We’re now five weeks from the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and a lot of teams are going to have some decisions to make. None more so than the Philadelphia Phillies, who have what are easily the game’s two best trade chips, in starting pitcher Cliff Lee and closer Jonathan Papelbon. The question is, are the Phils ready to throw in the towel?
To place this decision in context, let’s backtrack to the aftermath of the 2010 season. The Phillies had surprised the baseball world when they won the bidding for Lee, with a five-year $125 million contract. Lee joined with Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay that was major league baseball’s “Big Three”, the Phils’ version of the LeBron James/Chris Bosh/Dwayne Wade trio that would get together in Miami just a few weeks later.
A BIG THREE ERA GONE BAD
But the Phils have been less like the Miami Heat and more like the Boston Celtics, if we want to use NBA equivalencies. Philadelphia has turned into a team that is obviously aging, obviously needing a youth movement, yet has just enough talent and does just enough to tease you into keeping the band together. They won 102 games in 2011, but were upset in the Division Series by the St. Louis Cardinals. Then the Phils endured a lousy four months last season and were at least persuaded to deal off Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. But a September surge put them in the playoff race for a brief while and created the illusion of respectability.
Philadelphia then went out and added Michael Young to play third base. Given that Young was no longer deemed worthy of playing the field when he was in Texas, this was not exactly a decision that involved getting younger. Still, the Phillies had talent and above all they still had the Big Three. I liked them enough in March to pick them to reach the playoffs as a wild-card.
The Phils are instead 36-40, 7 ½ games off the pace in the NL East and 8 ½ back in the wild-card race. Those are not insurmountable deficits if you believe in this team, and believe its worthwhile keeping the veterans on hand to take a shot at it. Are they worthy of this confidence? Let’s take a closer look.
A POPGUN OFFENSE
When this current era of the Phillies began, basically in 2005—they made a strong push for the wild-card that season—this team was built on its offensive firepower. Those days are long gone, replaced by a pitching-first roster, but even a staff with aces can’t compensate for an offense that’s this woeful. Philadelphia is 12th in the National League in runs scored in spite of playing in a hitter-friendly environment at Citizen’s Bank Park. And their ability to generate baserunners consistently is even worse.
If we use .340 as a baseline as a reasonably good on-base percentage—a figure that I consider generous—and you add up the number of Phillie regulars who exceed it, you get exactly one. That would be Young. To be fair, Ryan Howard is close, at .335, but up and down this lineup are players who are awful at the basic task of getting themselves to first base on a consistent basis.
Ben Revere and John Mayberry are each at .310 or lower, Chase Utley muddled along at .326 until he got hurt (the veteran second baseman returned this past Friday), and Jimmy Rollins is also at .326. Even Domonic Brown, whose power has been one of this team’s really good offensive stories, has a lousy .321 on-base percentage. Yesterday on Baseball Tonight’s extended show during the Texas-St. Louis rain delay, analyst and former manager Manny Acta spoke about players who hit home runs but lack the plate discipline necessary to get respectable OBPs. Acta didn’t name names—he was talking in the context of Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, who is the exact opposite—but Acta’s tone made it clear he looked at the high HR/low OBP players the same way TheSportsNotebook does—as sound and fury signifying very little.
To be fair to Brown, the last month has seen him become a genuinely more complete offensive player. His OBP is a spiffy .360 over the past thirty days, and he’s also hit 11 of his 19 home runs in that timeframe. Howard is also hot, with a stat line of .398 OBP and .582 slugging. Rollins’ last-month OBP is .357, although his track record of being a low-efficiency offensive player suggests this is just a mirage.
On balance, the Phils are not going to score runs and they’re going to have find ways to win games by scores like 4-3 and 3-2. They might want to trade notes with the NHL’s Boston Bruins, who have to do the same thing against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight if they want to avoid watching Chicago hoist the Stanley Cup in Boston Garden.
PROBLEMS WITH THE PITCHING
The offensive woes are disappointing, but not surprising. The pitching is different—it’s been terrible, symbolized by Roy Halladay first getting hit hard, then having to go to the disabled list until at least the end of August. Hamels has made 16 starts, has a woeful 2-11 record and with a 4.50 ERA, he can’t even blame the lack of support. Lee is the only one of the original Big Three still pitching well, with a 2.53 ERA in 15 starts, good for a 9-2 record. To continue our cross-sports analogies, Lee is LeBron, Halladay is Wade (the injured star) and Hamels is Bosh (no excuses for incompetence). Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t allow Lee to touch the ball on every possession the way hoops does.
