Will the Phillies Finish Above or Below .500? The Cases for Each

Will the Phillies Finish Above or Below .500? The Cases for Each

Though obviously it'd be preferable to be a couple games over, I kinda dig that the Phils finished the nominal first half of the baseball season dead even in wins and losses. It's been that kind of season, really--up-and-down, with every positive development seemingly counter-balanced with a negative one and vice versa. For the ledger to be completely balanced come the All-Star Break seems almost too poetic for this bunch.

But where do we go from here? The slate is clean, but does that give the Phils a chance to finally spend some time in the black, or will it only be a couple of games before they're once again fighting to keep their head above water? Let's take a look at the evidence and circumstances and argue the cases for both directions over .500:

Over:

1. Doc's coming back (eventually). Remember Roy Halladay? He was a pretty good pitcher for the Blue Jays for a bunch of years, then did OK for the Phils his first couple seasons in Philly as well. But the Doctor has been out for most of the season with shoulder issues, and was obviously less than effective in his first handful of starts trying to pitch through them. Halladay only has to be league-average in his return (maybe sometime late August?) to provide the Phils with greater value than he did in the season's first half, and if he's anything close to 2011 Doc, he could be a bigger boon to the squad than anyone they pick up at the trade deadline.

2. Cole's rounding back into form. After spending the first half of the season as one of the league's biggest disappointments on the mound, racking up double-digit losses before anyone else and hovering around 5.00 in the ERA department, Colbert has started to look more himself in recent weeks. In three July starts, he's given up only four runs over 23 combined innings, striking out 19 and only walking one, generally looking more like the Cole of old than the guy who only won one of his first 12 outings. Cole getting back to consistent ace form helps turn starting pitching again into a strength of this ball club, and could be a big difference in win differential for this team down the stretch.

3. Chase is healthy. No guarantee that he'll stay this way, of course--nor that he'll even be on the team for the rest of the season--but having our best all-around player in the lineup every day is still tremendously key for the Phils, and something we weren't able to have for a month this season as he sat with an oblique injury. Getting to plug him in regularly, and avoiding delving into the Galvises and Hernandezes of the world for the time being, should be worth a couple wins over .500.

4. Jimmy and Chooch have to be better...right? Last year, Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins finished the season 1-2 on the Phillies roster (with Hunter Pence traded mid-season to San Fran) in homers, with 16 and 23, respectively. This year, both are being OUTSLUGGED BY BEN REVERE, who's never hit a home run in his entire friggin' career. Injury and age are certainly a factor with Chooch and Not-So-Young James, but you have to feel like both are gonna show a little more life over the season's second half, particularly Ruiz, who a year after being the Phils' best all around hitter, is currently slugging an unthinkable .291., with just three extra-base hits in 142 PAs. Any kind of increased contribution from those two mainstays of the Phillies lineup over the second half would be a gigantic help to their over-.500 efforts.

Under:

1. No Ryan Howard or Ben Revere for some time. Howard may not be impossible to replace, as callup Darin Ruf has done pretty OK (in extremely limited sample size) of filling in for the big man at first so far, though you have to worry about the league catching up to Babe and Howard's respected slugging reputation being missed over the time out with knee issues. Oddly, it's Revere who should be the truly irreplaceable cog in the Phils lineup, going down with foot surgery just as he'd become the top-of-the-lineup hit machine we'd always hoped we were getting from the Twins, hitting safely in his last ten games with a .422 average over the course of the streak. Without Revere for 6-8 weeks, it's a whole lot of John Mayberry Jr.--not the worst fate, but his speed in center certainly isn't the same, and at the plate we've had about three seasons' worth of evidence that less is really more with JMJ.

2. John Lannan and Jon Pettibone might not keep it up. Our veteran lefty pickup and our young righty callup have both been sneaky productive for the Phils in the fourth and fifth starter slots so far this season, combining for a 7-6 record and both posting ERAs under 4.00. But the warning signs for regression are there for both, neither posting a particularly great strikeout to walk ratio (Lannan's a little over 2:1, Pettibone's a little under) and both being somewhat limited in their exposure, neither starter averaging even six innings a game. Seems pretty likely that both will get hit around a little more in the second half--and possibly third starter Kyle Kendrick as well, whose cracks have also started to show a bit after a strong start to the season, giving up double-digit hits in three of his last six starts.

3. The trade deadline looms. Just try to find a trade deadline preview out there in which the Phillies are not the most frequently mentioned team. Unless the Phils win 10 of their first 12 coming out of the break, and possibly even if they do, the vultures will be circling looking to pick the team's bones, with offers coming in for Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Jonathan Paplebon, Michael Young, perhaps even Jimmy and Chooch if they start looking like half-decent pros again. One trade will likely lead to others, and before long, it could suddenly turn into a rebuilding year for the Fightins. It's a lot harder to win games with Tyler Cloyd starting, Freddy Galvis playing second and Antonio Bastardo closing, obvs.

