Recent series with Braves highlights biggest concerns surrounding Phillies

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 16: Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies sits in the dugout during the game against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on June 16, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 16: Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies sits in the dugout during the game against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on June 16, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Phillies lost a critical series against the Atlanta Braves over the weekend, where many of the team’s biggest problems were highlighted in brutal fashion.

It’s wasn’t so long ago that fans of the Philadelphia Phillies were talking about possibly having the best lineup in the National League, and one of the very best in all of Major League Baseball.

The offseason signings by GM Matt Klentak, coupled with the talent the team already possessed in players like Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Scott Kingery, and Odubel Herrera, appeared to have turned the Phillies into a legitimate contender for a pennant.

The first two weeks were a glorious amalgam of those moves paying immediate dividends after witnessing Maikel Franco launching himself into immediate conversations for an All-Star nod.

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We saw Bryce Harper hit a monstrous home run during a series win against his former team. We witnessed a lineup that sliced through starting pitching with ease. There were questions of how opposing teams would even be able to plan for such a dangerous lineup.

Fast forward to June, and most of the joy and elation that fans felt early on has evaporated, replaced by frustration, confusion, and concern after losing two out of three to a surging Braves team that has seemingly taken over the Phillies for the mantle of second best team in the NL.

Franco’s days as a member of the Phillies appear to finally be numbered. It’s fair to wonder how much more faith the organization has in him after completely falling off a cliff for a second-straight season.

Unfortunately, Franco is completely unreliable right now. Harper is hitting .250, and the dangerous lineup that the Phillies were supposed to have has been confoundingly easy to solve for opposing pitchers.

Let’s be clear, the Phillies are still a good team on paper. They are 37-32 and sit in the second spot in the Wild Card standings, which isn’t bad at all.

But compared to where they were a mere two weeks ago when they were 11 games over .500 along with the overall expectations of the team coming into the season, there are legitimate reasons for concern with this Phillies squad.

Friday’s game against the Braves was perhaps the worst loss of the season, and the fact that it feels like there are at least four or five other games we could give this title to highlights one of the team’s biggest problems.

The Phillies were starching the Braves 7-1 at one points on the back of a terrific outing by Pivetta. But at the slightest hint of trouble in the seventh inning, Gabe Kapler elected to remove Pivetta from the game and go to the bullpen.

The Braves did what the Braves have been doing for weeks by walking off Hector Neris in the ninth inning for a dramatic win for Atlanta, and a stunning loss for the Phillies.

Things got a little better on Saturday with the offense picking up Nola, who just hasn’t been the same guy he was a year ago. The Phillies were in command 4-1 when Nola gave up a monstrous three-run home run to Josh Donaldson.

Luckily, Cesar Hernandez homered to give the Phillies a one-run lead and Neris shut things down in the ninth inning, making up for his blown save the previous night.

But then Sunday happened. A 15-1 drubbing where the Phillies used an “opener” and scored only one run. It was an unmitigated disaster, trotting out Vince Velazquez, Cole Irvin, and Jerad Eickhoff, all of whom the Braves simply ate for breakfast.

Philadelphia cannot afford to go this route again, as none of these pitchers have proven they belong in any role on this team right now given their recent outings.

And there will be plenty more games against the Braves, who it appears have the de facto best lineup in the division. The Phillies probably should have fared better in this series, but it’s hard to deny the talent the Braves possess.

Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Donaldson form an extremely frightening top five when firing on all cylinders. They were simply too much for the Phillies to handle at times this weekend.

What’s most concerning is that it seemed like all of the Phillies biggest problems were showcased in three of the most important games of the season this weekend.

They can’t hit for power. They don’t have enough good starting pitching. The bullpen is depleted, and there aren’t enough guys you can trust. And the guys who should be doing the heavy lifting on offense, guys like Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and Jean Segura, just aren’t doing enough.

That’s more so an indictment of Harper and Hoskins than it is of Segura, who’s been a pretty great addition to the lineup outside of an injury and a mild slump in June.

The Phillies are in the bottom third in the league for home runs batted, while they have given up the most home runs in the NL to opposing offenses. That is a startling trend, perhaps more in terms of the hitting numbers, considering the Phillies paid such a high Bryce to bring in Harper and J.T. Realmuto, two very strong hitters.

It was thought that the top five of McCutchen, Segura, Harper, Hoskins, and Realmuto would be an absolute nightmare on offense. It just hasn’t happened.

Harper is hitting .247. His OPS is down to .820, and he’s knocked in 12 home runs. He hasn’t quite delivered the season fans have been hoping for. Hoskins, meanwhile, is in the midst of another one of his usual offensive slumps, but he’s still batting .271 with a .917 OPS and 15 home runs.

Realmuto has been pretty darn good for the Phillies so far, batting .277 with a .785 OPS. It’s hard to imagine where the team would be without him.

This Phillies team, at least offensively, should be better. There’s no question. It feels like the offense just hasn’t gelled or come together all at the same time. We’ve seen certain guys get hot, while others go ice cold. The coaching staff needs to figure out how to get everyone going at the same time.

It hasn’t helped that the team lost Andrew McCutchen for the season, or that Herrera is facing possible legal action following a domestic abuse charge, or that the Phillies just have no options off the bench. They current have Nick Williams, Sean Rodriguez, Andrew Knapp, and Brad Miller. That’s not ideal for a supposed contender.

But one bright spot has been Kingery, who’s just mashing the baseball right now. Kingery was largely criticized last season for being ineffective at the plate at and shortstop, a position he’s not been used to playing.

Believe it or not, Kingery has been one of the team’s best hitters since coming back from an early hamstring injury.

The other major concern for the Phillies is pitching. The team was supposed to have a strong top of the rotation, with some question marks at the back end. Those question marks have been extended to pretty much everyone in the rotation aside from Zach Eflin, who strangely enough has been the Phillies best pitcher on the season with a 2.50 ERA.

Thus far, the club has seen Pivetta demoted and brought back up, Arietta reverting back to his hard hit ways of last year, Velazquez continuing to not live up to his talent level, and Nola battling some unknown control issues.

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Eickhoff has also given up 18 home runs in his last 28 innings. He’s since been removed from the rotation. Collectively, the Phillies have a team ERA of 4.5, which is eighth in the NL. It’s not great, but also it’s not terrible.

The Phillies have a lot to figure out over the next few weeks, during which they’ll play 20+ more games against NL east competition. The race for the division could very well come down to what happens in these games.

What’s clear is that the Phillies need their best players to get hot and stay hot. The offense needs to gel, and the pitching staff needs to go deeper into games. Until the bullpen is healthy again, there just aren’t enough proven relievers to get the team through some of the more dangerous lineups in the division.

They need to address the problem of the fifth starting rotation spot immediately, either by bringing up someone from AAA or by acquiring a player via trade. The Phillies can ill afford to trot out Velazquez or Irvin again, or by continuing with the opener. It’s not going to work.

The guys that are here have to get it done. Klentak will likely make some moves,  but outside of getting another starting pitcher, there’s not much out there that makes sense for the Phillies.

For now, it’s up to the big guns of the Phillies to prevent the recent slide from turning into an avalanche, or this season is going to slip away from them real fast.