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For Phillies, one or two moves could make playoff difference

It’s the day after Independence Day, and an off-day on the Major League Baseball schedule for the Philadelphia Phillies. The team leaves today on an 11-game road trip leading up to the MLB All-Star Game. It will be July 20 before home fans get to see the local nine play again on the grass at Citizens Bank Park.

The Fightin’ Phils just took both games of a quick two-game series with Manny Machado and the Baltimore Orioles. They can now be considered as hot as the weather. Winners of five of their last six games, the club has stormed to 10 games over the .500 mark for the first time all season.

That recent hot stretch of play has them sitting just 1.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East Division standings. The Phillies are just a game back of Atlanta in the loss column. They also currently control the second of two National League Wildcard playoff berths.

Overall theirs is the ninth-best record among the 30 clubs in Major League Baseball, fifth-best in the National League. Following five straight losing campaigns in which they finished no higher than fourth place in the division and at the bottom three times, this season can be considered nothing but a success to this point.

So why am I reluctant to fully commit to the idea that these 2018 Philadelphia Phillies are truly a playoff contender right now?

First, let me say that I’m excited for the future. The organization has been going about the rebuild in the right way over the last few seasons. Minor league talent has been accumulated through trades and the draft. Much of that talent has begun to surface to help the big club, both now and for the future.

I was fairly on the fence regarding their free agent signings this past off-season. Jake Arrieta – approved. Carlos Santana – disapproved. Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter – hopeful.

My reluctance with committing to the current Phillies being able to sustain their present pace and remain in playoff contention comes from an evaluation of their statistical performance. If nothing is done by management to improve these weaknesses, they will most likely cause this year’s team to fall short of the postseason.

Offensively, the Phillies current ranks among the 15 National League ball clubs in select key categories are as follows: runs (10), batting average (13), on-base percentage (5), OPS (11), home runs (7), stolen bases (9).

Defensively, the Phillies current ranks within the National League are even more challenging. They are just 14th of the 15 clubs in fielding percentage. The team has committed the second-most errors. Their limited range is exposed by the ranking of 11th in assists.

Some of the offensive shortfall can be attributed to youth. Per Baseball-Reference, the Phillies hitters have the youngest cumulative average age in all of baseball:

The winning record is mostly a result of dramatically improved pitching. Aaron Nola has emerged as a true ace. Zach Eflin has shown major strides, emerging as a legitimate big league starting pitcher. Jake Arrieta adds much needed experienced depth and a Cy Young presence. Seranthony Dominguez is a big-time bullpen force.

While the Phillies hurlers as a group rank just eighth in the National League in ERA and in both the batting average and OPS against categories, they are strong in a number of others.

The pitching staff is third in strikeouts, quality starts, and least walks handed out. They rank fifth in home runs allowed, WHIP, and caught-stealing percentage. Even the oft-maligned bullpen is fourth in saves and sixth in blown-save percentage.

We are now entering the “dog days” of summer. With the calendar having turned to the month of July, and MLB non-waiver trade deadline looming at the end of this month, trade rumors are beginning to run rampant across baseball.

The Phillies, with an enviable financial position both now and in the coming years, and with a strong minor league system, are front-and-center in many of those rumors.

On Independence Day, Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Phillies general manager Matt Klentak regarding the team’s position this month:

“The challenge that we have right now is, we’re at a point where the player-development is intersecting with contention, and we have to understand how we got here and why we got here. It’s because of our young players developing, not only in the minor leagues but at the major-league level, and that’s what’s putting us in this position. We have to respect that. Now, at the same time, if there are opportunities for us to upgrade the team in the short-term or long-term via trade, we have to explore those, too. We’re going to pursue a lot of different avenues.”

The Phillies could certainly use another proven, veteran arm for their rotation. They have been linked to former World Series hero Cole Hamels, a move that would certainly be popular with the fan base.

However, even more important for this year’s Phillies team, if they wish to actually remain in contention, is a move to bring in a legitimate offensive producer for the middle of their batting order. Preferably one who could play on the left side of the infield.

It is for just that reason, to fill that specific and glaring need, that the Phils have been linked to both Machado and Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas so frequently in recent weeks.

The Philadelphia Phillies are enjoying a return to relevance in this 2018 season. It has been fun, no doubt. Considering the long-term financial position and the young talent, the future looks bright.

But considering the deficiencies on offense and defense, weaknesses that have been obvious to all honest fans who have watched this club on a regular basis, we need to pump the brakes on calling this present bunch a legitimate playoff contender.  At least until management steps up to bring in someone to measurably improve the everyday lineup.

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