The Philadelphia Phillies were one inning away from the perfect weekend, a three-game sweep of the New York Mets at Citi Field that would have brought the team back to .500 and recovered a little momentum from the team's debilitating four-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays in a home-and-home series earlier in the week. But with a 4-1 lead in the ninth and closer Jonathan Papelbon given the day off, substitute Antonio Bastardo was unable to secure the W and a Mets flurry sent the game to extras, where the bad guys won it in 11th. Subsequently, the Phils stay tied for last in the NL East with the Mets at 17-19, with the NL's second-worst run differential at -30.
Nope, it hasn't been a great start to the year for the Fightins, though it's not like we predicted anything all that different. The hitting and starting pitching are both inconsistent, the fielding is absolutely brutal (especially in the outfield), and the relief pitching...well, if Pap needs too many more rest days, we're in pretty big trouble there. It's not a particularly good team, and they've given us not particularly good results.
The reflexive reaction here would be to point the finger at the roster's architect, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. However, though there's certainly fault to be had with Ruben, it's interesting to note a little bit that actually, of all the roster moves he's made over the last year or so--many of which were met with pretty decisive criticism--none of them have really flopped, and actually, most of them have looked pretty good for the team so far.
Marlon Byrd, the team's top hitting pickup in the off-season, was given two years and $16 million (potentially 3/$24, if certain vesting options come through) to be the team's starting right fielder, a commitment which seemed slightly ridiculous for a 36-year-old who was essentially out of baseball two years earlier. But while the contract still has the potential to look silly in a year or two, it's so far, so good with Marlon: He's been one of the team's best offensive producers this season, hitting over .300, slugging over .500 and leading the team with 23 RBIs, while not killing them with his defense in right.
Top pitching acquisition A.J. Burnett, a 37-year-old signed for one year and $15 million (with a team option for the same next season), seemed like a pretty unsafe bet given his age and erratic history of production. But A.J. hasn't been the problem either--even after his roughest start of the season last week against Toronto, he still has the lowest ERA (2.98) and highest WAR (1.0) among Phillies starters. His strikeout to walk rate of under two might be a bad sign of things to come, but for the season's first month-plus, it's hard to say he hasn't made the Phillies a better team.
The team's lower-leverage pickups haven't been huge difference-makers, but they haven't been disasters, either. Wil Nieves and Tony Gwynn Jr. have mostly been acceptable bench players, though Gwynn is starting to get exposed as he has to make too many sub starts for Ben Revere in center. Roberto Hernandez hasn't been a revelation, but as the team's fifth starter, he's acceptable--an ERA of just over four and a 2:1 K/BB ratio that at least gives the team a chance to win when he starts. Jayson Nix...OK, that guy straight-up blows, but whatever, as long as Cody Asche can keep up his improved hitting and Maikel Franko can make his way up from Triple A before too long, we hopefully won't have to see that much of him moving forward.
What's more, even the extensions that RAJ signed last year seem like OK deals thusfar. We gave Chase Utley $15 mil a year, basically until he can't play anymore, but that's more than cool with us when he's hitting .338 with a slugging percentage near .550, easily leading the team in both categories. He's clearly not the guy he used to be in the field, but as long as he's giving us near-MVP-caliber production from the second-base position at the plate, it's hard to find much ground for complaining with Chase. And Carlos Ruiz, in the first year of a deal that should last at least three years and 25 million, has remained one of the game's more productive offensive catchers, posting an OBP of .390 and staying steady behind the plate.
The Phils' struggles this year haven't been due to their work in free agency, or but rather the stunted development of some of the team's more medium-tenured players. A year after a breakout All-Star campaign, Domonic Brown has been absolute murder for the Fightins this season, slugging an anemic .287, which is even lower this season than that of his notoriously light-hitting outfield partner Ben Revere. Brown and Revere have basically been zeroes for the Phils at the plate this season, with a combined eight extra base hits in 259 plate appearances, and in the field, they've been even worse, with Brown's plodding feet and poor route-running combining with Revere's questionable decision-making and historically weak arm to make every fly ball to the left side of the outfield a Choose Your Own Adventure book of horrors.
And as previously alluded to, the bullpen has officially reached tire fire status for the Phils. Outside of Papelbon, who's actually been pretty kickass by just about any statistical measure, there's just nobody that's even the slightest bit reliable. For some perspective, Pap leads the bullpen in ERA+--a stat which measures individual ERA against league average, with 100 being the median--with a superlative 213. 2nd on the list? Newcomer Mario Hollands, with an 83. This team has urgently needed one of their longer-tenured bullpen arms--B.J. Rosenberg, Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, hell, we gave Mike Adams 12 million--to step up, and each has politely but firmly declined, already costing the team a number of games this season, most recently last night.
So the Phils are getting better-than-expected contributions from both their aging long-time vets--we haven't even talked about Jimmy Rollins, who's off to easily his best all-around start in ages--and their (similarly aging) first-year pickups, yet they're still disappointing. And while it seems like you can't blame this on RAJ, since none of his individual decisions have backfired, it does make you continue to wonder why he made so many of those go-for-it, quick-fix-type moves over the last year when it's clear that the core of the team just isn't good enough to compete at an elite level anymore.
Maybe Dom and Ben bounce back, and maybe a couple bullpen arms emerge to help out over the course of the season. But when you ask for that to happen while also hoping that all of the old guys continue to outperform expectation, you realize just how much you're asking for to go right with this team just so they can approach a base line of competence as a ballclub. Baseball isn't basketball, certainly, and you don't build your teams the same way across the sports, but you can only imagine what our dark lord Sam Hinkie is thinking as he watches the Phils desperately (and expensively) scrap their way to .500, rather than just admitting it's over, bottoming out and figuring out what to do next.