Philadelphia has gotten some good work from Kyle Kendrick, a 3.56 ERA in 16 starts, and young Jonathan Petitbone has been pretty good with his 4.14 ERA in 12 trips to the post. The fact Petitbone is young and developing makes it even more promising. Tyler Cloyd, another young arm, made six starts and posted a 3.41 ERA. For reasons I’m not sure of, the organization sent him back to the minors earlier this month. When your rotation is struggling, and you need youth, why you ship out a young starter who pitches well is a mystery to me.
As troubled as the rotation has been—10th in the National League—the bullpen is even worse, as Phillie relievers have built the worst composite ERA in the NL. Papelbon has been pretty good—he’s blown three saves, but still has closed 14 and has a 2.20 ERA. Antonio Bastardo also looks good, and Justin De Frautus has obvious promise. But veteran Mike Adams was first so-so, with a 3.96 ERA and has hit the disabled list until early July.
The De Frautus-Bastardo to Papelbon combo might work in a short playoff series, but that’s not nearly enough depth to go for the long haul. The organization called up young Jake Diekman, who has looked good in his first five appearances, so we’ll see if that provides a jolt to this troubled relief corps.
IS THERE HOPE?
The answer to this question is yes. I still believe Hamels will turn things around, I think #5 starter John Lannan—a lot of DL time and a 5.84 ERA in his five starts—will pitch better now that he’s healthy. I expect manager Charlie Manuel to figure out a way to improve the bullpen, and if you get Adams back and Diekman panning out, this unit could go from being really bad, to looking pretty good. I further like the fact that Brown’s offensive game has been so much more complete, and I think Howard’s recent hot streak is a sign of good things to come. Philadelphia can at least narrow those 7 ½ game and 8 ½ game deficits they face in the NL East and wild-card.
But the bigger question is this—is it worth it? There are just way too many past-prime veterans to assume this team will stay healthy consistently. Even if you can get in the race by the end of August, can Halladay pitch well enough to get you over the top. Furthermore, is there a reason the Phils should sell out the future to win now?
The latter question is the big one. This is a fan base that has enjoyed a World Series title as recently as five years ago and another trip to the Fall Classic the year after that. There have been several playoff appearances. It’s not like they’re Baltimore, an hour down I-95, where fans are starving and the organization might need to take some chances.
My criteria would be this—if Philadelphia perceives a genuine chance to win the NL East, then it’s still worth a shot. But a wild-card, where all you are guaranteed is one game? Then I’d probably throw in the towel, call the era over and deal both Lee and Papelbon for what will be a motherlode of young talent, in addition to clearing significant salary off the books for future investment.
That’s the criteria, so what then is the decision? I’m not optimistic. I think the Phils missed their chance to take advantage of Washington’s early struggles and thinking Philly could both catch the Atlanta and still fight off Washington is a lot to ask. The front office doesn’t have to decide until mid-July at the earliest, and possibly later. But if I’m a Phillie fan, I’m shifting my mindset to rebuild mode.
AROUND THE NL EAST
Atlanta: The Braves’ lead is still six games, but Brandon Beachy had to return to the disabled list as quickly as he went on it. Would the Phils consider dealing Lee within the division? Would the Braves do the same with their prospects? Probably not, but there’s no doubt this two teams match each other as trade partners.
Washington: TheSportsNotebook featured Washington in MLB coverage a couple weeks ago, and at 37-38, the outlook hasn’t changed. This team has to hit better, but Bryce Harper starts his rehab this week and the pitching still suggests a big move is ahead.
NY Mets: At 30-42, this team is quietly one of the senior circuit’s bigger disappointments. The bullpen, closing only 56 percent of its save chances (the league average is two-thirds) is one of several culprits.
Miami: The Marlins are 25-50. Let’s just say the city of Miami is not going to replicate the feat of Los Angeles in 2002, the last city to claim both the NBA title and World Series crown in the same year.