4. Run differential says we should have been way under .500 all along. In case you haven't noticed on Yahoo! Sports' MLB Standings page, the Phils' run differential--the stat that subtracts the number of total runs allowed from the number of total runs scored by a team over the course of the season--has us at a pretty sucky -45. That's not just a sub-.500 run differential, it's the fourth-worst in the entire NL, 18 runs worse than even the woeful Mets. Teams who play above their run differentials tend to eventually regress to them, so gravity will not be on the Phillies' side this second half.

You know what? I'm betting they finish at .500 for the second straight season. It's the only thing that seems fitting with this team, and the only way that RAJ can continue to play it down the middle with this team, sorta rebuilding but also sorta keeping out hope that One Last Run with the team's core in tact can still be a possibility. Depressing, but also kinda beautiful.

NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

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NBA draft profile: G/F Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown

Position: Shooting guard/small forward
Height: 6-7
Weight: 223
School: Cal

Aside from Ben Simmons, Brown may be the most scrutinized lottery pick in the draft. A blue chip recruit, the Mariettam, Georgia, native chose to attend Cal, spurning schools like Kansas and Kentucky. That decision didn't appear to be a wise one, as Brown struggled with inconsistency playing in a system that really didn't suit his skill set. A slasher with crazy athleticism, Brown averaged 14.6 points in his lone season with the Golden Bears. 

Strengths
Brown can play above the rim and then some. He's a strong finisher and would be an excellent candidate for next year's dunk contest. He's an explosive athlete with a tremendous first step. There were games in which he lived at the free throw line. With his ability to blow by people and willingness to take on all comers at the basket, he had 12 games this season in which he attempted eight or more free throws.

His 7-foot wingspan coupled with his quickness could make him an elite defender. He's also very strong. He averaged 5.4 rebounds as a wing.

Weaknesses
Two pretty big ones: his jump shot and his instincts. Brown shot 29 percent from three. That's not good for a wing player. He also shot just 65 percent from the line. Again, not good for a wing player with a propensity to get fouled. He flashed the ability to hit shots, hitting 42 percent (10 of 24) from three in seven February games. There's inconsistency with his mechanics, which good coaching should be able to iron out.

His feel for the game is just not very good. He doesn't seem to understand what defenses are trying to do to him. Again, good coaching could go a long way in helping Brown here. He also had a tendency to be a little loose with his handle. He averaged more turnovers (3.1) than assists (2) per game. 

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Horribly. With the way the Sixers are currently constructed, Brown would struggle with the same issues he had at Cal. With all of the big men clogging the paint, Brown's slashing ability would be useless. If the Sixers were to deal a big man and get more shooters, Brown would be fun to watch with head coach Brett Brown's desire to push the basketball. This kid is worth the price of admission in the open floor.

NBA comparison
Andrew Wiggins but with a lot further to go. Wiggins was a much more polished prospect coming out of Kansas than Brown is now. But the size profile and athleticism are very similar (although Brown is stronger physically than Wiggins). Wiggins was also much further along with the development of his jumper. 

The moral of the story: when you're an elite prospect, go to a big-time school with a big-time coach if you want to properly develop your game.

Draft projection
He's probably a top-5 pick based on upside alone (I can't see him getting past the Pelicans at No. 6), although the weaknesses could scare off teams looking for a "safe pick."

Union-Rapids 5 things: Clash of conference leaders

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Union-Rapids 5 things: Clash of conference leaders

Union vs. Colorado Rapids
9 p.m. on TCN

From one rough road town to another, the Union (5-3-4) look to continue their six-game unbeaten streak in a battle of conference leaders when they visit Zac MacMath and the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids (8-2-3) Saturday night (9 p.m./TCN) at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Battle of conference titans
What may have seemed like an impossibility late last season is reality in 2016. The Rapids and Union, who combined for 74 total points last season (both conference leaders finished with 60), are leading their conferences at the quarter mark of the season.

“The table doesn’t lie,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “[Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni] has done a heck of job with his team. You don’t want to get too ahead of yourself, but it’s first place in the East vs. first play in the West, so there’s something more there.”

Curtin also mentioned a little extra buzz, considering where the two teams are located. It isn’t just a road game in May for the Union, it’s a chance to prove themselves against the league’s best.

“We’re both in decent form and they are very good at home, so it’ll be a real challenge for our guys,” Curtin said. “It’s not just another game, that’s for sure. You want to test yourself against top teams and they are the top team in the league right now.”

2. Yaro’s shoulder
Just 45 minutes into Wednesday’s match, Union central defender Josh Yaro needed to leave the game with a shoulder injury. The Union held their breath. 

“He can’t really give an answer whether it did pop out or not, but our staff didn’t have to put it back in,” said Curtin, who mentioned Yaro’s history of shoulder separations. “Sounds like it’s sore and it hurts, but not something that will prevent him from playing. We’ll assess where he’s at.”

If Yaro can’t go against the Rapids, the Union will be in good hands. Ken Tribbett will step in next to Richie Marquez, just like he did Wednesday by contributing a goal and assist. 

“Credit to our depth at center back,” Curtin said. “Ken Tribbett comes in and does a good job.”

