Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Phillies just can't quit themselves, and their recent success isn't helping

The dreck that you have watched for the majority of this season is remarkably close to a competent offense. And given the propensity of this front office to run around titling at rubber tree plants, that's a scary thought.

Phillies just can't quit themselves, and their recent success isn't helping

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One can argue that the only things separating the Phillies from a playoff-caliber offense are Ryan Howard circa 2011 and league average production at third base and left field. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)
One can argue that the only things separating the Phillies from a playoff-caliber offense are Ryan Howard circa 2011 and league average production at third base and left field. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The dreck that you have watched for the majority of this season is remarkably close to a competent offense. And given the propensity of this front office to run around titling at rubber tree plants, that's a scary thought. 

Consider:

If you replace Ryan Howard’s total production through 565 plate appearances this season with his production through his first 564 plate appearances of the 2011 season, the Phillies’ OPS jumps from .676 to .687. That’s still not great, but it would move them from the 12th-lowest OPS in the National League into a time for the ninth-best OPS in the league, ahead of the Braves, and only 10 points behind the Cardinals.

But let’s make two more adjustments. The Phillies have the third-worst OPS in left field this season (.634), and the second-worst at third base (.630). If they replaced their year-to-date production at both positions with league-average production at both positions at the same number of plate appearances (.728 OPS in left field, .731 OPS at third base), the Phillies would suddenly have an OPS of .707, which would rank sixth in the NL, ahead of the Giants, Cardinals and Braves, and just five points behind the Nationals.

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In other words, one can argue that the only things separating the Phillies from a playoff-caliber offense are Ryan Howard circa 2011 and league average production at third base and left field. The latter two adjustments are not inconceivable, particularly when you consider the potential addition of Maikel Franco to third base and the relative ease with which the Phillies were able to add league-average-production to right field this offseason ($8 million for Marlon Byrd, who has actually been quite a bit above average).

Is it out of the question that some combination of Franco and Asche can combine to hit .268/.324/.406 over the course of a season, or that the front office can find a left fielder who can hit .256/.322/.406? Especially when you consider that Domonic Brown has hit .263/.317/.430 over his last 39 games (123 plate appearances)?

So why is all of this a scary exercise? 

Well, because it has the potential to feed the Phillies’ stated belief that they really aren’t that far from a return to competitiveness. Again, all of this comes back to the fact that Ryan Howard circa 2011 isn’t walking through that door. He has looked better over the last month. In his last 25 games, he is hitting .269/.360/.452. Even if he can carry that over and extend it over the course of 2015, it still probably isn’t enough, even with league average production at third base and left field.

And even if the Phillies get more than league average production at third base and left field along with Howard’s hypothetical new normal, it still probably isn’t enough, because the team simply does not have the kind of starting pitching that would make a .707 OPS offense a legitimate playoff contender.

If the 2015 Phillies were going to start a lounge band, they’d name it Cole Hamels and the Four Fives. As in, Hamels followed by four No. 5 starters. A.J. Burnett is as good as gone, and even if he isn’t, he has been about as good as a No. 5. David Buchanan has shown little reason to doubt that he can give them what Kyle Kendrick gave them for six years, but he has shown little reason to hope that he will offer much more.

Aaron Nola still hasn’t made a single professional start without an extra day of rest, nor has he made one that has lasted more than five innings. He won’t be in Philadelphia before the second half of next season at the earliest. Jesse Biddle is headed for a third straight season at Double-A, or maybe even a repeat of high-A.

The emergence of the young guns in the bullpen increases the potential of piecing together a 2008-esque rotation. But is it realistic to think such a thing can be pieced together for next season? To those whose thought processes are grounded in reality, the answer is no.

Which brings us to the tie that has bound most of what we’ve written about these Phillies over the last two-and-a-half years: What are they thinking, and do they realize that they are at a point where they need to be doing everything in their power to prepare for 2016 and beyond?

Look ahead to 2016. Let’s say Biddle finds himself next year, and Nola is ready at some point in the second half. Let’s say both reach the ceilings most project for them, which is middle-of-the-rotation starter. Let’s say the Phillies enter 2016 with Hamels, Buchanan, Nola, Biddle and a third middle-of-the-rotation type starter. The bullpen stays healthy and productive. That could very well be an above-average pitching staff.

But wait a minute. Back to that offense. Jimmy Rollins and his above-average production at short stop is gone. Marlon Byrd is 38 years old. Howard is 36. Chase Utley is 37. Carlos Ruiz is 37.

So not only are we projecting Hamels and the bullpen to stay healthy, and Biddle and Nola to max out their talent, and Franco to be an everyday third baseman, we are also projecting Utley and Ruiz and Byrd to do what they did this year when they are two years older, and Howard to do something five years after he last did it.

And that’s just for a roster that is average in all areas and maybe, just maybe, could fight for a playoff spot.

And keep in mind that all of this comes at the expense of moves in the interim that would better prepare them for 2017 and beyond. Moves like trading Byrd, Utley and Hamels. Moves like playing Darin Ruf and Domonic Brown in left field instead of Grady Sizemore or whatever other potentially-league-average veteran they decide to plug in. Moves like experimenting with Cody Asche at second base, and, perhaps further down the line, Roman Quinn in center field.

You can certainly construct a valid argument that I am crazy for continuing to include Brown in the mix. Again, I’ll point out that, since early July, he is hitting .264/.317/.430 (.747 OPS) and .288/.339/.462 (.801 OPS) in his last 16 games. I’ll even point out that I can flip the current narrative on its head and argue that Brown has been a league average offensive left fielder in his career, save for two incredible months in 2013 and three awful months in 2014. All of this ignores the defense, sure. But let’s not get lost down this road again. For the sake of the argument, take Brown out of the equation. Everything else stands.

Acting president Pat Gillick has already stated that Ryne Sandberg and Ruben Amaro Jr. will return next season. Seems fitting. The last few seasons have torched everybody else's reputation - might as well bring Gillick along for the ride. For the record, I am of the opinion that these things do not need to be said, because the vast majority of us are human beings who are capable of feeling normal human emotions, but I'm going to say it anyway, just to make sure that none of my words get chopped up and thrown into the 21st-century outrage machine: I've never known David Montgomery to be anything but a standup guy, and if he never returns to his office at Citizens Bank Park, then the professional sports world will have lost the sort of humanity that it too often seems to lack. Proclamations such as that sometimes read as if they are cliche, or contrived, and perhaps in many cases they are, but this is not one of those cases, and virtually anybody who has ever interacted with the man will attest to that fact. Loyalty is an incredibly difficult characteristic to inspire, and David Montgomery inspires it. One of the more difficult parts of this job is criticizing somebody of that nature.

All that being said, baseball is a business that brakes for nobody, which is something Montgomery surely understood when he stepped aside. The problem is that Gillick and Montgomery and Amaro have all pretty much said that they are different appendages operating off of the same brain. And at this point, the status quo is not going to help the Phillies on the field. Addicts have a word for what they are in danger of doing if they do anything that comes at the expense of moves that can help them in 2017 and beyond.

It’s called chasing the dragon.

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