I would be lying to myself if I said there weren’t points of this Phillies season where I threw my arms up in the air and exclaimed, ‘blow it up’ or ‘I give up’ or ‘why even bother’, usually with a few words sprinkled in that might get me in trouble on this site. To say that this year’s team, on paper, is a flawed team would be a massive understatement and, with the exception of a few pockets of sustained success, their up-and-down performance has reinforced that assessment. Most of the things that ‘experts’ said that needed to happen for the Phillies to make a run at a playoff spot have avoided them in a big way. Ryan Howard, whose resurgence to his mid to late 2000s form had to be present in the middle of the lineup, has struggled mightily when on the field, and is currently recovering from meniscus surgery for at least another month. Cole Hamels, who needed to perform like a pitcher getting paid nearly $25 million, has struggled with command and consistency until recently, and sports an abysmal 4-11 record to back it up. Jonathan Papelbon, whose 4-year/$50 million contract signed prior to last season was supposed to ensure stability on the back-end, has seen his velocity dip drastically and has become just as unnerving as the rest of the patchwork bullpen. Speaking of bullpen, the prized piece of the team’s 2012 offseason free agency class, world-class set-up man Mike Adams, who the team paid $12 million over two years to serve as the bridge to Papelbon, was mediocre at best before being sidelined with a season-ending injury of his own. Realistically, with the exception of Domonic Brown, Cliff Lee, and Chase Utley (when healthy), everyone who ‘had to perform’ for the team to win has been a disappointment.
And yet here we are, 96 games in to the season. 96 games of scratching, clawing, bumbling, and recovering, and the Phillies are officially in the hunt. Sitting at 48-48 on the season, the team currently trails the Atlanta Braves by 6.5 games (one half-game more than the second place Washington Nationals) and are 5.5 games back of the second wild card spot representing the last chance to make the playoffs for non-division winners. It is arguable that, at 48-48 at the break, the Phillies season to date could be considered a disappointment. With the teams who were predicted to compete for the division title constructed the way they are and the teams sitting ahead of them in the wild card race boasting talented rosters as well, being .500 at this point of the season probably would not have been considered being ‘in contention’. However, with both the Braves and the Nationals having serious flaws exposed during the first half of the season, combined with the Phillies impressive 24-14 record against their division, there is reason to be hopeful for the team’s playoff prospects moving forward.
Ben Revere’s broken ankle/foot threw an unexpected twist into the Phillies’ personnel situation leading up to the trade deadline. While Revere’s lack of power and weak throwing arm certainly left something to be desired out of the center field position, there is no arguing with the fact that, for the past month or so (when the Phillies have been winning) Revere has been the team’s best, most consistent player, and a spark plug that this lineup has lacked the past few seasons. But, this team has been dealing with injuries all season and, looking forward, it is best to assume that this team won’t let the loss of their plucky lead-off man throw them off-kilter by too great a margin.
For the first time in a while, I feel that much-scrutinized general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is in as unenviable a situation as one can ask for. While the team has looked better as of late and beaten some very good teams, they still sit at just .500 and his most valuable trade chips are a big reason why the team is even in the mix. Whether its Chase Utley, Michael Young, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, or Jonathan Papelbon, I cannot see a way that this team is not several games below their current standing without the services of any of them. Each cog that has been rumored as part of a trade has contributed to the team’s current run of success and it would be difficult, in some situations more than others, to replace them should Amaro Jr. decide to make a deal.
One thing that Amaro Jr. does have working for him is the fact that, by the time the deadline rolls around, the team should know whether or not they are contenders or pretenders. Following a 3-game set with the Mets, who the Phillies have played pretty well this year going 6-3 against them in the first half, the team faces a proverbial murders’ row of teams leading to the July 31st deadline. 9 of the 11 games are on the road and, after their series with the Mets, the Phils will face division leaders in the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers before returning home to face the always-dangerous defending champion San Francisco Giants to start a 9-game home stand. While it is tough to speculate, I would imagine if the team manages to hover around one or two games above .500, Amaro Jr. will see it as a promising sign and pull the trigger on a trade to improve the team’s bullpen and outfield.
