Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

uspresswire-phillies-lee-howard-franco.jpg

Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

The Phillies resume their frustrating -- fans might call it infuriating -- season Friday night in Atlanta with A.J. Burnett taking on the Braves’ Ervin Santana.

After going 42-53 before the All-Star break, the Phillies will need something approaching a miracle to get into the hunt in the National League East.

While the idea of a pennant race seems far-fetched, the next 2½ months figure to be fascinating as the team churns a roster that is in need of a good churning.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the Phils come back from the All-Star break.

Trade talk
The non-waiver trade deadline is just two weeks away and the Phillies will be busy. Actually, they’ve already been busy. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his lieutenants are on the phone daily with rival clubs, laying groundwork for deals. The Phillies’ professional scouting staff is on the road, in big-league and minor-league parks, looking at players who might come back in deals.

The Phillies are not buyers. They need a serious retooling. Management is looking to bring young talent into the system. To do this, the club is willing to deal any player. Sure, some players such as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins (both have full no-trade rights and Rollins is just 35 at-bats from having his $11 million contract guaranteed for 2015) and Cole Hamels are less likely to move than others. But make an offer and the Phillies will talk. Just be prepared to give up three or four mega talents for Hamels.

The Phils have plenty of veteran talent that could help contending clubs. Burnett and Cliff Lee are both available. The Orioles have scouted a number of Burnett’s recent starts, and the Yankees and Blue Jays both had scouts at Lee’s minor-league rehab start in Clearwater on Tuesday night. Lee returns to the rotation Monday night after two months on the disabled list with an elbow strain and the scouts will be out in force. Lee will have just two starts before the trade deadline. That might not be enough time for a suitor to feel confident about trading for him, not when he’s guaranteed $37.5 million after this season. So Lee might go in an August waiver deal. Either way, his and Burnett’s availability are big second-half items.

Looking for a reliever? Jonathan Papelbon has already made it clear he wants out and there are enough teams looking for top relief help (both Los Angeles clubs, the Tigers, the Orioles, the Giants) that he should get his wish, especially because the Phillies have long been willing to eat part of his salary to move him. Teams are always looking for lefty relievers, so Antonio Bastardo could be on the move.

There is a dearth of top right-handed power bats on the market. That will help the Phillies if they decide to move Marlon Byrd. The Mariners have interest in Byrd, but he has a no-trade clause to that club and may require his $8 million option for 2016 to be guaranteed before he says yes to a deal.

The Phils are looking to remake their outfield. Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are both available for deals.

So what are the Phils looking for in return? Offense, Amaro has said, but he’s not likely to say no to pitching talent either as the Phils don’t have much that’s close in the minors.

Whither Ryan Howard?
Once the most feared hitter in the Phils’ lineup, Howard is hitting just .220 with a dreadful .681 OPS. Sure, he has 15 homers and 56 RBIs, but his inconsistency is a major problem. He is hitting .141 with just three extra-base hits (two doubles and a late-inning home run in a game the Phils led by six runs) in his last 21 games.

There are signs that the organization is running out of patience with Howard. Amaro suggested that prospect Maikel Franco could come up from Triple A in the coming weeks and get some time at first base. Manager Ryne Sandberg has said that he could start tinkering with different lineups once people “get healthy.” That is a reference to first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf, who is back playing at Triple A after rehabbing a broken wrist.

Howard is signed for two more seasons and guaranteed $60 million over that time. That makes him untradeable even though the Phillies would eat a significant amount of the number to move him.

In the offseason, there was a lot of talk about platooning Howard or sitting him if he did not produce. That wasn’t going to happen, however, without his getting a good, long look as an everyday guy. The look has been long now. Will Sandberg start cutting into Howard’s at-bats? And if he does, is it just a precursor to management considering a buyout? Stay tuned.

New faces
The final two months could be a time to take a peek at Franco at third and first. He is hitting just .230 at Lehigh Valley but might benefit from some lineup protection in Philadelphia.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore is already here. The Phils will spend the final months of the season evaluating whether he could be a contributor, possibly in a platoon, next season.

David Buchanan will be back, sooner rather than later if the Phils trade a starting pitcher, and Jason Marquis could come along, as well (see story).

