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.”

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Is Phil Klein ready to stop 5-game skid?

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Is Phil Klein ready to stop 5-game skid?

Phillies (70-90) vs. Mets (86-74)
1:05 p.m. on FOX

The Phillies continue to stumble towards the finish line with their fifth straight loss and seventh in eight games. Phil Klein makes a spot start out of the bullpen for the Phils while the Mets turn to Bartolo Colon in a nationally televised game.

Here are five things to watch on Saturday afternoon.

1. Mets playoff update
With Friday's win, the Mets cannot be eliminated this weekend. Their magic number for a playoff spot is just one.

That means that if they win one more game or the St. Louis Cardinals lose a game to the Pirates in the next two days, the Mets clinch a spot in the NL wild card game. If the Phillies are able to beat the Mets back-to-back, the Cardinals win both games and the San Fransico Giants win at least one game, the Mets will be forced to play in a tiebreaker on Monday.

Got all that?

Because the Mets won four of seven against the Giants this year, they only need one more win to clinch homefield advantage in the NL wild card game. That means that if they win on Saturday, they'll have the ability to skip Noah Syndergaard, the scheduled starter for Sunday, and have him pitch in the wild card game. 

Therefore, a win by the Phillies on Saturday that isn't accompanied by both a Cardinals and Giants loss would likely force the Mets to pitch Syndergaard before 
the wild card game.

2. Life after Howard
Ryan Howard's option for 2017 will undoubtably be declined by the Phillies after the season, meaning of course that Howard is in his final two games in a Phillies uniform.

But what exactly comes next?

It's easy enough to say Tommy Joseph. Joseph has been extremely impressive in his first season in the majors. The now-25 year old broke into the majors in a big way and carries a .257/.308/.505 line into Saturday over his first 347 big league plate appearances. He has 21 home runs and 47 RBI. 

But there are reasons to be concerned. The big one is his injury history. Joseph dealt with concussion issues that moved him to first from behind the plate. While it seems to be behind him, it does raise a question with his durability. He also struck out in over 20 percent of his plate appearances this year and will need to be better in that regard.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how he handles making the team out of spring training next year and manning first base every day. The term 'sophomore slump' exists for a reason because plenty of players take a step back in Year 2.

It doesn't mean Joseph can't be relied on as the future at first base. Far from it. But how the Phillies provide support for him during the inevitable peaks and valleys will be key to his long-term takeover of the first base job.

3. Klein makes spot start 
The Phillies chose not to give Jake Thompson one more start and instead will hand Klein the penultimate start of the season. 

Klein made a spot start for the Phils on Aug. 3 vs. the Giants after Aaron Nola was shut down for the season. The 27-year-old righty held his own for five innings, allowing four runs in a 5-4 Phillies win, although he didn't factor in the decision.

Things haven't gone so well for Klein since he was recalled earlier in September. Klein dominated Triple A with a 1.51 ERA in 14 appearances (10 starts), but he's appeared out of the bullpen twice for the Phils in the last week. He gave up three runs and five baserunners while getting one out in the 17-0 loss on Sunday.

He followed that up with a four-out, two-run outing. He's thrown just 52 pitches and 24 strikes in those games, meaning he's lacking control and isn't fully stretched out. It's hard to blame Klein for his rust: He hadn't pitched in 16 days before Sunday.

Expect Klein's outing to be somewhat shortlived and this game to be a bullpen affair.

4. Big Bart in a big game
Believe it or not, but the oldest member of the Mets' rotation this year has been the healthiest.

Colon, who turned 43 in May, has made 32 starts, his most in a season since he won the American League Cy Young in 2005. He has started every fifth day for the Mets this year and even made one start on short rest. Meanwhile, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, all under 30, were lost to arm injuries for the season.

The righty known as Big Bart had a streak of five straight quality starts until his last start on Sept. 26. It was the Marlins' first game after Jose Fernandez's tragic death and the Fish knocked Colon around for seven runs while he recorded just seven outs.

Colon only threw 47 pitches in that game, so he should be completely fresh today. The big man carries an impressive 3.42 ERA and 14-8 record into Saturday, made even more remarkable considering he began in baseball in 1997.

5. This and that
• Howard has just six hits off Colon in 35 plate appearances, but he has made them count. He has three home runs and eight RBI. One of the home runs came earlier this season while the other two came in 2008.

• The Mets have turned up their offense in September, averaging 5.22 runs per game and going 17-10. The Phillies have been just about the opposite, going 10-17 and scored just 4.07 runs per game. 

• The Phillies are in the midst of their fourth losing streak of at least five games this year. They won't have a chance to eclipse their nine-game losing streak from Jun. 14-22.

• At 70-90, the Phillies are 20 games under .500 for the first time all season. They currently have the eighth worst record in baseball. The worst draft pick they can finish with is No. 9 overall.