Philadelphia Phillies out there who might still be reluctant to throw in the towel on the team's 2014 chances? Let's try on a pair of rose-colored, or would that be red-pinstriped, glasses and see what we might see.
Following last night's 2nd consecutive road victory over the Atlanta Braves, who were in first place when this series began, the Phillies are now just 5 games behind the division leading Washington Nationals, just 6 behind the 2nd Wildcard playoff spot.
There has been speculation for weeks that the team would be sellers towards the end of July as Major League Baseball's 2014 trade deadline approached. Such a scenario, it was said, could involve a complete fire sale that would finally blowup the great 2007-2011 division-winning teams, with Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and even the iconic trio of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and new all-time franchise Hits king Jimmy Rollins being dealt away.
What has not been considered by many, at least not discussed much publicly to this point, is the exact opposite scenario: could the Phillies somehow become buyers at the deadline, or even sooner, instead of being sellers? Does this thing really need to be blown up, or could a little retooling, a little health, and a couple additions push them back towards the top?
While that might still be a longshot, and while most would be skeptical, it is still not entirely implausible that a month from now, when the traditional "2nd half" begins following the break for the MLB All-Star Game festivities, the Fightin' Phils might still be very much alive in the race to the post-season. If the Phils are within 2-3-4 games at the All-Star break, what then?
There is a great chance that we will have a much better handle on the team's ultimate chances by that point, and it says here that, barring a sudden, complete collapse in the next couple of weeks, the team should absolutely not undertake any type of sell-off until that point at the earliest. If they are out of contention, or it appears very unlikely they will contend, there will still be plenty of time to make deals in mid-late July and even into August.
Key over the next four weeks of play will be the schedule, which will find the Phillies taking on the three teams currently ahead of them in the National League East Division 13 times in the 20 games following this current week. 10 of those 13 divisional games will be played at home at Citizens Bank Park.
If the Phillies are back at, or even above, the .500 mark at the All Star break and within those handful of games of the division lead, management must at least consider adding to the roster and taking a run. Having won 5 of their last 7 games, should they finish off a road sweep this afternoon in Atlanta, such a scenario is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed even two weeks ago.
If the Phillies are indeed transformed into buyers, where would they be best served to buy? At what positions are they likely to need, and possibly find, the kind of help that would make a difference? First of all, much of the help might already be on their roster, if they can get it a couple of key players healthy, and make the right decisions on a couple of others.
The health part would come from Cliff Lee on the mound and Cody Asche at 3rd base. Asche is closer, already on a minor league rehab assignment where he has looked solid. Getting him back up and manning the hot corner would lengthen the lineup and strengthen the bench. Lee has been slow in testing his arm, but just threw off a mound, had no issues, and is eyeing a July return.
Another part of the equation would have to come from the old, reliable, veteran core group of players getting excited about the possibilities, and upping their own production. Chase Utley got off to a sizzling start, one that has vaulted him far into the lead in NL All-Star balloting at 2nd base. Jimmy Rollins set the franchise career Hits record and is showing signs of life, and Ryan Howard has homered in back-to-back games and may himself be ready to go on a tear.
The "right decisions" part of the equation would come from manager Ryne Sandberg finally going to a total platoon situation in leftfield. John Mayberry Jr is hitting .300 with a .404 on-base percentage and 3 homers vs lefty pitching. I would platoon Mayberry in left with...someone new.
Frankly, Domonic Brown is not a Major League starting caliber outfielder. He is mediocre at best on defense. He is a terrible, horrible, awful, whatever negative adjective you want to hang on him, hitter. In fact, to call him any kind of hitter whatsoever is too kind. He can catch up to a pitch and hit it out once in awhile. Sounds like a bench player with some pop to me, the kind of guy you bring off the bench to pinch-hit for the pitcher when you need a game-tying late homerun chance.
The best place that the Phillies could improve themselves right now is leftfield. Two players could fit the mold. One is San Diego Padres lefty hitting Seth Smith. Put Smith into a platoon with John Mayberry Jr, and you have a potentially productive tandem. Another option would be Minnesota's Josh Willingham, though he would be more of a full-time starter, keeping Mayberry coming off the bench. I would vote for Smith, and the Fightin's would have to try to find a trade match. Smith makes just $4.5 million, the Phils would only pay about half of that, and there is no obligation beyond 2014.
The Phillies young bullpen arms have really stepped up in recent weeks, and the club now has a pair of young fireballers in lefty Jake Diekman and righty Ken Giles joining the revitalized Antonio Bastardo in paving the way to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has been extremely reliable since Opening Day. With Lee back, the rotation with he and Cole Hamels, who has been pitching at an All-Star level himself for weeks, would have an enviable 1-2 punch at the top.
This was the most optimistic scenario when the season opened: a fountain-of-youth type year from the Howard/Utley/Rollins trio, strong starting pitching from Hamels/Lee/Burnett, effective contributions from the back-end rotation guys Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez, the young bullpen fortifying things, Papelbon reliably closing out games, and young position players like Ben Revere and Cody Asche producing in the lineup.
That optimistic scenario is very close to coming together right now. Now is the time for this Phillies team to begin stringing wins together more consistently, the way that it appears they have over the last 10 days or so. If they put together a solid stretch of play over the next three weeks, the odds that they will be contenders, and thus buyers, become stronger. It may be an optimistic scenario, but it sure beats the alternative in a long summer that is just beginning for fans of the team.