On the Phillies Hitting Rock Bottom: Why It's Not So Bad

On the Phillies Hitting Rock Bottom: Why It's Not So Bad

A few weeks back on Lunch Break, Rhea Hughes asked me if the Phillies had hit rock bottom, to which I responded with something to the effect of No way. Clearly I was waiting for them to get swept out of Miami by a free-falling Marlins club as the 2012 season reached its midpoint before making that declaration.

We've arrived. In case you haven't been beaten over the head with the standings enough already, this is where the Phils stand after their most recent debacle: five-game losing streak; 3-7 over their last ten; 9-19 for the month of June; nine games under .500; 7.5 back of a Wild Card, eight teams ahead; 11.0 back in the NL East, all alone in the basement; GM Ruben Amaro Jr. gauging interest in a potential Cole Hamels trade.

Does it get any worse?

Well, yeah, it does -- just probably not for the Phillies, at least not any time soon. That's sort of the definition of rock bottom: no place left to go but up.

Which is not to say this year's squad will make a run at the postseason, or even start winning more games. On the contrary, while technically possible, even the most optimistic fan must concede the playoffs are in fact a longshot, and the remainder of this summer is likely futile. Not trying to be the earliest to call it -- and I certainly wasn't -- but what we've seen out of the previous half confirms suspicions dating back before the campaign ever got underway, that the road back to the World Series is not paved in pennants earned between '07 and '11.

Once you accept this is shaping up as a lost season though, you should be able to see beyond the miserable results to the sweet horizon. Other than their record, what has changed on the Phillies from nine months ago, when they were setting a franchise record with 102 wins? A few more miles on the odometers of a collection of classics, for sure, along with injuries that may very well leave behind shells of once-great players.

Still, back in February or March, most of us imagined this team would be in the hunt at the All-Star break regardless. They're really not, so I suppose congrats are in order if you called the Phils' out-and-out demise far earlier. However, the current state of the club, which we'll describe as a distant last place, was not quite mainstream thinking.

So if this truly is rock bottom, if missing the playoffs is now our expectation for this year, the worst is already over. Blame it on Amaro, blame it on Charlie Manuel, blame it on the freight train of sportswriters who supposedly forced management's hand on the moves they made. Out of the tournament is out of the tournament, and how many out doesn't count for much.

But how about next season?

The Phillies have so much talent, the general population allowed themselves to believe the team could withstand half the year without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and at least hang in the race. That obviously wasn't the case, especially as injuries continuously crippled them along the way, but it speaks to the bigger picture.

Somewhere beneath this 36-45 record is a core that can, and has, won a large number of ball games -- guys who are proven to have what it takes to deliver the hardware. Maybe a bunch of them have fallen out of their primes, but Utley, Howard, Jimmy Rollins -- contracts the Phils are likely stuck with -- have some form of production left in the tank. Put the right pieces around them, and they can be an integral part of something special.

And thanks to your overwhelming support, it's not like the front office doesn't have the money. Folks get the impression that because the organization is having trouble getting Hamels locked down, they either can't afford him or don't want to go over budget, when there is no indication that is the root problem. Heck, the expiring pacts of Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton alone almost covers it. Another year down the road, there are decisions to make on Utley and Roy Halladay, too. Between Placido Polanco, Ty Wigginton, Kyle Kendrick... there's a lot of loose change under the Phillies' couch cushions. They can more or less sign who they want.

Even losing Hamels would not be the end of the world, it wouldn't even be rock bottom because you've been warned. Yesterday's report on Amaro calling would-be suitors is rock bottom -- now we're prepared when the day comes.

I'm not a proponent of trading away a World Series MVP, for reasons both performance-related and sentimental. Having said that, if it ever comes to pass, between the haul they would get in return, and the cash it frees up, the Phils should have no trouble landing on their feet. They would gain the financial flexibility to retool as early as this offseason, while simultaneously replenishing their farm system, or perhaps coming away with a player or players who could help immediately.