All speculation aside, the Phillies do have some promising developments to stand by as they try to refute the doubters and return to the playoffs. For one, the starting pitching, from one through five, has been better than anyone could have expected. Despite injuries to Roy Halladay and a stint on the disabled list for John Lannan, the starting rotation has been solid, even if not spectacular. They lead the majors in quality starts at 62 and if Cole Hamels was even half as good as he was last year, would probably be garnering more notoriety. At 5-3 with a sub-4.00 ERA, Jonathan Pettibone has been a pleasant surprise for the team, as he continues to find ways to keep dangerous lineups at bay, despite not having dominant stuff. John Lannan has provided a stabilizing presence at the back-end of the rotation, most notably in his last couple of starts, where the wily Lannan has pitched eight innings in each, giving much-needed relief to the bullpen. There is not much to say about Cliff Lee that hasn’t already been said. He is the unquestioned ace of the staff and, as long as he doesn’t serve up the type of meatballs he did in his recent loss to the Nationals where he surrendered four home runs, one can expect the lefty to remain in the Cy Young conversation until year’s end.
Despite the rotation pitching rather well and certainly beyond expectations, Hamels remains the key in the equation. After dropping three of his first five starts of the season (the team lost all five) and posting a 4.58 ERA through the month of June, Hamels had all but exhausted all the good will gained from his ’08 World Series performance and fans were questioning why the team had paid a player who seemed to be mailing it in during some of his starts. When Hamels had a start pushed back to under go ‘mental rest’ many were fearing the worst with the team’s home-grown ace. While it is a small sample size, it appears to this point that the rest may have been just what the doctor ordered. In his three July starts, Hamels has been spectacular, if not dominant. Were it not for a Papelbon blown save, Hamels would have surpassed his wins mark from the previous three months in three starts. He has lowered his ERA over fifty points to 4.05 and has registered a nifty 19-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Hamels has also improved his ability to take starts deeper into games, pitching a combined 23.0 innings in his three July starts. Hamels is at his best when he is able to locate his fastball, mix in an occasional curveball, and utilize his lethal change-up as a strikeout pitch. When Hamels is struggling, he depends on his change-up to the point where hitters expect it and, when they get the timing down, unleash on the slower paced pitch. It is important for Hamels to get his win-loss record out of his head at this point and realize that he has another chance to represent a key, even essential cog to the organization that he has spent his entire career with. The last three starts, wins over Washington and Pittsburgh included, have shown that the talent is still there physically. With Hamels, as long as he maintains his mental fortitude over the remaining schedule, the sky is the limit and when he is pitching well, he has the capability to go toe-to-toe with any starter in the league.
Despite the pitching staff, for the most part, outperforming expectations; the lineup has left something to be desired. Dominc Brown has finally started to meet the expectations that had been placed on him seemingly forever ago. Like any power hitter, Brown will go through his home run droughts and even look foolish striking out from time to time (like last night’s All-Star Game). However, should brown continue on his pace and remain batting somewhere in the .275-.290 range and finish with 35-40 home runs to go with 110-120 RBIs, I would say that the team would be confident in penciling in Brown as a starting outfielder for the next seven or more years.
After Brown, and with Revere on the shelf, the lineup is full of question marks. The production drop-off taking place with both Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz is staggering. While both still field their position very well, they have become vacuums in the lineup and have gone from players depended on to drive runs in, to empty at-bats that kill rallies and demoralize the team. At four and zero home runs respectively, Rollins and Ruiz represent the lower power output of the regular starting lineup with the exception of Ben Revere. Last year, the two stalwarts in the lineup combined for 39 home runs and kept the team in contention until the bitter end. While one can acknowledge the fact that both players are one year older and have shown signs of regression, to have combined for four home runs this season makes the prospect of making a serious run at the playoffs much more difficult. While both players have been fan-favorites in the area for the better part of the decade, Ruiz’s .143 average with runners in scoring position and Rollins’ .224 average in the seventh inning or late make it much easier to forget the good times.
