On Opening Day, I laid out the blueprint the Phillies would need to follow in order to secure one of the five playoff spots in the National League. There were five requirements:
1) Roy Halladay makes 32 starts.
2) Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels stay off the disabled list
3) Domonic Brown and Michael Young both come close to reaching their potential.
4) Delmon Young plays like he did in 2010
5) The seventh-inning relievers pitch a lot like the guy in the eighth.
Brown, Hamels and Lee have held up their ends of the bargain, so credit the Phillies with one-and-a-half. But Halladay is on the disabled list, Michael Young has a .357 slugging percentage despite spending most of the year batting third or fifth, Delmon Young has 30 strikeouts and six home runs in 116 at bats with a .224/.281/.422 line, and Jeremy Horst, Chad Durbin, Raul Valdes and Phillippe Aumont have been huge disappointments (meanwhile, Mike Adams has looked less-than-reliable for much of the last month and has allowed five home runs in 21 1/3 innings on the season).
The Phillies are 31-34, but the headline is that they are fortunate to even be there (their Pythagorean W-L record is 28-37, for those who care about such things). That's because the biggest thing to go wrong -- injuries to Halladay and Lannan and some early-season struggled by Hamels -- has yet to really go wrong. But it will. Tonight, Tyler Cloyd is the man charged with preventing the Phillies from losing their fifth straight game against a putrid team (we can't say "last place" team any more because the Twins beat the Phillies and the White Sox lost, putting Chicago in last place by a game in the AL Central).
At some point, Jonathan Pettibone's results are going to start to mirror his numbers, which have been pretty mediocre in every respect except runs allowed. And ERA has a funny way of correcting itself. It might already have begun to happen, as Pettione has allowed 12 runs in his last 16 1/3 innings, including six in a 9-1 loss to Milwaukee on June 9. That's not to take away from what he has accomplished -- he has thrown strikes, managed the game, and looked more like a major leaguer than a lot of us expected. But opponents are hitting .279 with a .349 OBP and .430 slugging percentage, and while his 0.86 ground ball rate is not awful, it also isn't good enough for a guy that has 37 strikeouts, 20 walks, 5 HBPs and seven home runs in 58 1/3 innings. Right now, Pettibone looks like a 4.25 to 4.75 ERA starter. And you have to think that the results will eventually show it. Likewise, Cloyd has pitched much better than a lot expected, but he still isn't the kind of guy you want to see charged with stopping a losing streak. Neither does Las Vegas, which has the Twins as the money line favorite (-115) with Mike Pelfrey on the mound tonight.
So the Phillies are who we thought they were. If nothing breaks extremely right or extremely wrong, they will spend the season hovering around .500, ending up somewhere below their preseason over/under of 83.5. At this point, we are running low on things that can break extremely right (Ryan Howard catches fire, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley do the same after returning from the disabled list). That's probably for the better, because the worst thing that could have happened is for the Phillies to give their bosses just enough of a glimmer of hope to prevent them from acting in the best interest of the future. Now, though, you have to think that Ruben Amaro Jr. knows he needs to act with the interests of 2014 and beyond as his priority.
What does that mean?
Well, it doesn't have to mean "blowing it up." Blowing it up means trading Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz and looking to trade Jimmy Rollins. The reality is that none of the three are guaranteed to command the kind of prospects that would make a significant impact on the Phillies' future. If Utley had remained healthy, that might have been a different story. Two years ago, the Giants gave up top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler in return for a half season of Carlos Beltran. Even before the injury, Utley was not close to the .289/.389/.513 batting line and 15 home runs that Beltran had at the time of the deal. Then again, Utley plays a premium position. If he returns by the last week of June and puts together one of his hotter months, the Phillies could have themselves one of the more in-demand commodities available at this year's deadline. But they have to wait. Same goes with Carlos Ruiz. Neither player is worth moving before the last week of July.