3. Rapids riding success
There are two standout reasons for the Rapids' incredible success to start the 2016 season – incredible defense and league-best home record. 

“They don’t have a lot of big names,” Curtin said. “They’re doing it with some guys that’ve been in and out of other teams and on different rosters in MLS. But Pablo’s getting the most out of his group right now and they’re playing some good soccer.”

Good soccer may be an understatement. The Rapids have only allowed a league-best nine goals in 13 games and are 6-0-0 at home. 

“They know how to win the 1-0 game,” Curtin said. “And they can also keep better possession and can beat you in a couple of different ways.”

Helping the Union will be the absence of two of the Rapids' higher-priced stars, Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi, who are away on international duty.

“It helps us, for sure,” Curtin said. “Jermaine is a winner. He’s a driving force for the way they press, get after you, compete and fight. Jermaine has been their leader. For him not to be there is fortunate for us.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Each game the uber-talented Ilsinho remains sidelined with an injury, the more his legend grows. And while he’s only expected to, at most, make a brief appearance this weekend, there’s still a chance the Brazilian makes an impact. “He’ll be available for selection this weekend,” Curtin said. “How long he can go is up in the air. Do you want to start him in altitude, when he hasn’t been in a match in a little while? It’s a tough decision. I’m tempted because he’s that talented.”

Rapids: MacMath, the former Union goalkeeper, started 102 games for the club before moving on to the Rapids in 2015. Now, he’s leading the league in goals-against average with 0.69 and seems to have turned the corner as one of the premier goalkeepers in MLS. But is MacMath excited about facing his former club? “It’ll be weird leading up to it, but once the whistle blows it’s just a normal game,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the shutout at home.”

5. This and that
• Union backup goalkeeper Matt Jones left the team in Colorado this week to witness the birth of his first-born child, Jackson. Curtin couldn’t have been happier. “There’s things a lot bigger than soccer and I’m a believer in family first,” the manager said.

• Union midfield catalyst, Vincent Nogueira, is continuing his progress from an oblique injury that saw him miss the last two games and will very likely keep him out for Saturday. “He’s been running,” Curtin said. “We’re better with the ball when Vincent is on the field. He’s great in possession. It’ll be close for Vincent for this weekend. He’s moving along, getting better.” 

• The Union are 1-3-4 all time against the Rapids and 1-1-1 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. 

Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Big test for Jerad Eickhoff

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Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Big test for Jerad Eickhoff

Phillies (26-22) at Cubs (32-14)
2:20 p.m. on CSN

After Friday’s 6-2 loss to the MLB-best Chicago Cubs, Jerad Eickhoff and the Phillies look to rebound against Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs’ potent offense.

1. Slowing down the Cubs
How can the Phillies slow down one of the deepest offenses in the game?

Well, they may not be able to — not many teams have.

As the Phillies learned Friday, when the Cubs hit it out of the park, they are almost unbeatable. As a team, the Cubs have hit 52 home runs in 45 games this season and are 22-5 when they hit a home run. That’s only 16 games without a homer and the Cubs are 7-9 in those games.

For the Phillies to have a chance in this series, the pitching staff must limit the long balls. 

2. Big test for Eickhoff
And it is Eickhoff’s job to do just that Saturday afternoon — to contain the Cubs.

Eickhoff’s inconsistencies have been well documented and Saturday is his biggest test yet. In his last five starts, Eickhoff has gone at least six innings and has allowed three runs or fewer in four of those starts, including a seven shutout innings his last time out against the Atlanta Braves.

Eickhoff and the Phillies would be thrilled with a start like that Saturday. 

3. Something’s gotta give
Lefties have had the better of the right-handed Eickhoff this season, hitting .302 against him with an OPS of .844, .200 points higher than his numbers against righties.

Most of the Cubs’ power bats are right-handed, with the exception of Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward. Lucky for Eickhoff, right? Not so fast.

Of the Cubs’ 52 home runs this season, 41 have come against right-handed pitchers. Something’s got to give.

4. What 5th starter?
The Phillies draw the Cubs’ fifth starter, Kyle Hendricks, Saturday. However, Hendricks might just be the best back-end pitcher in baseball this year.

Boasting a 3.30 ERA, Hendricks holds opponents to just a .218 batting average and is equally effective against both righties and lefties. Hendricks doesn’t have blazing speed on his pitches — his fastball routinely tops out at 89 mph — but what he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in pinpoint precision. The Phillies will have their work cut out for them.

5. This and that
• Hendricks tossed 6⅔ innings in his only career start against the Phillies, giving up three runs on four hits — three of which were doubles. 

• Eickhoff has one career start against Chicago, a no-decision. Eickhoff went seven strong innings, giving up just one run on three hits with eight strikeouts. 

• The Phillies have 144 RBIs on the season — the Cubs had 129 in April alone. 

• Chicago has two of the top three hitters in the league in on-base percentage in Ben Zobrist (.453) and Dexter Fowler (.436). The two sandwich Odubel Herrera, who has a .440 OBP.