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.

Jay Wright amazed by Joel Embiid's improvements since Kansas

Jay Wright amazed by Joel Embiid's improvements since Kansas

Jay Wright remembers facing Joel Embiid's Kansas team, and he's shocked by the improvements Embiid made while sitting out the last two years.

"Could you imagine not playing for two years and getting better?" Wright said Friday on TCN's Breakfast on Broad. "We played against him in college and he was not close — he was good, but not close to the player that he was at the start of this year. 

"What [the Sixers'] staff did while he was out is incredible. I don't know what other pro athlete has done that or could do that — not play and improve drastically.

"He's a unique force. We haven't seen a guy that's got this will defensively and ability defensively and then the skill level and mobility offensively. I've heard some people compare him to (Hakeem) Olajuwon. He's far more mobile than Olajuwon. Olajuwon, offensively, had his set of skills, which [Embiid] will develop. But the mobility he's got far exceeds Olajuwon. He's exciting. ... It's nice to feel this vibe with the Sixers right now."

Wright was also asked if he, as a coach, would want a player on a minutes restriction participating in the All-Star Game.

"Yeah, I would," he said. "I think that it's such an accomplishment for Joel Embiid. It would build his confidence so much to be on the floor with those guys and realize he's earned this. And to have that a part of his psyche going into the next season — 'OK, I've already been separated during the regular season with those guys, I belong with those guys.' So next year I'm thinking, 'I wanna beat these guys, I wanna be better than these guys.' 

"I think it'll be great for him. I think it's awesome ... what Brett Brown and his staff have done with this guy."

As lucky as good?
With a national championship and another No. 1 ranking this season, it would be understandable if Wright was feeling himself right about now. 'Nova is 17-1 and back atop the AP poll after a brief stint at No. 3.

National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart is leading the way for the Wildcats with 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. A lot of Villanova's success this season is owed to Hart's decision to return for his senior year, so Wright has no issue admitting there's been some luck involved in the Wildcats' recent success.

"It's a tremendous advantage and it's really been probably the most important factor in our success the last three, four years," Wright said of 'Nova's senior leadership Friday on TCN's Breakfast on Broad.

"A lot of it is, on Villanova's side, luck. Josh Hart could have left last year. He just looked at it and kind of said, 'I could be maybe a late first-round, early [second-round pick]. I'd rather come back and get my degree.' 

"Having people that make that choice, you're lucky. If we lose him last year, we're a lot younger team this year. Daniel Ochefu the year before was faced with that decision. He stayed. 

"So when you get those guys that decide they're gonna stay, you catch a break because they're invaluable, a senior of that level. Daniel's playing in the NBA now. So we had a guy for a year that was an NBA player. And we have that with Josh this year. Kris (Jenkins) is developing into one, Darryl (Reynolds) has a chance."

Villanova, which destroyed Seton Hall 76-46 on Monday, hosts Providence Saturday at noon.

Gregg Popovich on Sixers: 'One of my joys in life to watch them win'

Gregg Popovich on Sixers: 'One of my joys in life to watch them win'

When Brett Brown agreed to become the Sixers' head coach, he knew he was embarking upon a unique challenge with a franchise that planned to be as methodical as possible in its rebuild. 

One of the results was a career record for Brown of 47-199 entering this season, a record so lopsidedly poor that Brown may never break the .500 mark.

But the Sixers are finally showing real progress, with a star in Joel Embiid and young players who are turning out to be useful pieces. The Sixers have won seven of their last nine, and there's no one happier to see that than Brown's former boss and mentor, Gregg Popovich.

"It's one of my joys in life to watch them win basketball games because if there's any team that deserves it, it's those guys," Popovich told ESPN.

Brown and the Sixers aren't out of the woods yet. At 14-26, they're still closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but the entire vibe around the team has changed. 

"They've had it really tough for all the obvious reasons," said Popovich, who has been the Spurs' head coach since 1996 and worked with Brown from 2002-13.

"There's nobody in our business that is more positive, and more day-to-day upbeat and ready to teach and love than Brett Brown. He's a unique, unique guy."