On a more positive note, despite the small sample size, it appears as if Darin Ruf has what it takes to be a major-league player. Ruf’s promotion to the big-league squad had been stalled this season, as the organization attempted to build the young man’s comfort level in one of the outfield spots. When it was announced that Ryan Howard was going to miss substantial time, Ruf got the call to fill in at Howard’s first base position and finally got his shot to play consistently at the major league level. Ruf is, for lack of a better term, rough around the edges in most aspects of the game. He seems to ride his confidence in every at-bat and, when things are going bad, he puts himself in difficult situations as a hitter and tends to look foolish while doing it. He does not have Howard’s ability to pick balls out of the dirt on short-hop throws from the rest of the infield and does not possess the Big Piece’s ability to handle wild throws with poise. Finally, and mostly the result of lack of exposure to the major leagues, Ruf just does not carry the same sort of presence that Howard does and, despite his best attempt, does not yet alter opposing team’s approaches to the lineup the way Howard used to before his injuries.
In lieu of Ruf’s shortcomings in his brief stint in the starting lineup to this point, I can say with 100% certainty that I would rather have him in there than the 2013 version of Ryan Howard. While some may have scoffed at the idea of Ruf as a legitimate, feared power hitter, riding the coattails of his memorable 2012 minor-league campaign, the big righty has already demonstrated that his power is ready for the big-league level and he has already hit two home runs, both in relatively clutch situations, in his nine games on the senior circuit. Ruf also has shown that he is not a one-trick pony at the plate. He hit safely in his first seven games and has walked five times. Even with his 14 strikeouts to date, Ruf has posted a .441 on-base percentage that makes him a handful at the plate in a big spot. With his right-handed bat serving as a legitimate power option behind Dom Brown in the lineup, the team will not have to rely so much on Delmon Young, should they decide to make a move to bolster their outfield. The key for Ruf will be learning how to adjust once pitchers figure out his weaknesses. Manager Charlie Manuel has already praised Ruf’s aptitude as a hitter and feels as if the young man’s bat is already advanced enough to contribute on a daily basis. Even if Ruf does continue to strikeout, which is often the case for power hitters, it will be important for him to minimize his weak zones and make pitchers work for their punchouts. More often than not, a home run is the result of a pitcher making a mistake. The more free-wheeling power hitters tend to swing and miss more because it is their job to capitalize on mistakes. Ruf has shown he can capitalize on mistakes, he must now show that he can remain a step ahead of the pitcher and put himself in a position where, even if the pitcher feels as if he threw a good pitch, Ruf can turn it into a mistake.
Having already mentioned the areas of Ruf’s defensive game that may need work, he is no slouch at first base and has already demonstrated a skill-set that exceeds Howard’s in certain areas. The most noticeable facet of Ruf on defense is his ability to make the throw to second base on a force out. Statisticians have probably lost count of all the double-plays that the Phillies have missed out on as a result of Howard either air-mailing a ball into the outfield trying to make the force-out, or showing reluctance to making the throw and getting the sure out at first. Ruf has shown confidence and aggression in his throwing around the diamond and has given his pitcher’s one less thing to worry about. Ruf, even with his hulking frame, also has flashed some athleticism on some plays that the now-hobbled Howard may have come up short on. He pursues balls in foul ground with urgency and shows confidence in his decisions when he is able to field a play that is not always the case with young fielders. I would argue that, should Ruf continue to play at some level of his current clip, the team would have a difficult time sending him down and would work to find another place for him to contribute on the roster.
While there are other positions that may decide a game here or there for the Phillies, there is no point of contention with this team that will ultimately decide their fate over the next 66 games than the bullpen. Even with the organization making large financial commitments to the bullpen over the past two years, specifically with Mike Adams and Papelbon, the bumbling group has held down its distinction as the Achilles heel of the team dating back to last season. While the past few weeks have showcased some of the brighter moments for the Phils’ stable of young, inconsistent arms, teams making serious runs at the postseason must have confidence in the men who pitch in the biggest spots. While Hamels, Lee, Kendrick, and even Lannan have shown the capability to pitch beyond the seventh inning, it is not logical for a team to depend on getting seven or eight innings out of their starter night in and night out. In a pennant race, every at-bat becomes more heated than the next, and the high pressure and relentless at bats have a tendency to wear on starting pitchers, no matter how talented they may be. Their bullpen ERA currently sits at 4.43, which is good for second-worst in the league. The only way a team with a pitching staff with 62 quality starts could be sitting in the position they are in, at 48-48, is if they had a bullpen as poor as Philadelphia’s has been. Despite the welcome development of the organization bringing up multiple, hard-throwing arms to the big squad, the moment any of them show any sort of promise in a big situation, they seem to follow it up with a stumble. On one hand, the only way to develop solid bullpen arms from the minor league system is to have them pitch in the types of situations they will be depended on. On the other hand, how many games does a team have to throw away hoping that their stable of live arms becomes the ‘Bridge to Lidge’? If the Phillies are to be taken seriously as a contender down the stretch, they must find, even if not a proven set-up guy like Adams was supposed to be, an adequate, battle-tested bullpen arm that can pitch in multiple situations when the team is in a pinch. There are few things over the course of a baseball game that can swing the balance of competition more than a contested spot with a reliever on the mound. More often than not it comes down to one or two outs, and the teams that are able to record those outs, not only demoralize the competition, but build momentum of their own. Until the Phillies can start doing that night-in and night-out, it is hard to imagine them staying in the race down the stretch.
