Thursday, November 27, 2014
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The Phillies do not need to wait any longer to acknowledge what they are

The Phillies at the All Star Break will be the same team they are right now. Which is not good enough.

The Phillies do not need to wait any longer to acknowledge what they are

However you feel about the capabilities of David Montgomery and Ruben Amaro Jr. and Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee, all of them know what a contending baseball team looks like. They know this because they spent five consecutive years watching a contending baseball team play 162 regular season games. And unless all of them have undergone a lobotomy on the portion of the brain that remembers such things, they know that this year's version of the Phillies is not such a team.

Sure, the Phillies have eight games left on this homestand, five of them coming against two of the teams they are chasing in the National League East. Then comes the All Star Break, which is the latest juncture that those of us in the media have labeled critical. Win eight straight, the thinking goes, and Phillies, LLC might think twice about divesting itself of various assets. Yet that thinking does nothing more than ignore the inevitable. Really, the past two months have been filled with imaginary deadlines and crucial stretches of play, all of which were supposed to serve as some sort of Ultimate Referendum on the 2013 Phillies. I know this because I have spent the last two months imposing them on this team, and each time it has failed to make even a circumstantial case that it has the capability of clawing its way back into contention. They failed to prove themselves against winning teams (17-23 heading into Sunday) and they failed to prove themselves against losing teams (25-23). They failed to prove themselves on home stands (20-19 at Citizens Bank Park) and on road trips (22-27). They failed to prove themselves against right handed starters (33-35) and left handed starters (9-11) and in one-run games (10-16). They failed to prove themselves over their 10 previous games (5-5) and their 20 previous games (9-11) and their 30 previous games (14-16) and their last 40 games (19-21) and so on.

We have more than enough evidence to come to grips with the legacy of these 2013 Phillies. They failed. We knew that before Saturday night, but letting go is a hard thing to do, and so the 13-4 whupping that the Braves treated them to is the best thing that could have happened. In one three-and-a-half-hour segment of yuck, the Phillies showed exactly why any further suspension of disbelief is futile. The offense scored one run in seven innings against a starting pitcher who ranks among the more hittable No. 1's that they would need to hit in a playoff series. The bullpen allowed seven runs in four innings against the kind of fastball hitters that they would need to shut down.

The most telling performance was the one turned in by Kyle Kendrick, who is a much better pitcher than the Kyle Kendrick of old but is still to dependent on the consistent location of his sinker to be the kind of starter the Phillies would need behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in order to make up for the vast deficits that exist across the rest of the roster. The Phillies are 4-6 in the last 10 games started by Kendrick, who has a 5.14 ERA and a .295/.347/.441 opponents batting line during that stretch. Kendrick's season ERA sits at 3.90, which is much closer to reality than the 2.47 that he posted in his first eight starts of the season. Kendrick would be a perfectly capable, borderline very good, No. 3 starter on a lot of teams, but the Phillies are not that kind of team, because they do not have the bullpen or the offense that can make a victory out of a game in which he allows three or four runs in six innings (witness their 6-1 loss to the Dodgers on June 30 and their 4-3 loss to the Brewers on June 8).

And Kendrick is where the slippery slope starts. Jonathan Pettibone has a 4.81 ERA and .291/.357/.424 line over his last eight starts and a 3.99 overall ERA that is destined for further regression. John Lannan is the guy he has always been, alternating quality starts with implosions. He has allowed three or fewer runs in four of his starts and more than four in three of them. And he has lasted less than five innings in four. Again, for a team with a good offense and a good bullpen, that kind of production out of the No. 5 spot would be acceptable. The Phillies are not that kind of team.

That fact is that the Phillies are a team that begins three out of every five games it plays with no clear strengths. It is a cross that is the front office's to bear. Postseason losses to the Giants in 2010 and the Cardinals in 2011 showed plenty of signs that the Phillies needed to diversify their personnel portfolio by adding another middle-of-the-order bat capable of replacing the production that was leaking from their aging core. They needed to build depth in the bullpen as insurance against the kind of starting pitching injury that would throw the balance of their roster into a chaotic tailspin. They did neither, opting to concentrate their spending on relief aces Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams instead of spreading it throughout the roster. That meant rolling with the Juan Pierres and Laynce Nixes and John Mayberry Jr.'s and Delmon Youngs of the world at one of the corner outfield spots and a slew of unproven youngsters and bargain basement veterans between the end of the rotation and the back of the bullpen.

They failed, and the only way to prevent that failure from becoming an exponential crisis is to admit that their formula did not work, that they did not make the moves that were necessary to keep the proverbial window of opportunity open for 2012 and 2013, and that the smartest course of action is to slam the window shut for the final three months of this season in the hopes of beginning to pry it open once 2014 begins.

That means giving Darin Ruf three months of every day at-bats and a message opposite of the one that Amaro has delivered over the past couple months in saying that Ruf could be in the majors if he'd just play a little bit better at Triple-A. In 2012, the Nationals did not let the fact that Bryce Harper was hitting .243/.325/.365 with one home run in his first 21 games at Triple-A prevent them from calling him up to the majors. Ruf should know that he is here to stay, even if he struggles. So should Freddy Galvis, which will mean trading Michael Young, and Cesar Hernandez, which will mean trading Chase Utley. The No. 1 goal in waving the white flag will be to acquire a couple of pieces who can help the Phillies win baseball games in 2014 and beyond, and a couple of more that have the potential to develop into those kinds of pieces. But almost as important will be the three months of playing time provided to players whose accurate evaluation will be critical to formulating a game plan for the road back to contention.

The Phillies need to find out if Freddy Galvis is a player who can hit consistently enough to be penciled in as a regular in the infield. They need to find out the same thing about Hernandez at second base, where they will need to decide whether to pursue the re-signing of Chase Utley or a veteran stopgap. They need to continue to throw their young relievers into the fire, because nothing has the potential to create unnecessary inefficiency like sinking significant resources into the back end of the bullpen. That means trading Jonathan Papelbon, the franchise's resident crazy uncle, wheeled out for a few jollies on special occasions, but mostly relegated to the rocking chair on his front porch, sitting alone and shouting at traffic.

Players like Galvis and Herandnez and Ruf and Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman and Phillippe Aumont are not the kinds of players you can lock in to whatever you call your five-year plan, but they are players who you have to find out about, and the next three months is the time for finding out, for self-scouting and internal evaluation. In one night, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie established himself as the only executive in town who seems to understand the cyclical nature of professional sports, that bridging eras requires difficult decisions to be made, and that those difficult decisions are dependent on a realistic appraisal of the personnel that is already in your system. The future cannot be bought, and it does not magically develop. It must be plotted in methodical fashion. But first, it must be acknowledged.

DN Members Only: John Smallwood isn't buying what the Phillies are selling anymore.

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