Meltdown in MKE: If you are surprised, you haven't been paying attention

I know, it stings. You wrapped up your work week with a feeling that you had not entertained since the latter stages of 2011. The Phillies were a game over .500, good enough for second place in the NL East, and you couldn't help but turn the margins of every piece of paper that landed in front of you into a back-of-the-cocktail-napkin road map to a playoff spot. They had weathered the storm and were now poised for the run.

It is a special sort of pain when a dream dies, and rather than endure it again and again and again this season, you are probably better off facing reality. At least, that was the takeaway from this weekend, when the Phillies lost three straight games to the last-place Brewers to sink two games below .500. The Phillies are a team that is destined to hover around the .500 mark for the rest of the season. They might get hot for a stretch. Every team playing 162 game schedules is bound to. But the difference between the good teams and the bad teams is the good teams have far more good stretches than bad.

The Phillies? They are not a good team. I have been writing this since May 6, 2012. That was the night Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper with a pitch and then watched him go first to third on a base hit before finally stealing home.

"The Phillies?," I wrote that night. "They are a .500 baseball team. Accept it now, and the rest of the month might not feel like a 25-day punch in the gut."

After that column ran, I got hammered with emails, some of them perfectly reasonable. The Phillies ended up winning that game, and if not for a couple of questionable umpiring decisions a couple of days earlier in a 4-3 loss, they would have taken the series.

But that's the point. When you are a .500 team, the blown calls matter. One of the most most prevalent words in the vocabulary of a .500 team is "if."

Stop me if this sounds familiar:

The Phillies are what their record says they are, which is a middle-of-the-pack team with no sure-fire All-Stars. They are the 76ers, a collection of players who might look good when packaged around a superstar, but who can't help but founder on their own. . .The good news is that four of their next five series will be played against teams who enter Monday with losing records. The bad news is that the Phillies are only 10-10 against those types of teams this season.

If you were surprised/disappointed/frustrated by what you witnessed in Milwaukee, you have not been paying close enough attention. The Phillies are who their record says they are, and have been for more than a calendar year now. Yes, they will get Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley back at some point. And yes, Ryan Howard could heat up. But Domonic Brown could cool off, and Mike Adams could remain in a perpetual state of day-to-day, and the regression of Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone could create the opposite extreme of what you've seen out of them thus far. That's the thing about .500 teams. There are always things that can go right. But they are always equaled or exceeded by the things that can go wrong. Sometimes they can beat the odds. Most times, they can't.

As a reminder, here are a few selected readings from last year at this time:

July 5, 2012

As you watched Chase Utley change the game with one swing of the bat on Wednesday afternoon, you wondered for the 100th time how the Phillies managed to enter the season so woefully unprepared to compensate for the offense that they would miss in the event of an injury to their three-hole hitter's balky knees.

Think about the number of losses that would have been wins had Charlie Manuel's lineup possessed one more hitter with the ability to do what Utley did in the seventh inning, when he blasted a pitch from Chris Young into the rightfield seats for a two-run home run that tied the game and gave Carlos Ruiz the opportunity to give the Phillies the lead in the following at-bat. Of the 40 losses they suffered with their second baseman on the disabled list, 13 were by one run. In six of those 13 losses, they failed to score more than two runs.

Alternate realities are difficult to project, but the one that would have existed if Ruben Amaro Jr. had decided to sign a legitimate run-producing leftfielder during the offseason is clearly a reality that would have trumped the current one, which sees the Phillies sitting nine games under .500 even after their 9-2 win over the Mets. Hindsight is 20 / 20, but it is not an absolution for a lack of foresight. The Phillies knew, or should have known, that Ryan Howard would miss at least 2 months, and they knew, or should have known, he had the potential to miss more. They knew, or should have known, that chronic knee conditions can flare up without much warning. And they knew, or should have known, that their offense was often in need of another bat even when Utley and Howard were healthy in 2011.

Yet they chose to staff leftfield with an unproven John Mayberry Jr. and a gaggle of veterans who would be part-time players on most World Series contenders. Look again at those 13 one-run losses, those 13 games when one swing of the bat could have made the kind of difference Utley made Wednesday. Combined, Phillies leftfielders went 12-for-48 (.250) with five RBI and three extra-base hits. Now look at what some of the leftfielders who were available have averaged every 48 at-bats this season.