And don’t rule out the Phils' bringing the Mystery Man, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, up for a look before the season is over. His problematic shoulder is holding up better since he moved to the bullpen. His fastball has been sitting at 93-94 mph at Double A Reading.

Attendance drop
The Phils are on pace to draw 2.5 million fans this season. That will break a string of seven straight seasons of drawing at least 3 million. Heck, they drew more than 3.5 million in four of those seasons.

Last year, the Phils drew 3.01 million so they are headed for a half-million drop, which, with an average ticket price of $37, equals a huge loss of revenue.

The last time the Phillies had a significant drop in attendance was 2005 when it fell by almost 600,000. General manager Ed Wade was fired after that season. Amaro’s job is already on the line because of the team’s performance. Attendance is another factor to watch as it relates to the GM’s job security.

Games to play
The Phillies have 67 games left. There is time. But here’s why it’s so hard to believe they can play their way into contention. They are 11 games under .500 and 10 back in the division race. They have been above .500 just five days since last year’s All-Star break. Teams can’t even think of the playoffs until they get to .500 and this team has shown itself to be completely incapable of doing that.

Still, they march on, looking over their shoulders as changes are surely coming.

“There are plenty of games to make up that ground,” a hopeful Utley said. “But we have to play better baseball. There is no doubt about that.”

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

The Phillies are a lifeless team right now.

For a while the starting pitching was the biggest issue, then it was the bullpen, now it's the offense. The Phils have hit .224 since May 12, which was when their 2-7 road trip began. 

Their .268 on-base percentage over that span is worst in the majors and their .613 OPS is better than only the Mariners.

Players up and down the lineup are slumping. Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP since the ninth game of the season. Michael Saunders hasn't given them much at any point. Maikel Franco had an eight-game hit streak snapped Monday, but even still is hitting .221 with a .281 on-base percentage. 

At this point, why not bring up Roman Quinn and play him every day? It makes too much sense right now.

Daniel Nava went on the 10-day DL Monday with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. It doesn't seem to be a serious injury, but why not use the open space as an excuse to bring Quinn up for at least a few days and see what he's got?

Quinn could infuse some energy and life to the top of a sputtering lineup. Bat him second, play him in the corner outfield and see what happens. At the very least, he'd be a defensive upgrade over Saunders. At the most, Quinn's hunger to stick in the majors could result in a hot streak that sparks the top of the order the way Herrera does when he's hot.

Quinn is hitting lately at Triple A, batting .333 with a .424 OBP over his last 15 games. He showed last September that he can be an offensive catalyst with his ability to beat out infield singles, bunt for hits and spray the ball. Yes, he strikes out too much for a leadoff-type hitter, but it's just hard to see the downside of a call-up right now.

The argument against bringing Quinn up now is that it's too early to sour on Saunders, a player the Phillies signed in hopes of trading at some point. But think about how much Saunders would have to do to have worthwhile trade value. Yeah, you could flip him somewhere for a negligible return or some salary relief, but he'd have to be extremely productive for at least a month to get a team interested in trading a minor-leaguer of any value for him.

Pete Mackanin has tried many things to spark the Phils' lineup, moving Herrera and Franco down, sitting guys, challenging guys. The best solution, perhaps the only solution right now, might be a move made over his head to promote the Phils' speedy, switch-hitting outfielder who has a future with them so long as he stays on the field, which he has this season.

As for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro, who have also hit very well at Triple A, they just happen to play the same positions as Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, who have been the Phillies' most reliable bats the last few weeks.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Phils turn to Zach Eflin to stop the bleeding

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Phils turn to Zach Eflin to stop the bleeding

Phillies (15-27) vs. Rockies (29-17)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies were supposed to take a step forward in 2017. Pete Mackanin went out on a limb when he said before the season that he thought they could be close to a .500 team, and so far they've fallen well short of that expectation.

At 15-27, the Phillies are on pace to go 58-104, an even worse record than 2015, the year of Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, etc.

They hope to stop the profuse bleeding tonight against the Rockies, who can't lose on the road lately.

