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.

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup Tuesday night after being hit in the knee by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch on Memorial Day.

Big break for the Phils considering Harper has hit .346 against them with three doubles, 11 home runs, 23 RBIs and 21 walks in his last 104 plate appearances against them.

It's an equally big break for Aaron Nola, against whom Harper is 6 for 10 with two homers (see game notes).

For the Phillies, Ryan Howard gets the start at first base against another right-hander, Washington's Joe Ross. Phillies fans are clamoring for more playing time for Tommy Joseph, but starting Howard against Ross does make some sense given how much better lefties have been against him (.295 BA) than righties (.209). Ross throws a ton of sinkers and sliders which make it tough on same-handed hitters.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Cameron Rupp, C
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Tyler Goeddel, LF
7. David Lough, RF
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Daniel Murphy, 2B
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Clint Robinson, LF
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Danny Espinosa, SS
9. Joe Ross, P

The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

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The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

It's difficult to feel sorry for a professional athlete who will have earned nearly $200 million in salary before his playing career ends at 37 years old. It's hard, but Ryan Howard is doing an outstanding job of making me feel bad anyway.

The statistics speak for themselves. As the calendar rolls over to June, Howard is batting .157 with more than twice as many strikeouts (52) as base hits (22). Debate rages as to whether the Phillies should hang on to the three-time All-Star for locker-room morale -- perhaps also in the desperate hopes they can still trade him -- or if they should just put The Big Piece out of his misery with an outright release.

There's no satisfying answer here. All I can say is I wish for it to be over.

Howard's decline has been one of the saddest to watch in recent Philly sports memory. From 2005 through 2011, he was the heart of the Phillies' order, belting 284 home runs and driving in 859 runs in six-and-a-half seasons, during the most successful run in franchise history. In 2016, Howard's bat can barely catch up to the ball, let alone knock it out of the infield.

Largely through no fault of his own. Howard has never been the same since rupturing his Achilles on the final at bat of the 2011 season. Sure, there were signs he was slowing down or that the rest of the league was catching up to him even then, averaging 32 homers between the '10-'11 seasons compared to 49.5 over '06-'09 -- but he was still hitting the ball at that point.

Since the injury, Howard's power hasn't necessarily dipped dramatically. It's his ability to hit the ball, period. From '04 to '11, he was a .275 hitter. After the injury, he's batting .226. This season has been especially trying, with the month of May bordering on the historic.

Of course, it's not news Howard's career was derailed by injuries. It's no secret he's been particularly awful this season. It's just harder than ever to watch.

Just how ineffective has Howard been in 2016? In retrospect, maybe the numbers don't quite do the struggle justice. Obviously, he isn't hitting, and he's striking out as frequently as ever. What's new this year is the percentage of fly balls that don't even make it out of the infield -- 12 percent, which is twice as high as any season in 13 Major League seasons.

What does it mean exactly? Howard's swing is so jacked right now that even when he does make contact, even when he doesn't hit a ball into the defensive shift, one in 10 times is essentially a harmless pop-up.

To his credit, Howard also has eight home runs this season, some of which have been big at bats or game-winners. He's also been hailed as a positive influence and leader in the clubhouse, an example this young group of Phillies can certainly benefit from.

Nor do I believe Howard really needs anybody to feel bad for him. He's worked hard and accomplished more than most ever will at his profession, and as a result is able to provide for his family and generations beyond. He's built a great legacy both on the baseball diamond, but one that no doubt extends beyond athletic prowess.

Yet none of that changes the fact that Howard's play has deteriorated to the point where he's become a black hole in the Phillies' lineup. It pains me to say that, to use this platform to write it -- just not as much as it pains me to watch it happening.

I'd love nothing more than for Howard to go on a tear and end his final season with the Phillies with head held high. It's the ending a legend like him deserves. Or better yet, improve his production to a level where a contender in the American League would sign Howard and give him one last crack at postseason baseball.

But short of that, I'd love nothing more for it to all be over, to not have to watch one of the great Phillies sluggers flail away every other or third day, or less as it soon may come to. It's not a matter of debate as to when or how that should happen. The sooner, the better.

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure whom the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.