Based on the level of expectations, and the degree to which the Fightins have underachieved, the only way this could feel any more hopeless is if the franchise was headed back to the Dark Ages. Clearly they are not.

While there have been missteps along the way, there isn't a contract or contracts that are preventing them from winning, nor is there a prospect they've traded along the way yet who is coming back to haunt them. The Phillies have constructed a powerhouse franchise that is capable of putting a powerhouse product on the field in any given year. It's going to take a hell of a lot more than one awful season to undo that.

Today things are bleakest; tomorrow is a new day. The Phillies may not be able to salvage this season, but there are plenty of ways to fix this mess. With the resources that are available, how can they possibly make matters worse?

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald has skipped the Los Angeles Rams' first day of organized team activities while he negotiates a long-term contract extension with the club.

Rams general manager Les Snead says the team knew Donald wouldn't be at their training complex Monday.

Snead acknowledged Donald's absence is because of their contract negotiations, which are reaching "the serious part." The GM is confident Donald will be a long-term fixture on the Rams' line.

The Rams exercised their fifth-year option for 2018 on Donald last month. He will make nearly $7 million next year. Snead has repeatedly said the Rams plan to sign Donald to a long-term deal.

Donald is a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro in his three-year career.

Vikings: Zimmer takes time off after latest eye surgery
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer finally relented, taking some time away from the team to allow his right eye a proper recovery from his latest surgery.

Better in the spring than during the fall, he realized.

As Zimmer departed Monday for some rest and relaxation at his vacation ranch in rural Kentucky, general manager Rick Spielman said the organization anticipates a return by Zimmer "in a few weeks." Players will take the field Tuesday for the first of 13 scheduled offseason practices, including the three-day mandatory minicamp that runs June 13-15.

"We all agree Mike's health is the priority, and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term," Spielman said.

Zimmer directed a free youth football camp Saturday at team headquarters. He revealed to reporters that he underwent an eighth procedure on the eye last week, a trying seven-month stretch that has included several unplanned operations (see full story).

Jets: Former 2nd-round pick Smith waived
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Wide receiver Devin Smith has been waived from the injury list by the New York Jets.

A second-round draft pick from Ohio State in 2015, Smith rarely saw the field for the Jets. He tore his ACL during the offseason workout program after he appeared in four games last season. He started that season on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing from another ACL tear suffered in December 2015.

If Smith clears waivers, he would revert to the Jets' injured reserve list.

"It's bad luck and bad timing because the kid worked so hard to get back," coach Todd Bowles said last month during the NFL draft. "He has to persevere and adversity will help him get stronger. But unfortunately in this game, over my course of time playing and coaching, you see these types of things. Some of the best athletes get hurt and don't get a chance to get on the field, and it's just bad timing, bad luck."

The Jets also re-signed wide receiver WR Deshon Foxx on Monday. Foxx originally signed with the Jets in January and was waived May 9. The Connecticut product first signed with Seattle 2015 after going undrafted and was waived/injured with a hamstring injury that August.

Buccaneers: TE Howard signs rookie deal
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tight end O.J. Howard has signed his rookie contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Howard, who was the 19th overall pick in last month's NFL draft, signed a four-year deal on Monday that includes a team option for a fifth season. He is the first of Tampa Bay's six draft picks to sign.

Howard, who is 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, was a third-team Associated Press All-America selection last season. He started 12 of Alabama's 14 games last season and had 45 receptions for 595 yards and three touchdowns.

The drafting of Howard and signing DeSean Jackson in free agency should give Jameis Winston more options in Tampa Bay's passing game.

The Buccaneers also announced that defensive end Jacquies Smith has signed his restricted free agent tender.

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

With the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery behind us, there appears to be a consensus on the first two selections in next month's draft. The Celtics are expected to take Washington guard Markelle Fultz, and it would be a surprise if the Lakers passed on Lonzo Ball.

After that, all bets are off, and the Sixers will have plenty of options at pick No. 3.

