May 17, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee (33) celebrates with manager Charlie Manuel (41) after defeating the Cincinnati Reds at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Reds 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
We are 54 games into the 162-game marathon that is the baseball regular season, and after 54 games, there is still no clear idea on where this team is going.
There have been no winning streaks longer than three games. There have been no losing streaks longer than four games. They haven’t been getting swept, but they aren’t sweeping anybody either. They’ve beaten some good teams (splitting four with AL East leading Boston, NL West leading Arizona, and NL Central leading St. Louis, while also winning two of three in San Francisco), but also have been outplayed by some bad teams (they lost two of three to Kansas City and have been outscored by the Marlins 31-30 this year, although have won 6 of 10).
All in all, it’s been an up-and-down ride so far, with the Phillies at 26-28, 6 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the NL East and 7 out in the Wild Card.
The Phillies are neither really bad, nor are they very good.
And now, as the current core of the team settles into “old age” – at least for the purposes of playing at elite levels in professional baseball – and without much impact fruit on the branches of the minor league system, the Phils are faced with a touch decision.
Should they hold on and perhaps even try to add players over the next few months with the hopes of finishing a few games over .500 and sneaking in as the second Wild Card in the National League or even winning the NL East? Or should they look at their roster, ignore the standings, realize the bleakness of the future after this year and try to gain some assets with the knowledge that at least a minor rebuilding project is upon them?
Because here’s the deal. Even a mediocre team like the Phils can make the playoffs nowadays. And as the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals taught us, once you get into the modern-day baseball playoffs, ANYONE can win a World Series.
Last year, St. Louis got into the playoffs with 88 wins. In 2011, the second wild card would have been Atlanta with 89 wins. In the five years before that, the second wild card winner would have gotten into the one-game playoff with 90, 88, 89, 89 and 88 wins. The ’06 Cardinals won their division with 83 wins.
This year, the Atlanta Braves have numerous holes that figure to keep them from running away with the division, despite their 6 1/2 game lead over the Phillies right now. The Nationals also appear to be worse than they were last year and are just one game up on the Phils for second in the division.
In other words, both Atlanta and Washington, as well as the putridity of Miami and New York, give the Phillies reason to think they’ll be able to stick around in the NL East for a while. Given the weakness of the NL East, is it unreasonable to think the Phils could win 85-88 games?
It may be.
May 5, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Marlins left fielder Juan Pierre (9) steals second base beating the throw to Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (26) during the first inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
However, selling off players like Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon and others could prematurely derail a run for a potential playoff spot. And as everyone knows, the baseball postseason is a complete and total crapshoot. The nightmare that was the 2011 playoffs taught us all that.
But longer-term, it’s clear this just isn’t a really good Phillies team. And, as Crashburn Alley’s Michael Baumann noted in his Crashbag this week, anyone thinking Jesse Biddle, Adam Morgan, Cody Asche and Tommy Joseph are going to be the saviors of the future are deluding themselves.
If the Phils are going to get the kind of impact players they need to be considered among the best teams of the National League once again, they’re going to have to get that talent from outside the organization.
The only way to do that is to trade Cliff Lee and/or Chase Utley. And with Utley’s injury forcing him to the disabled list for what will likely end up being a month, his trade value took a hit. That makes Lee the one trade piece that could truly bring a difference maker back, as well as free up salary space to acquire additional talent through free agency.
However, there are dangers and perils with both options.
If the Phillies sell too soon, they could miss out on a genuine opportunity to make the playoffs and win another World Series. The NL East is weaker than expected and, with just a little bit more consistency, the Phils could win the division, even with all that has gone wrong and all the injuries that have befallen them.
If the Phillies don’t sell, and they don’t make the playoffs (which is much more likely than not right now), they’ll be screwed with their pants on. They will have missed out on getting something back for potential free agents Utley, Michael Young, Carlos Ruiz, and perhaps even Delmon Young. Who knows, maybe someone will give us a Pennsylvania Lottery scratcher for Delmon.
With the third-worst run differential in the National League (-47) and a Pythagorean won-loss record that says the Phillies should be 10 games under .500, not two, selling seems like the obvious choice. Then you see all those games left against the Marlins and Mets, and you watch the Nationals struggle to score runs as badly as the Phils do, and you see the Braves go a week and a half where they can’t do anything right, and the choice becomes less clear.
The team’s next three series against Milwaukee, Miami and Minnesota, three bad teams either in last or near the bottom of their divisions, could help to make this decision a little easier. A blitz through these teams, who are all clearly worse than the Phils, could put them in a much better position. A stumbling performance like they’ve given most of the year would only reinforce the need to sell.
It’s a tricky maze to navigate right now. Luckily, the Phillies have some time.
After the next week and a half, the picture should become much sharper.