We are approaching the point of the season where the trade speculation will begin its gradual increase to full-blown insanity as general managers begin to make phone calls and dispatch talent evaluators and media members begin to report things that an NL scout told them. For Phillies fans, the trade deadline might as well come with an advent calendar, as the last four seasons have each brought a shiny new gift from jolly old St. Ruben Amaro Jr. In 2008 it was Joe Blanton, followed by Cliff Lee in 2009, Roy Oswalt in 2010, and Hunter Pence in 2011. At this point, the biggest need is power, both in the lineup at in the bullpen. But it is way too early to formulate an educated guess on how these needs might be addressed, since there are still two big unknowns that must reveal themselves:
1) How much power will Chase Utley and Ryan Howard provide when, or if, they return to the lineup?
2) How much power can Antonio Bastardo, Jake Diekman and Jose Contreras provide in the seventh and eighth innings?
Second question first: Contreras had another rocky outing yesterday. He's struggled mightly since returning from the disabled list. The Phillies keep saying that he just needs to work out some kinks and find some consistency after a one-year layoff. But he is 40 years old and coming of significant elbow surgery, so it is fair to wonder whether he will ever look like the pitcher who bordered on dominant during his first season in Philadelphia. The good news is that Bastardo has looked a lot better in recent days. I haven't noticed a significant change in his gun readings, but his fastball just looks like it is bearing down on hitters quicker and confusing them the way it did last season. Bastardo is at his best when he gets hitters to chase high fastballs above their chest, resulting in pop-ups or strikeouts. That's been the case in his last few appearances. He also has shown good slider command recently.
Diekman has yet to appear in a game since his callup, but that will obviously change at some point. Whatever happens, you can bet the Phillies will be in the market for a right-handed reliever with strikeout stuff. Such players are usually plentiful around the trade deadline, and the cost is usually not overwhelming.
Now, back to the lineup. Howard and Utley are question marks, but even if they return at a level of production close to what they've shown over the last couple of years, the Phillies can still use an upgrade (Utley and Howard were both healthy for last year's 1-0 Game 5 loss to the Cardinals).
The two obvious openings for a power bat: left field and third base. John Mayberry has begun to put together better at-bats, and he is making noticably better contact now than he was a week or two ago. Still, late in yesterday's game he got a great pitch to drive and instead lofted a routine fly ball to right-center. At this point, there is little harm in running him out there every day to see if he might suddenly transform into the player who was so productive in a rotational role last season. But if Mayberry does not making significant strides over the next month or so, left field is a position the Phillies should circle.
The second option is third base. It is the second option because the available supply is more limited, and because Polanco is an excellent defensive third baseman, and because he is hitting .355/.375/.452 over his last 16 games. But Polanco could get injured at any time, and even if he stays healthy, he does not bring any semblance of power to a lineup that is in dire need of it. So we have to at least consider the notion that the Phillies could look for an upgrade at third.
The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo recently floated Kevin Youkilis' name as a potential fit for the Phillies. The Red Sox have gotten excellent production out of rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and there is some feeling that both Youkilis and the Red Sox would be well served by a change of scenery for the veteran.
If the Phillies could get him on the cheap, Youkilis would certainly be a worthy addition. He is currently on the disabled list with a back injury and is hitting just .219/.292/.344 with two home runs and 20 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. But he got off to a slow start last year and still ended up hitting .258/.373/.459 with 17 home runs. Such a batting line would be worhty of the cleanup spot in the Phillies lineup at this point.
Of course, trading for Youkilis now would not be the same as trading for him two years ago. He is a banged up 33-year-old veteran who has had trouble staying in the lineup over the past few seasons. But adding him to the mix would give Charlie Manuel a number of different personnel options, from playing Youkilis at third base and moving Polanco to second, to playing Youkilis at first. Given the time off that Utley, Howard and Polanco all figure to need, Youkilis could easily play every day if Manuel was comfortable rotating positions.
But the Phillies are not going to want to give up anything of future value for an aging, banged-up third baseman who will be a free agent after the season. Which is why you have to wonder how teams are feeling about the fast start that Joe Blanton has gotten off to. Trading away pitching depth is very rarely a good idea. I wrote in spring training that the Phillies should hang on to Blanton when there were rumors flying about possible trades. But we are at a different juncture than we were in spring training. Vance Worley has given no indication that he was a one-year wonder. The three aces are once again living up to their billing. The Phillies have shown that they can live without a consistent fifth starter. The year they won the World Series, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton spent the entire year in the rotation. Adding power is the biggest priority at this point. Manuel keeps shaking his head at the number of baserunners the Phillies are stranding -- eight, yesterday -- but that is going to happen if you don't have players who can drive in chunks of runners with one swing. The odds of hitting a single are, at best, 1 in 3. Asking a unit to string enough singles together to score a clump of runs is asking them to defy the odds.
Youkilis, for all his question marks, would certainly bring power to the lineup. What if the Red Sox proposed a straight Blanton-for-Youkilis swap? Two guys with similar salaries who will be free agents at the end of the season, both of whom fill holes for the other side (similar is relative, of course - Youkilis actually makes $4.5 million more than Blanton, along with a $1 million buyout next year). Just something to think about.