Here’s a crazy idea, the kind that arises on a rainy Saturday night in July without a baseball game to watch: What if, with Manny Machado off in La La Land, the Phillies don’t actually trade for a hitter before the end of the month?
In Maikel Franco and Scott Kingery and Nick Williams they trust?
Quite possibly, yes.
“The way I see it,” said manager Gabe Kapler, whose first-place Phillies will play a split-admission doubleheader against the San Diego Padres on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, “one of the benefits of having a very young group is that that young group is developing all the time — and in theory, getting better. So, Maikel Franco, we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, he’s been a really productive third baseman. We all expect that Scott Kingery is going to continue to improve on offense and be better in the second half than he was in the first half. He’s that talented and gifted of an athlete.
“They take small steps forward and in the second half our offense is better than it was in the first half as a result.”
Kapler has to say that, of course. His job is to manage the players that he has, not lament the ones he doesn’t. But as Phillies officials get over seeing Machado get traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, there’s a sense that they might be content to bank on continued improvement from Franco, Kingery and others rather than pony up a prospect or two for Minnesota Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar, Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas or any of the other hitters who are available before the July 31 trade deadline.
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Franco is 26-for-75 (.347) with six doubles, four homers and a .989 on-base plus slugging percentage over his last 23 games. More quietly, Kingery is also looking better at the plate. He went 2-for-4 Friday night and has hit safely in 22 of his last 31 games.
And although the Phillies rank next-to-last in the National League with a .625 OPS from their rightfielders, Williams has hit 11 home runs in 240 at-bats. It’s the look of a middle-of-the-order contributor, at least against righthanded pitching.
“On July 1, you might have looked at the roster and said we can upgrade here, here and here,” said general manager Matt Klentak, who might as well have filled in the blanks by saying third base, shortstop and right field. “I don’t think that’s quite as clear now. The thing that I was really encouraged by in the couple weeks leading up to the [all-star] break is the play of some of our players.”
The flip side is that Franco is 25 years old, Kingery and Williams 24. The development of young players is rarely linear, so it’s entirely possible that Franco, Kingery and Williams can cool off in August just as easily as they have heated up in July.
But Moustakas has a .650 OPS since the beginning of June. And while Escobar is having the best offensive season of his career with 36 doubles, 14 homers and an .839 OPS entering play Saturday, multiple talent evaluators have recently doubted the 29-year-old’s viability at shortstop, believing he’s better suited for third base at this stage of his career.
The Phillies could elect to commit to their young players and instead beef up a bullpen that has been among the league’s best this month. They scouted New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia before he got traded to the Oakland A’s on Saturday and have looked closely at Baltimore Orioles lefty Zach Britton, who has a 3.45 ERA, 13 strikeouts and 10 walks since returning last month from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
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When the Orioles visited Citizens Bank Park last month, Britton claimed he’s healthy, if not a bit rusty, noting that his fastball velocity was at its typical early-season levels.
“I’m trying to get away from worrying about injuries and velocity and just go out there and compete,” Britton said. “Once I do that, I think things for me will happen quicker and the results will be better.”
Add Britton to a group that includes rookie phenom Seranthony Dominguez, sidearming Pat Neshek, hard-throwing Edubray Ramos, veteran Tommy Hunter and others, and the Phillies have the makings of a bullpen that can shorten games. And that might be their best chance to maintain their division lead.
“We’ve obviously gotten into the position we’re at with the guys we have,” veteran pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to have contributions from guys top to bottom throughout our roster.”
Tickets to Saturday night’s game will be honored for the 6:05 p.m. game Sunday or can be exchanged for any remaining home game this season, the Phillies announced. Sunday’s regularly scheduled game will be moved up to 12:05 p.m., with gates opening at 11:05 a.m. … Nick Pivetta will start the first game of the doubleheader for the Phillies, with Vince Velasquez set to start the nightcap.