Josh Willingham: 13 hits, seven extra-base hits, three home runs, 10 RBI. 

Carlos Beltran: 14 hits, five extra-base hits, three home runs, 11 RBI

Jason Kubel: 14 hits, six extra-base hits, two home runs, nine RBI

Look at those numbers. How many one-run losses would they have prevented? Three? Four?

June 27, 2012

(E)ven on a picturesque evening when all the bounces were favoring the home team, you could not help but look at the blank innings on the scoreboard and feel a certain apprehension. Joe Blanton was not going to finish eight innings, probably not even seven, which meant another call to the bullpen, and another roll of the dice. The apprehension isn't going away. The games aren't getting any shorter, and the season isn't getting any longer. The seventh and eighth innings will always exist, as will the need to shut them down with some degree of regularity. Welcome to Ruben Amaro Jr.'s latest challenge. The faster he completes it, the better the Phillies' odds at clawing their way back into the postseason race. Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee need at least one, maybe two, veteran arms capable of succeeding where every combination they have played has failed thus far. They need those arms now.

Last week, Amaro met with the Phillies' coaching staff for 3 hours before the start of this current homestand, which heading into Monday night had already seen them blow four late-inning leads or ties. You can bet the topic of the bullpen was discussed.

"Our conversations always lead back to the fact that we definitely want to beef up our bullpen," Manuel said on Monday, a few hours before the Phillies kicked off a four-game series against a surprising Pirates team that entered the night in playoff position. "And when you say beef up, we need a couple of pitchers who can really stabilize our bullpen."

June 26, 2012

Improving a bullpen is not as easy as Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto made it seem on May 3, when he dealt a couple of minor leaguers to the Padres for 26-year-old right-hander Ernesto Frieri, who has since pitched 22 scoreless innings while helping L.A. improve from 10-16 to 40-33. But it is a fix Amaro needs to find. The Phillies entered the week having lost six games in which they carried a lead into the eighth inning. They lost five such games all of last season. Six games is the difference between second place and last place in the division, between the thick and the fringe of the wild-card race. The Phillies cannot undo the damage that has already been done, but they can prevent further damage, and they must. The irony of Amaro's quest to add a second ring to his collection is that he has often seemed to forget the blueprint that led to the first. Balance in the bullpen. Balance on the bench. Depth everywhere. The eventual solution will likely be less sexy. The Phillies might not be buyers in the traditional sense, but it is never too early to start planning for 2013 and 2014, especially when 2012 is still within reach. That planning needs to start with the bullpen, and it needs to start soon.

June 25, 2012

In January, ousted Colts GM Bill Polian rued his preparation for Peyton Manning's health issues, telling the Associated Press, "I've always told the staff that our approach should be to hope for the best but plan for the worst." This offseason, the Phillies' strategy seemed predicated on a future where everything breaks right, a future where John Mayberry Jr. transforms into an everyday leftfielder at the age of 28, where Dontrelle Willis transforms into a reliever at the age of 30, where Thome transforms into a first baseman after 6 years as a designated hitter.

Heading into the season, the Phillies' only insurance policies against the continued regressions of 26-year-old Antonio Bastardo and 25-year-old Mike Stutes were the hope that 33-year-old Chad Qualls would return to a form that disappeared 2 years earlier and the hope that 40-year-old Jose Contreras would return from an elbow injury that cost him most of the previous season. Their only insurance policies against the continued regression of Chase Utley's knees were a 22-year-old rookie with a career .292 on-base percentage in the minors and a 29-year-old utilityman who finished his rookie season with an OBP of .258.

This offseason, the Phillies spent about $56 million on new talent. Instead of spending $21 million on Josh Willingham, who yesterday hit his 15th home run and 20th double for the Twins, or $26 million on Carlos Beltran, who yesterday hit his 20th home run for the Cardinals, or $15 million on Jason Kubel, who yesterday hit his 10th home run for the Diamondbacks, they stuck with Mayberry, who yesterday struck out with one out and the tying run on third in the eighth inning, the 12th time in 15 such plate appearances that he failed to drive in a run. Instead of building depth in the bullpen, they spent $50 million to upgrade their closer, who yesterday sat and watched as an eighth-inning lead turned into a loss for the sixth time this season.

