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Philadelphia Phillies are in their prime, yet the window is closing on their chance to be a dynasty

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; D01

CLEARWATER, FLA. -- Jimmy Rollins is at an age, 31, and a point in his career, almost a decade in, where he has begun to think of such things as legacies and dynasties and the day when it all comes to an end. Because there will be such a day.

Back when the Philadelphia Phillies started this run, with a division title and a first-round playoff loss in 2007, their core was in its prime, and it was hungry, and the future seemed boundless. Two World Series appearances and one championship later, the greatest sort of legacy -- being known as a dynasty, or at least what qualifies as one in today's game -- is within the Phillies' grasp.

But the core is no longer so young, the future is no longer boundless and the window that keeps The End at bay is closing fast.

"If we could be considered a dynasty? It'd be nice to be remembered that way when you're done," Rollins said. "But I think if you focus on winning, and you win, that's how you become a dynasty.

"Today's game is different. Back in the day, you had to win for a long time. But there weren't all the trades and free agency -- so when you had group of guys, you had them until they played their careers out. Nowadays, it's hard to establish that because of the economics."

This season, the Phillies will attempt to become the first team since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals to win three consecutive National League pennants. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to what defines a dynasty in the modern game -- though surely it would require at least another World Series title, perhaps two, to go along with the one the Phillies earned in 2008 -- but it is something the Phillies acknowledge is on their minds.

"Sure, that's something we'd love to be considered," said center fielder Shane Victorino. "But it's going to take winning some more world championships, not just division titles and NLCS's. You get that label by winning World Series. Win a couple more World Series, and yeah, people may consider us that."

The Phillies are built on an extraordinary foundation -- with a homegrown core of players, including Rollins, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and left-hander Cole Hamels, and another wave of in-their-prime imports, including Victorino, right fielder Jayson Werth and closer Brad Lidge, who made mighty contributions to the 2008-09 pennant winners.

Equally impressively, almost every significant Phillies player -- including new ace Roy Halladay, who came via trade this winter and signed a deal through 2013 -- is locked into a long-term contract.

But it is when you examine the end dates of those contracts that you begin to understand how quickly the Phillies' window is closing. Werth's contract ends after this season. Rollins, Howard, Lidge, Hamels and left fielder Raúl Ibáñez all come up after 2011.

So there's your window, Jimmy.

"Yup, that's it -- this year and next, '10 and '11," Rollins said. "That's all we can be guaranteed, that these guys will be here for two more years. That's the game today. I think all of us would like to stay here. But it's all about economics now."

The closing of that window informed much of the Phillies' offseason. It's why they traded for Halladay, who represented both a means of maximizing the current window -- he is arguably the best starting pitcher in the game -- and a means of extending it, since he showed a willingness to sign a longer-term deal at a below-market cost.

It's why the Phillies turned around and traded ace lefty Cliff Lee when they otherwise did not need to -- he appeared less willing to sign long-term, and so he was sacrificed in the name of restocking the farm system.

It's why dynamic young outfielder Domonic Brown, already tabbed as Werth's successor in right field, was considered off-limits in the many trade talks this winter.

Perhaps indirectly, the imminent closing of the Phillies' window may also have given rise to the spring's most shocking rumor -- an ESPN.com report that the Phillies have had internal discussions about a Howard-for-Albert Pujols trade. Both the Phillies and the Cardinals quickly shot it down, but the notion of the Phillies making a desperate move to maximize their current window contains at least a germ of truth, even if the trade never comes close to happening.

"We have to worry about right now," Victorino said. "Would this organization like to keep us all here for the next five years? I guarantee you they would. But that's probably not going to happen. And you can't worry about it. You can't worry about what's going to happen two, three years down the road."

For Rollins, the Phillies' soul, a look into the future requires an acknowledgment that difficult choices await, for both himself and the franchise, with the outcome far from guaranteed:

Will the Phillies have any use for Rollins after 2011, seeing as how he will be 33 then? Would they expect him to take a pay cut and give up his position in order to stay? And would Rollins agree to those terms just to stay in Philadelphia and hope the window stays open?

"Do you want to stay in a place where you can win, but make a little less money?" Rollins asked rhetorically. "Or do [the Phillies] have enough money [to where they] can buy you out from any competitor anyway? It's a hard position, because -- look, I've got enough money. But how much do you undervalue yourself to stay here and be happy? Is that worth it -- to be here and be happy and not worry about the dollars?

"A lot of us have one ring, so that part is fine. So do I play for another ring, or do I need to get as much [money] as I can? Because once we're out of the game, the checks stop."

These are big questions, ones that can't be answered in March. But they are questions everyone around the Phillies must contemplate, as every day the window on the franchise's extraordinary run closes just a little bit more.

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