A popular choice has been Kansas' Josh Jackson, and with good reason. The 6-foot-8 guard was an All-Big 12 first-team selection in his lone season with the Jayhawks, averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Others have pointed to Kentucky sharpshooter Malik Monk, who would fill an obvious need. Monk consistently has shown the ability to pull up without hesitation. He shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 19.8 points per game to lead the Wildcats.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that Duke forward Jayson Tatum will be the most talented player remaining on the board when it is the Sixers' turn to pick. 

As a basketball beat writer for The Duke Chronicle, I had the opportunity to watch Tatum play up close and in-person for much of the season, seeing him at his best and his worst.

A quick rise
After coming to Durham, N.C. as one of the key pieces of the Blue Devils' top-ranked recruiting class, Tatum suffered a left foot sprain during a preseason practice that kept him out of action until early December. 

But even with what appeared to be a breakout performance against then-No. 24 Florida in early December, he struggled to find a rhythm throughout the first half of the season. Tatum shot only 30 percent from three-point range in his first 13 games.

When the Blue Devils were shocked at home by ACC bottom-feeder N.C. State Jan. 23, I was quick to call out the first-year player — he was not cutting it on the defensive end, and offensively, Tatum had yet to prove himself as a consistent shooting threat.

Down the stretch, however, no freshman came on stronger than Tatum. He scored 28 points on 6-of-7 shooting from distance against Virginia in February, averaged 22 points in four ACC tournament wins in March, and notched a double-double in his first career NCAA tournament game.

Whatever questions scouts have about Tatum's potential, he has already shown an ability to develop in a short period of time. Even if Tatum takes time to develop as an NBA player, it probably won't take all that long as the Sixers continue their rebuild.

Cool customer
In a deep ACC, Tatum was one of just two first-year players to earn all-conference honors, picking up a third-team spot in early March. He was also second in ACC Freshman of the Year voting behind N.C. State's Dennis Smith.

Tatum been a consistent performer at the charity stripe — unlike Jackson, who shot just 56.6 percent from the line. He hit on 118 of 139 free-throw attempts (84.9 percent) and has the body to get to the line at will with strong drives to the rim.

Although the Sixers have budding stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, they lack a true end-of-game threat who can score both inside and out. Tatum's improving outside shot combined with a powerful inside game could give the Sixers an option that will stretch opposing defenses.

Defensive concerns
As has been the case with a few recent young Duke prospects (e.g. Brandon Ingram, Jabari Parker), Tatum at times struggled on defense. As Sixers fans know all too well, Jahlil Okafor has the same problem. The former Blue Devil standout led Duke in scoring during his lone collegiate season but wasn't a major factor on defense and has been even worse with the Sixers, ranking 324th of 486 NBA players in defensive win shares last season.

Tatum's numbers suggest he has potential to be a better defender than many might expect. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Tatum had a 3.2 block percentage and a 2.3 steal percentage — an uncommon combination. He helped Duke limit North Carolina's Justin Jackson to only 6-for-22 shooting in an ACC tournament semifinal matchup.

Where Tatum needs to grow is guarding away from the ball. He often found himself losing his man on back cuts and long possessions in the half-court.

With the Sixers, the 6-foot-8 Tatum potentially could be the shortest member of a lineup that would feature the 6-foot-9 Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Simmons at 6-foot-10, and the 7-foot Embiid in the middle. Although he will likely need to improve his quickness, Tatum has the size to overwhelm smaller guards and the strength — weighing in at 205 pounds — to match up with most small forwards in the league.

Tatum vs. Jackson
Tatum and Jackson are comparable players in most respects. The two were right next to one another in the ESPN's Class of 2016 rankings behind Harry Giles and put up nearly identical numbers on the offensive end.

Both are considered top-five picks, but the 19-year-old Tatum is younger by more than a year and has room to grow physically. And unlike Jackson, he does not carry the baggage of a criminal property damage misdemeanor from December.

Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel told 97.5 The Fanatic last week that Tatum is "one of the most talented, most gifted offensive guys" he has ever seen. 

Agreed.