The chief culprit behind days like Sunday, when the Phillies dropped two games to fall to 34-40, is faulty decision-making. But not on the part of the manager.

June 12, 2012

Domonic Brown has spent some time in centerfield, the latest adjustment for the natural rightfielder. In a perfect world, he could spend all season at the position, perhaps establishing himself as the heir apparent to Shane Victorino, whose contract expires at the end of the season. But as the first 2-plus months of this season have shown, it is not a perfect world. The Phillies need to fulfill two objectives between now and the July 31 deadline. First, they need to find some way to energize an offense that has routinely failed to come up with big hits when they matter most. Second, they need to find out what, exactly, they have in the cupboard for the future. Promoting Brown gives them the potential to do both.

In his two previous stints in the majors, Brown left plenty of unanswered questions with regard to his ability at the plate. Last season, he hit .245/.333/.391 with five home runs in 210 plate appearances. Hardly the numbers of a Trout or Harper. But we are not comparing him to Trout or Harper right now. We are comparing him to the weapons on the Phillies' roster. And right now, those five home runs would rank fifth on the team. That .333 on-base percentage would rank fourth among Phillies regulars.

Even if Brown were to falter, the Phillies would at least be able to factor that into their plans for the future. That knowledge is the most important thing right now. Nobody in the organization has given up on this season. Nor should they. But they at least need to consider the fact that a playoff berth might not be in the cards, and that finishing this season without an informed opinion on Brown's capabilities will only compound the matter.

The defense is a question mark, but it is hard to imagine it not still being a question mark a year from now. Without a doubt, promoting Brown would be a risk. And judging by the Phillies' track record, it is a risk they are not likely to take. They are more likely to stick with the status quo, favoring the known over the unknown. On the other hand, when you look at what is known, you can't help but wonder if the alternative can be any worse.

June 11, 2012

Even when you grant managers and pitching coaches their belief that a save situation is a "different animal," it can't be so different that an inexperienced lefty who lacks plus-level stuff is better off in a tie game against a No. 2 hitter, a No. 3 hitter and a cleanup hitter than he is with a lead against hitters Nos. 5 through 7. All that being said, the Phillies are not 29-33 today because of Manuel's strict adherence to the conventional wisdom about closer usage. They are 29-33 because they are not a very good team today.

You can lose yourself in the details, reduce each loss to the sum of its parts, convince yourself that all of this might play out differently the next time around, but the fact remains that decision-making can only take a team so far. The headline is still that the better bullpen held the lead for longer, and the better lineup came up with the bigger hits, and the better defenders made the more crucial plays.

Over the course of a 162-game season, the teams with enough talent tend to prevail while the teams without it tend to fixate on things like injuries and umpires and managerial decisions. More than a third of the way through a season is more than enough time to say the Phillies simply do not have the talent to regularly avoid losses like the ones they suffered this weekend at Camden Yards.

The point isn't that Papelbon was Manuel's best option. The point is that the second- and third-best options were Michael Schwimer and Joe Savery, two players who entered the day with 38 career appearances and a 4.48 career ERA and middling strikeout and walk rates. Meanwhile, the Orioles were able to complement closer Jim Johnson with a pair of experienced arms like lefty Troy Patton and righty Darren O'Day, who entered the game having combined for 260 career appearances and a 2.28 ERA.

The point is that the outlook does not get any rosier, not after watching an opponent celebrate a walkoff victory for the seventh time this season. The offense is not good enough to consistently come up with big hits (they stranded 11 on Sunday), the defense is not good enough to consistently save runs (the winning run reached base on Ty Wigginton's ninth error of the season), and the bullpen is not good enough to dull the impact of those mistakes. The Phillies need more talent, and they need it before Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Roy Halladay return.

General managers, start your shopping lists!

Today on David Murphy writes on the DNL blog that the Phils finally have some hope at the hot corner.

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