1. Franco and Saunders sit
Looking for some more offense, or just a different approach, Mackanin is sitting Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders tonight in favor of Andres Blanco and Ty Kelly (see lineup).

Franco has actually been hitting a bit more in May, picking up a hit in nine straight games before going 0 for 3 with two strikeouts Monday. Still, he's hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage, and his .657 OPS is 27 percent below the league average.

Saunders just hasn't done much with the Phillies. He's hitting .227/.273/.383 with four homers and 15 RBIs, and he's struck out 35 times in 150 plate appearances. Two of those four homers came in games that were already decided.

It's a rare start for Blanco, just his fifth of the season. Coming mostly off the bench the last four seasons, he's been a consistent hitter for the Phillies, batting .270/.333/.449 with 43 doubles, four triples and 13 home runs in 559 plate appearances, essentially a full season's worth.

2. Eflin's turn
Mackanin's hope is that with Aaron Nola back from the DL, Jeremy Hellickson appearing to turn a corner and Zach Eflin giving the Phils some consistent innings, the starting rotation can get into a groove, thus helping out the bullpen and giving the Phillies a chance to win more close games the way they did in 2016.

Jerad Eickhoff was just OK last night, allowing four runs in six innings as he dropped to 0-5 with a 4.70 ERA. A quality start tonight from Eflin against a strong Rockies lineup would go a long way because the Phillies really need more than half of their rotation to be clicking right now.

Eflin was rocked his last start in Texas, allowing seven runs on 11 hits and two walks over four innings. It caused his ERA to rise from 2.81 to 4.25 and his WHIP from 1.00 to 1.25.

As is usually the case when Eflin doesn't pitch well, he just wasn't getting his sinker low enough in the zone. He had induced 40 groundballs over his previous three starts before picking up just eight against the Rangers. 

An interesting note on Eflin is that he's struck out just five of the 70 right-handed hitters he's faced compared to 13 of the 85 lefties he's seen. Righties have hit .323 off him with a .798 OPS compared to .250 with a .715 OPS from lefties.

Current Rockies are 3 for 16 off Eflin with just one extra-base hit. He faced Colorado last season at Coors Field and gave up just two runs over six innings.

3. An unlikely start
Unlike most seasons, the Rockies are pitching well and winning on the road. Colorado has gotten off to hot starts almost every year the last five, but it's usually fueled by an unsustainably hot offense. 

Hasn't been the case in 2017. The Rockies are middle of the pack with a 4.29 ERA, a half-run lower than the Phillies. And away from Coors Field, they have a 3.45 ERA, the second-lowest road ERA for any team behind the Diamondbacks.

The run has been credited to a young starting staff that has been missing projected No. 1 Jon Gray. We saw former first-round pick Jeff Hoffman dominate the Phillies last night (seven innings, three hits, one run, seven strikeouts) and tonight the Phils face 22-year-old German Marquez (2-2, 4.34).

One of the biggest difference-makers for the Rockies in 2017 has been closer Greg Holland, who signed a prove-it deal with Colorado coming off a major injury. He has 19 saves and a 0.96 ERA in 20 appearances and has earned himself a whole of money this winter.

4. The book on Marquez 
The Rockies acquired Marquez along with left-handed reliever Jake McGee in the January 2016 trade that sent Corey Dickerson to the Rays, where he's thrived.

Marquez made just a handful of appearances in the majors last season but has been solid for the Rockies in five starts so far this year. 

He throws pretty much all four-seam fastballs (65 percent) and curveballs (24 percent), with his heater averaging 95.1 mph. He'll also mix in a few changeups to lefties and cutters.

In two starts away from Coors Field, Marquez has allowed just one run in 11 innings with 11 strikeouts. He's kept the ball in the park in four of five starts.

5. This and that
• Good to see Aaron Altherr pick up two doubles last night. He was 6 for his previous 33.

• Tommy Joseph in May: .345/.418/.707, six doubles, five homers, 13 RBIs. 

• Since beginning the season on an eight-game hitting streak, Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP, six walks and 35 strikeouts.

• Daniel Nava was placed on the 10-day DL with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. LHP Adam Morgan was recalled again from Triple A to take his place on the active roster.