The three drunken bears dancing unsteadily around the prize of the National League East championship have a just a few days left to improve their rosters in the event one of them still wants to win the thing.
Judging by their recent play, that's hard to tell. Going into Monday's game at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies and the Nationals opened another series that will probably not decide much of anything, the race to win the East remained as muddled and mud-spattered as it has been all season.
The Phils recent troubles continued with a 5-3 loss to begin the three-game series against Washington. It was a sloppy game, as sticky and humid as the evening, and a poor start by Zach Eflin. Still, we're a long way from anything resembling clarity. The Phillies are 3 1/2 games behind the Braves and 4 1/2 games ahead of the Nationals. With a big-enough blanket, you could throw it over all three of them.
While there are still 30 or so games and five weeks to sort things out, the front offices only have until Friday to add players from other organizations who would be eligible for a potential postseason roster. This is baseball's second in-season swapfest. It's not as wild as the first one, because players must pass through waivers before they are traded, but it is an interesting tactical time for teams that might find just enough help to actually get them into the playoffs.
"We've been fairly aggressive this month in claiming players on waivers," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said before the game. "One of those claims led to a trade for Justin Bour. Most of our claims have not led to any trades happening."
Various reports indicate the Phils made a claim on Jose Bautista of the Mets, although Klentak would not confirm that. Bautista is batting around .200, so he'd fit right in with an offense that is third from the bottom of the NL in batting average. It could be they claimed him to block another team from going after Bautista. That's where the tactical element of this second trade deadline comes into play, although, frankly, if the Braves wanted Bautista, I'd drive him to Atlanta.
In any event, the Philles will probably stand pat for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that Klentak was unwilling to part with decent prospects when there were actually good players available, and it seems unlikely he's going to switch philosophies for the likes of 37-year-old Jose Bautista.
This whole business of attempting a deep postseason run is at least a year early for the Phillies. The organization's actions indicate that not only was contention this season a surprise, but also that the front office is still wait-and-see on whether it is a legitimate one. Hanging in with the Braves, and to a lesser extent with the head-scratching antics of the Nationals, might not be that great a feat, or not enough of one to warrant a raid on the future.
Another dilemma for Klentak is that the 40-man roster is full – past full, actually, because two players, Jerad Eickhoff and Pedro Florimon, are on the 60-day disabled list – and a trade would mean someone would have to be excised. It isn't as though every man on the protected list is going to be a real major league player, but it is too early to identify all of the keepers. That goes for some guys on the team right now, so Klentak said he was content for the most part, and hopeful that September call-ups will carry the Phillies to their destiny, whatever that might be.
"I actually think we're in a perfectly good spot right now," Klentak said. "We are three games out of the division, two games out of the wild card, and we are a team that has lost 90-plus games three years in a row and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2011. We get hot and play well in September, we can do some damage and play some October baseball."
The reality, however, for a team that hits and fields as sporadically as the Phils, is that October baseball, once achieved, probably wouldn't last very long. It would be arriving at least a year too soon, and the team isn't built to sustain it yet. If it were, the organization might have convinced itself to do more at the two trade deadlines.
For better or worse, the Phillies you have are the Phillies you will get, and they might just be good enough to take the division that no one seems overly capable of winning. That's not bad in a year of modest expectations. Of course, it would also represent a pretty modest accomplishment.