By: Chris Larson
As Philadelphia Phillies President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail, said yesterday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies are more than just one trade away from being a World Series contender. Preciously, MacPhail told reporters, "It's hard for us to make the judgment now that we're one trade away from the World Series. We don't believe that. I don't believe that." MacPhail couldn't be more right in his assessment of the current Philadelphia Phillies 25-man roster and their bleak outlook moving ahead towards the postseason.
Heading into this season, many people around baseball thought that the Philadelphia Phillies were going to be a legitimate contender to win the National League East and potentially represent the National League in the World Series if everything went right. Well, once again we have been shown that you can make all of the predictions you want before the regular season starts and not every single one is going to be right. That's exactly what has happened in the case of the Phillies.
Through the first two months of this season, Philadelphia played the way that a true division contender should play posting a 30-24 record and were ahead in the National League East or, at least tied for the division lead, all the way through to June 11th. In fact, May was a bright point for the team as they had a 17-11 record with an overall winning percentage (.607) and scored more runs (138) than they allowed (120).
However, shortly after the month of May and right around the middle of June, the tide started to shift and the team hit a true downward spiral. Ever since that point, the Phillies have fallen further behind in the division and are currently a season high (7 and 1/2) games back of the first place Atlanta Braves. Philadelphia capped off the month of June with a 11-16 record, good enough for a (.407) winning percentage, and things already look bleak this month as the team currently has a 3-4 record.
Given the sudden downward spiral of the team around mid-June, it begs the question: what is going on with the Philadelphia Phillies and what exactly should they be doing between now and July 31st? Well, the answer is broad because there is more than one singular issue going on with this team right now and it may very well mean that the Phillies end up doing more of nothing than something significant before the final bell rings on July 31st.
One of the biggest needs that the Phillies have is in regard to their pitching staff particularly the starting rotation. To this point, the bullpen has struggled, but a lot of those struggles can be pinpointed to the fact that the Phillies have lost nearly every reliever, that opened the season on their 25-man roster, to some sort of injury at some point so far this season. Heading into play today, the Phillies pitching staff has a combined (4.63) ERA on the season over 809.0 innings of work with (416) earned runs and a cumulative Opponent Batting Average Against of (.265).
Thus far, their best starting pitcher has been, Aaron Nola, who finished last season brilliantly and was in the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award. However, things haven't been all rosy for Nola, as he has put up a (3.74) ERA over 110.2 innings pitched, with a career high walks-per-9 rate of (3.58) and a career worst FIP of (4.08). Going into this season, part of the reason why so many thought the Philadelphia Phillies would be successful was because of the 1-2 punch they had headlining their starting rotation in Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, but it hasn't played out that way so far.
In terms of the bullpen, the Phillies pen currently ranks 22nd in the league, tied with the San Diego Padres, with a (4.73) ERA over 300.2 innings of work. In that span, the bullpen has allowed (159) runs, (126) walks, and have an Opponent Batting Average Against of (.268). Furthermore, the Phillies bullpen has 10 blown saves on the year and has an average WHIP of (1.46), meaning that their relievers have allowed almost a run-and-a-half, every time they have come into a game to pitch. Definitely not the winning recipe for a championship caliber bullpen, but some of those issues have to be partially subsided by the fact that the pen experienced so many injuries to this point.
Beyond the entire pitching staff being a significant need for the Philadelphia Phillies, another need lies in centerfield. Originally, the team had centerfielder, Odubel Herrera, penciled in at the position on a full-time basis, but in June Herrera was placed on administrative leave and has since been suspended by baseball for taking part in an assault case. That hit immediately impacted centerfield for the Phillies and it didn't help that outfielder, Andrew McCutchen who the team signed to a three-year, $50 million dollar deal this past offseason, ended up hitting the Injured List on June 4th with a left ACL tear, which would later turn into him missing the entire season indefinitely.
Given the loss of both of those players, Philadelphia has relied on utility guy, Scott Kingery, in centerfield with Roman Quinn getting time at the position as well, but that hasn't done any good wonders for the Phillies overall defense at that position. According to FanGraphs, at the centerfield position, the Phillies have the fifth worst Defensive Runs Saved value (-6) in baseball, tied with their Pennsylvania counterpart Pittsburgh Pirates in that category, and an overall Ultimate Zone Rating of (-3.8) at that position, good enough for 24th in baseball.
Given those numbers, it's clear that the Philadelphia Phillies would have to target a significant upgrade between now and July 31st in centerfield. One of those upgrades could potentially be, Kevin Pillar of the San Francisco Giants who has helped the Giants record (4) Defensive Runs Saved at that position with an Ultimate Zone Rating of (1.6), but it likely won't be happening given the list of different needs that Philadelphia has right now on their current 25-man roster.
Another position where defense has been a significant issue for the Philadelphia Phillies has been at first base. Over the winter, one of the changes that the Phillies did was shifted former left fielder, Rhys Hoskins back to first base which was his natural position, but the defensive metrics haven't shown that to be a good move to this point. Among the rest of baseball at first base, the Phillies rank 28th with (-5) Defensive Runs Saved and have an Ultimate Zone Rating of (-2.0) at that position which translates to an overall Defensive rating of (-9.0).
Therefore, first base would be yet another area of need for the Phillies to address over the remaining 19 days leading up to the July 31st Trade Deadline. However, it's unlikely that the team would be able to find a substantial enough upgrade to make a difference down the stretch and improve those defensive metrics from where they sit right now.
Beyond those three needs, one other need that the Phillies arguably have is the need for a backup catcher. Of course, offseason acquisition, J.T. Realmuto is the primary guy behind the dish and has done a great job of embracing the Phillies pitching staff and the city itself, but he could use some sort of upgrade behind him. Currently, Philadelphia is relying on a combination of 27-year old, Andrew Knapp, and Rob Brantly who has 1 plate appearance on the year so far. While Knapp is capable of being a backup catcher, the Phillies would be better off trying to find a more defensive guy to tandem with Realmuto.
Among all of the catchers in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus, Andrew Knapp ranks 65th with an overall Framing Runs Rate of (-0.7) and an overall CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) valuation of (-0.005). Those aren't the type of defensive metrics or framing rates that the Philadelphia Phillies want to have if they are a contending team down the stretch and need to rest J.T. Realmuto to prepare for the postseason at any given time.
While there were big things expected for this year's Philadelphia Phillies big league squad, the season started off promising in April and May, but hit a downward spiral in the middle part of June and the team hasn't been able to shake off those struggles ever since. Not only was President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail, right yesterday in his overall assessment of the team right now, he was also right from another perspective.
MacPhail told reporters, "If you're a team like we are now - we're in the postseason if the season ended today, but what if we're in a one-game playoff?" That's a far cry from the expectations that the Philadelphia Phillies had heading into this season about being a true contender for the National League East and potentially representing the National League in the World Series and, a testament to exactly where the team stands right now, as it looks ahead to the July 31st Trade Deadline.
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