One final run: Phillies' second-half storylines

One final run: Phillies' second-half storylines
July 18, 2013, 7:00 pm
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There is a school of thought that says the All-Star break hit at a bad time for the Phillies. The belief is that the Phils, coming off a 7-3 homestand that earned them at least a stay from management waving the white flag, would have been better served to keep the momentum going without a four-day break.

While there’s merit to that thinking, the opinion here is the break came at just the right time. The Phils racked up eight wins in their final 11 games before the break to reach the elusive .500 mark. There had been such a focus on getting to .500 and the task of reaching the mark was such a grind -- what with three extra-innings games in the final series against the White Sox -- that a deep breath might do the team some good.

When the Phils return to action Friday night, the focus will no longer be on getting to .500. It will be on running down the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. That is unless the Phils make a poor showing against the Mets over the weekend. Then the focus won’t necessarily be on getting back to .500 again. It’ll be on the July 31 trade deadline and who gets shipped out as management waves the white flag on 2013 and turns its attention to bringing in some players to help future teams.

Before the Phils get back to work for the final 66 games of the season -- and a crucial nine-game road trip that will ultimately determine management’s course for the remainder of the season -- let’s take a look at some of the storylines facing this team.

One final run
Management’s plan last winter was to put some complementary players (Michael Young, John Lannan, Mike Adams, Delmon Young, etc.) around an aging nucleus and hope the result would be a team that could get into the playoffs and make a run behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

The plan has not been without serious glitches. Adams broke down and the bullpen has been a weakness. Ryan Howard broke down. Roy Halladay broke down. Still entering the final 66 games, the Phillies have a chance to fulfill management’s vision of one more playoff run.

It’s not going to be easy. Management itself knows that. In fact, there is evidence of doubt in the front office as to whether this can be a playoff team.

But at 6 1/2 games back in the NL East and 5 1/2 back in the wild card -- with 66 to play -- there’s no giving up just yet.

There might not be any serious buying-in -- as in going out and buying talent -- but there’s no giving up, not at least for another 10 days. The Phils have nine games to convince management to stay in it. As we said, it won’t be easy. The first three games come against a fresh Mets team with All-Star ace Matt Harvey set to pitch on Sunday. After that, the Phils have three games at NL Central-leader St. Louis and three at AL Central-leading Detroit. That tough bit of scheduling will take the Phils to July 29. That’s an off day in the schedule, but it won’t be an off day for management. You can bet that Ruben Amaro Jr., who for weeks has been deep in trade discussions, has two files going in his laptop, one marked “sell,” the other marked “buy.” July 29 figures to be the day he puts one of those plans to work.

Remaining schedule
Despite this team’s flaws, management has been careful not to be pessimistic about the chances of a second-half run. There are a couple of things at work there. First, the club has 34 home dates in the second half. It needs to sell tickets and keep hope percolating in a fan base that is so important to revenues. Second, the schedule will offer the Phils ample opportunity to catch division rivals. The Phils have 22 games remaining against the two teams they trail in the NL East -- 13 against Atlanta and nine against Washington.

Atlanta stands at 54-41, 6 1/2 games up on the Phils.

Washington is second at 48-47, a half-game better than the Phils.

The Phils are 48-48.

Atlanta has clearly benefited from its quick start. The Braves were 12-1 after their win on April 16.

Since then, however, they are 42-40. The Phillies are also 42-40 since then. Washington is 40-41.

There is some hope in those numbers, but the Phils have to keep winning. They can’t afford a losing streak or a leveling off. They have to make hay in the 16 games they have left against the Mets and Marlins.

Ben Revere is out for the better part of two months with a cracked ankle. He has been a nice offensive contributor since May 1 and his loss is significant. With Revere out, the Phils would like to bolster their centerfield position. The only problem is teams know this and are looking to gouge the Phils. (It was the same way when Chase Utley blew out his thumb in 2010.) If the Phils give management a reason to believe these next 10 days, the team could deal for an outfielder, but we see it being more of a backup with John Mayberry Jr. getting his latest chance to show he can be an every-day contributor. Mayberry has had productive stretches before. This team could really use one now.

You’ve heard all the names that could be dealt if the Phillies sell: Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Michael Young, Delmon Young.

The players on this list that the Phils would have serious second thoughts about dealing are Lee (they need someone to pitch next season) and Utley, a pillar in the organization’s recent golden era. But ears are open. Lee is signed for two more years. The preference remains to keep him and see what happens. There will be time to revisit potential trades down the road.

If the Phils fall out of the race and are blown away, Utley could be moved. It’s not something the Phils want to do, but it’s something they could do provided it makes the team better in the future.

If the team stays in the race, Utley is going nowhere. And if he’s here past July 31, you have to assume that the team will make an effort to sign him to a contract extension before he becomes a free agent at season’s end.

Utley has a limited no-trade clause. He could still be dealt in a waiver deal after July 31, but that window is small. According to sources, he gains full no-trade rights on Aug. 22, when he reaches 10 years service in the majors.

More trade stuff
The Phils are all ears when it comes to Papelbon, but it will be tough to deal him if they are in the race.

However, they might be open to dealing Michael Young -- the Red Sox love him -- either way if it could land them some bullpen help. There have also been some signs that the Phils could be open to dealing Carlos Ruiz either way, especially now that Erik Kratz is back. Ruiz will be a free agent at season’s end.

If the Phils were to move Young, they would consider a third-base platoon of Kevin Frandsen and Cody Asche. But it should be noted that moving Young would not come without cost. He is hitting .323 with an .825 OPS since the start of June. In the end, the Phils could decide they need that bat, especially with Revere out.

Health check
If the Phils can somehow stay in the race, they could get some reinforcements from within. If all goes well in his recovery, Howard could return from knee surgery sometime in late August. Halladay, who had shoulder surgery in mid-May, is throwing with some aggression on flat ground and could be on a bullpen mound before long. Amaro recently said it was possible that Halladay could be back pitching by September. Again, that’s barring a setback.

For all this to matter, the Phils need to keep winning. The run that so many had hoped for has actually started. Now the question is: Can it last long enough for the Phils to squeeze out a trip to the playoffs?

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