Realistically speaking, at the beginning of the season, I did not look at the Phillies as a team that, as presently constructed as they were, could compete for a division title. Logical thinking was that, if the team could tread water and stay in the thick of things long enough, their penchant for improving at the trade deadline combined with their reputation as a second-half team could make up the recipe for a playoff team. While the roster as it stands now is drastically different from the one at the beginning of the season, the Phils find themselves in a familiar position. Within striking distance of an underachieving (or in this case two) division leader that seemed uninterested in grabbing the division by the horns. As nice as it is to say, “What if?” and imagine all the scenarios the Phillies could have taken advantage of to improve their position in the division, the same could be said for both the Nationals and the Braves. Considering the level of talent comprising both of those rosters, I am more than happy with where the team stands to date in relation to the rest of the NL East.
The Revere injury really is an interesting hurdle to see the team approach. While his on-the-field performance was as good as anyone on the team, or even in the league, the last few weeks, Revere’s unique personality is the type that always seems to be present in the clubhouse of a World Series winner. Much like the role Shane Victorino served so well for the Phillies, and now seems to be serving for the drastically improved Red Sox, Revere’s endless optimism and positive approach to the game and the grind of the season is invaluable for a major league team. There will undoubtedly be games that the Phillies lose over the course of the next few months that will feel like someone twisting a dagger into the side of their chances. While fans and analysts cringe knowing the opportunity missed for the team, players like Revere have the ability to help the team forget what just happened and return to the even keel knowing that it was just one game. There are enough veterans on the roster, and the emergence of Kevin Frandsen as a hometown favorite should be able to replace some of the playfulness in the clubhouse, to avoid going into a complete tailspin. One can only hope that the team is able to parlay some of Revere’s antics into their team mentality and sustain his energy and optimism until he returns.
It is quite possible that, in a matter of two weeks, we could be singing a completely different tune regarding this Phillies team. A winning road trip over multiple contenders could continue the resurgence that has taken place at Citizen’s Bank Park and restore the home-field advantage that saw multiple pennant runs over the course of a few years. Or a losing road trip could re-awaken the sentiments that Ruben Amaro Jr. does not know what he is doing and that the only constant over all these years, Charlie Manuel, may have finally lost his magic. The Phillies have had as many tough breaks as any other team in the majors this season. It really is a struggle to think of all the games the team could have won had they played remotely like the team that was winning 102 games and waltzing to the playoffs. Yet, when one takes a step back, it’s worth realizing that even with all the bad breaks, misfortune, injuries, disappointments, and frustration, the Philadelphia Phillies are playing meaningful baseball after the All-Star break. If the correct buttons are pressed and a few breaks go the team’s way, I trust the mental fortitude and backbone of this team more than either of the two ahead of them in the division and don’t see any reason that this group can’t give the city one more Red October to stick it to all of those who advised to ‘blow it up!’. While one cannot put a quantity on a team’s ability to rise up when faced with adversity, I have seen Charlie Manuel-led Phillies teams dig themselves out of deeper depths than this before and no squad knows how to turn a small break in their direction into a run of excellence like they have since 2007 (yes, including last year). Who knows? maybe a rejuvenated Roy Halladay could be that break we’re looking for. Only time will tell.