-base percentage and .670 OPS and is poor defensively.

Third baseman Cody Asche (.254, six homers, 29 RBIs) still has potential to be a middle-of-the-order hitter. But the Phillies need more young hitters to show promise.

Third baseman/first baseman Maikel Franco is the organization's best position player. However, he's only hitting .228 in his first season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Two other top prospects — shortstop J.P. Crawford and centre fielder Roman Quinn — are only in Single-A Clearwater.

When the Phillies beat Tampa Bay in the 2008 World Series, five regulars and the two top starting pitchers were homegrown talent. Four of them — Utley, Hamels, Pat Burrell and Brett Myers — were first-round picks.

Since Hamels was selected 17th in 2002, only two of Philadelphia's first-round choices even appeared in a game for the Phillies and both are long gone. Only six of the 13 picks remain in the organization. Lefty Jesse Biddle, the most-prized of the bunch, has had a disappointing season in Double-A and was recently shut down to get a mental break.

Though signs point toward a massive overhaul, Amaro is hoping for a quicker fix.

"I can't blow this team up for five years and expect us to be (bad) for the next five or six years," Amaro said recently. "I don't think that's the right way to go about it for our fans, our franchise, our organization. I think we owe it to a lot of people, if we do have to go into a transition, it's going to be a shorter one than that."

"There's ways to do it. You have to make shrewd moves, make intelligent moves and try to continue to do that so that the drop-off isn't long term. So if we have to go a step backward for a year or two to move forward, then that's what we'll try to do."

At least fans can look forward to training camp and their beloved Eagles.

___

Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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