Phillies trying to stay afloat through injuries
Club can't lose more ground before Howard, Utley and Doc return
MINNEAPOLIS -- The road trip already feels a lot like the homestand.
The Phillies lost two of three to the Orioles over the weekend at Camden Yards, losing both games in extra innings, to fall to 29-33, eight games behind the first-place Nationals in the National League East and 5 1/2 games behind the Giants for the second NL Wild Card. The Phils had hoped for improved results after a 1-6 homestand, but instead they have lost eight of their past nine -- hard to believe they were 28-25 and 2 1/2 games out of first place on June 1 -- and if they keep playing like this in the short term, the long term will not matter, even if Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and others return.
The Phillies can't afford to bury themselves, and right now, they are.
But before they open a three-game series in Minnesota on Tuesday, we figured it would be a good opportunity to answer two of the most frequent questions floating into our inbox over the past week:
1) Will the Phillies be buyers or sellers at the Trade Deadline?
There is a lot of gray area here.
The Phils' front office would like to see its entire team on the field before it draws any conclusions and makes any moves. That means getting Howard, Utley and Halladay back. That might not happen until the end of the month or early July -- Utley begins a rehab assignment Tuesday, which means if he stays healthy, he should be back no later than July 2 -- so those asking for trades to happen today should grab a Tony Luke's roast pork and relax.
Best-case scenario: Utley, Howard and Halladay come back, everybody plays well and the Phillies are back in the race. But they need a reliever. Even if some of the injured relievers (Mike Stutes, David Herndon, Justin De Fratus) come back, they still need a reliable veteran right-hander.
Tough choices scenario: Utley, Howard and Halladay come back, but Philadelphia continues to play mediocre (at best) and remains on the outskirts of the division and Wild Card standings. What do the Phils do then?
History could cloud their thinking. The Phillies were seven behind the Mets with 17 games to play in 2007, only to come back and win the NL East. The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the Wild Card race on Aug. 25 last season, but got hot, won the Wild Card, upset the Phils in the NL Division Series and won the World Series.
Say the Phillies are where they are now on July 31: 5 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot. Say Utley and Howard are back and seem to be coming into their own. Say Halladay just returned and is prepared to make his second start. Could Philadelphia really sell? The most attractive pieces are Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. If the Phils believe they will re-sign Hamels, it's nearly impossible to trade him. If the Phillies believe they can contend, it would be difficult to trade Victorino, because nobody other than John Mayberry Jr. can really play center field. And Pence figures to be in the club's plans at least another year. In that case, the Phils still might try to add a bullpen piece, cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Worst-case scenario: The Phillies continue to spiral so far out of the race, it doesn't matter when Utley, Howard and Halladay return. Or when those three do return, they don't play well and the Phils continue their slide. In that case, it makes sense to sell a key piece of two and retool for 2013.
2) Why is this team struggling so much?
It's not just the offense.
Since April 23, Philadelphia is third in the NL, averaging 4.74 runs per game. Only the Rockies (5.20) and Cardinals (5.00) have scored more. Yes, the Phillies have been abysmal scoring runners on third with fewer than two outs. Their 38-percent success rate is last in the big leagues, with the big league average 51 percent. But in that same stretch since April 23, the Phils are second in the league hitting overall with runners in scoring position (.273). The bad at-bats are engrained in everybody's memories, but it's not as gruesome as it seems.
The pitching is more of an issue these days. Cliff Lee blew a 4-1 lead on Sunday in Baltimore, and it was not the first lead he has lost this season. Hamels could not hold 3-0 leads in his past two starts. Halladay has blown his share of leads, most memorably the 6-0 lead in Atlanta on May 2.
The Phillies lean heavily on their pitching. It is the foundation to their success. Sometimes, the run support has not been there, but the pitching has not locked down leads like it has been in the past. That is costing them.
And of course, the bullpen is a major problem.
Jonathan Papelbon's $50 million contract has generated angst among some fans, because it is a lot of money allocated to a pitcher who has thrown just 24 1/3 of the team's 559 2/3 innings (4.3 percent) this season, especially as they have watched the team suffer seven walk-off losses on the road without Papelbon throwing a pitch in any of them. But imagine if Philadelphia had gone with a cheaper, less reliable solution at closer? Papelbon is 16-for-16 in save opportunities. He blows three of those, and the Phils are 11 back of the Nationals.
The Phillies publicly said they liked the look of their bullpen in Spring Training. But Chad Qualls has been a disappointment and Jose Contreras blew out his elbow just when he started pitching better. Injuries to Stutes, Herndon and De Fratus have left Papelbon and Antonio Bastardo as the only two reliable arms in the 'pen. The rest of the relief corps includes Qualls and rookies Joe Savery, Jake Diekman, Michael Schwimer and B.J. Rosenberg. They're getting experience, but Philadelphia isn't in the get-experience mode. The club is trying to win.
Maybe the Phillies begin to turn around their season against the Twins, who are a beatable team. Maybe the recent efforts from Qualls (two scoreless innings Sautrday) and Schwimer (three scoreless innings Sunday) trigger a turnaround for the bullpen.
Right now, the Phils can only hope to start to play better and stay in the race until Howard, Utley and Halladay come back. And then everybody will know what kind of team the Phillies are.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.