The Phillies lost two of three to the Baltimore Orioles over the weekend at Camden Yards, losing two games in extra innings, to fall to 29-33, eight games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East and 5 ½ games behind the San Francisco Giants for the second NL Wild Card. The Phillies had hoped for improved results after a 1-6 homestand, but instead they have lost eight of their last nine – hard to believe they were 28-25 and 2 ½ games out of first place on June 1 – and if they keep playing like this in the short term, the long term will not matter, even if Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and others return.
The Phillies can’t afford to bury themselves, and right now they are.
But before they open a three-game series in Minnesota on Tuesday, let’s answer a couple questions I’ve been getting:
1) Will the Phillies be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
There is a lot of gray area here.
First of all, the Phillies front office would like to see its entire team on the field before it draws any conclusions and makes any moves. That means getting Howard, Utley and Halladay back. That might not happen until the end of the month or early July – Utley should be close to beginning a rehab assignment – so those asking for trades to happen today should grab a Tony Luke’s roast pork and relax.
Best case scenario: Utley, Howard and Halladay come back, everybody plays well and the Phillies are back in the race. What could the Phillies use before the deadline? It’s a no-brainer: they need a reliever. Even if some of the injured Phillies relievers (Mike Stutes, David Herndon, Justin De Fratus) come back, they still need a reliable veteran right-hander.
Tough choices scenario: Utley, Howard and Halladay come back, but the Phillies continue to play mediocre (at best) and remain on the outskirts of the division and wild card standings. What do the Phillies do then? History could cloud their thinking. The Phillies were seven behind the Mets with 17 games to play in 2007 only to come back and win the NL East. The Cardinals were 10 ½ games out of the Wild Card race on Aug. 25 last season, but got hot, won the Wild Card, upset the Phillies in the NLDS and won the World Series. Say the Phillies are where they are now on July 31: 5 ½ games out of the 2nd Wild Card spot. Say Utley and Howard are back and seem to be coming into their own. Say Halladay just returned and is prepared to make his second start. Could the Phillies really sell? The most attractive pieces are Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. If the Phillies believe they will resign Hamels, it’s nearly impossible to trade him. If the Phillies believe they can contend, it would be difficult to trade Victorino because nobody other than John Mayberry Jr. can really play center field. And Pence figures to be in the Phillies’ plans at least another year. In that case, they still might try to add a bullpen piece, cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Worst-case scenario: The Phillies continue to spiral so far out of the race it doesn’t matter when Utley, Howard and Halladay return. Or when those three do return they don’t play well and the Phillies continue their slide. In that case, it makes sense to sell a key piece of two and retool for 2013.
2) Why is this team struggling so much?
It’s not just the offense.
Since April 23, the Phillies are third in the National League, averaging 4.74 runs per game. Only the Rockies (5.20) and Cardinals (5.00) have scored more. Yes, the Phillies have been abysmal scoring runners on third with less than two outs. Their 38 percent success rate is last in the big leagues with the big-league average 51 percent. But in that same stretch since April 23, the Phillies are second in the league hitting overall with runners in scoring position (.273). The bad at-bats are engrained in everybody’s memories, but it’s not as gruesome as it seems.
The pitching is more of an issue these days. Cliff Lee blew a 4-1 lead on Sunday in Baltimore, and it was not the first lead he has lost this season. Hamels could not hold 3-0 leads in his last two starts. Halladay has blown his share of leads, most memorably the 6-0 lead in Atlanta on May 2. The Phillies lean heavily on their pitching. It is the foundation to their success. Sometimes, the run support has not been there, but the pitching has not locked down leads like it has been in the past. That is costing them.
And, of course, the bullpen is a major problem.
Jonathan Papelbon’s $50 million contract has generated angst among some fans because it is a lot of money allocated to a pitcher that has thrown just 24 1/3 of the team’s 559 2/3 innings (4.3 percent) this season, especially as they have watched the team suffer seven walk-off losses on the road without Papelbon throwing a pitch in any of them. But imagine if the Phillies had gone with a cheaper, less reliable solution at closer? Papelbon is 16-for-16 in save opportunities. He blows three of those and the Phillies are 11 back of the Nationals.
The Phillies publicly said they liked the look of their bullpen in Spring Training. But Chad Qualls has been a disappointment and Jose Contreras blew out his elbow just when he started pitching better. Injuries to Stutes, Herndon and De Fratus have left Papelbon and Antonio Bastardo as the only two reliable, veteran arms in the pen. The rest of the pen includes Qualls and rookies Joe Savery, Jake Diekman, Michael Schwimer and B.J. Rosenberg. They’re getting experience, but the Phillies aren’t in the get-experience mode. They’re trying to win.
Maybe the Phillies begin to turn around their season against the Twins, who are a beatable team. Maybe the recent efforts from Qualls (two scoreless innings Sautrday) and Schwimer (three scoreless innings Sunday) trigger a turnaround for the bullpen.
Right now, the Phillies can only hope to start to play better and stay in the race until Howard, Utley and Halladay come back. And then everybody will know what kind of team the Phillies are.