As for Rollins, if a team is willing to blow the Phillies out of the water, and Rollins is willing to waive his no-trade clause, then they would have to act. But I just don't know that Rollins would land the Phillies an impact package of prospects. At this point, he is still cheap enough and productive enough compared to other short stops that he is probably worth more to the Phillies on the roster than he is on the market. Remember, we're trying to keep the Phillies competitive over the next few years.
So what, exactly, should the Phillies mentality be right now?
1) Trade Jonathan Papelbon
He makes the most sense to trade. Forget Cliff Lee. Papelbon might not be able to get you as much value, but he also won't require you to eat as much money. And, most importantly, he isn't nearly as integral to your current competitiveness. General managers can be Dum Dums, never moreso than when they are in contention and feel like they might be one bullpen piece away from a World Series. See Chris Davis over in the AL? The Orioles acquired him for setup man Koji Uehara a couple of trade deadlines ago. In 2009, George Sherrill landed the Orioles Josh Bell, who would be ranked as a Top 50 prospect by Baseball America the next season. Matt Capps got the Nationals Wilson Ramos who was a Top 75 prospect. Octavio Dotel landed the Pirates James McDonald and Andrew Lambo, both highly regarded. And the Phillies gave up Michael Bourn for Brad Lidge back in the day.
I've written this before, but one of the few ways a big-revenue team like the Phillies can use its finances as an advantage is in the trade market. Even if the Phillies have to pay all of the $27 million or so remaining on Papelbon's contract, it would be worth it if the return was a couple of young players who have legitimate chances of filling viable roles on the major league roster in the next couple of years.
2) Ryan Howard will stay
I wrote a month or so ago that the Phillies should prioritize trading him. And they still should. But nobody is going to trade anything of value for him at this point, even if the Phillies offered to eat the entirety of the $90+ million still owed to him over the next three seasons. The only shot to deal him was for Howard to get hot. He hasn't, and it is beginning to look like he won't, at least not this season, assuming the knee injury is as big of a problem as it looks. I understand keeping him active until the All-Star Break just in case a miracle happens. But once we get to August and the Phillies are officially out of the race, it would make sense to send Howard to the disabled list or the operating table to get him ready for 2014 and to start scratching lottery tickets from Triple-A.
3) Forget trading Cliff Lee
Again, all of these come with the caveat that the Phillies cannot refuse a deal that is too good to be refused (or a bloody horse head in their bed). They absolutely should solicit hypothetical packages from the handful of teams that would be in position to make a serious play for Lee. But the opinion here is that the Phillies' best chance at retooling while remaining competitive (competitive meaning, not the Astros or Cubs) is to keep Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation, Domonic Brown in left field, and Rollins at short stop. Unless Lee gets hurt, his value will likely be the same in the offseason as it is now. Likewise for next year's trade deadline. In other words, there is no urgency to move him, because he is still under contract for two more seasons.
4) Try to trade Kyle Kendrick
The Oakland Athletics have made a killing trading young pitchers at the peak of their value. Kendrick isn't going to get any more valuable than he is now. He is still under team control in 2014, although he could make upwards of $10 million through arbitration. I'm thinking a team like the Orioles, Pirates or Giants could profile as having interest in a pitcher like Kendrick. I am now a believer in Kendrick. I think he can be a quite solid No. 3. But he can be replaced, especially when you consider the $8 million to $10 million he will likely be earning next season. Use that $10 million to sign a free agent No. 3, then let Pettibone, Jesse Biddle, John Lannan, Cloyd and Ethan Martin, plus whatever prospects you obtain in the purge, dictate the rest of the depth chart. The Phillies need an infusion of talent at every position, and if Kendrick can be parlayed into that talent, then the Phillies should do it.
Once late July arrives, then the Phillies can start exploring the market for guys like Utley and Ruiz and whatever spare parts they think might attract some kind of return: Michael Young, John Mayberry Jr., Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo, and so on.
Right now, it is all about maximizing their most valuable assets, which means starting the process on Papelbon and Kendrick.
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