It’s July 2. The August waiver trading period has been scrapped, so July 31 is no longer the non-waiver trade deadline, it’s the trade deadline.
The Philadelphia Phillies are very much in the National League Wild Card race, and – at least by the standards of 2007 – they remain within striking distance in the National League East.
With less than a month until the trade deadline, trade rumors and speculation should be beginning to heat up – but it’s not that simple with the 2019 Phillies.
A win Sunday allowed the Phillies to avoid being swept by the last place Miami Marlins, which they were last weekend in Philadelphia. In between those two series with the Fish, the Phillies swept Mickey Callaway’s dysfunctional New York Mets in four games. They won all four in come-from-behind-fashion, which was encouraging, but probably not sustainable.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Phillies general manager Matt Klentak should be aggressive in pursuing upgrades this month as the Phillies look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. But to what degree Klentak should go all in on the 2019 Phillies is a discussion worth having, and one without an easy answer.
After the Phillies added Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen this off-season, the thought was they would be able to hit their way into the playoffs. But even at the outset of the 2019 season, one thing was pretty clear: to make the playoffs, and certainly to make a deep run, the Phillies would need to add another front-line starter to pair with Aaron Nola. That turned out to be an oversimplified projection of what the Phillies need to add to their starting rotation this month to even win a Wild Card spot.
Nola has struck out 20 batters over his last two outings, so there’s hope that after a very slow start to the 2019 season, the righty is rounding into the form diplayed in 2018 when he posted a 5.4 fWAR and finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting. But Nola, 26, hasn’t provided the elite starting pitching at the top of the rotation that the Phillies anticipated in 2019, and, as expected, there hasn’t been much in the way of stability behind him.
Zach Eflin has thrown two complete games in 2019 and has been the Phillies best pitcher thus far. But Eflin has a 4.41 FIP and 4.71 xFIP, which suggests that the 3.34 ERA he has through 16 starts isn’t indicative of what’s to come. A year ago, the 25-year-old right-hander went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA before the All-Star Break, before going 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA in the second-half of the season, a half where the Phillies collapsed. The fact that he’s outperformed his peripherals in 2019 suggests he could see similar regression in the second-half of this season.
Jake Arrieta cruised through the first five innings of the Phillies win Sunday, before allowing a towering three-run home run off the bat of Jorge Alfaro in the sixth inning. It didn’t matter given that he entered that inning with a nine-run lead, but he has a 4.43 ERA in over 100 innings in 2019. The former National League Cy Young Award winner hasn’t been close to being an effective middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Nick Pivetta, who the Phillies hoped would take a major step forward in 2019, has a 5.63 ERA and 5.79 FIP in 10 starts in 2019. His season, by just about any way of looking at things, has been a disaster so far. That assessment perhaps leaves out the context that Pivetta was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley in mid-April, spent over a month there and initially looked really good after returning to the major league level.
After posting a 1.80 ERA in his first three starts after being recalled – including throwing a complete game against the Cincinnati Reds on June 8 – Pivetta has allowed seven home runs and posted a 7.13 ERA in his last three outings. The Phillies can hope that things click for Pivetta in the second-half of 2019, but to bank on it would seem to be a mistake.
And the No. 5 spot in the Phillies rotation – whether it’s been filled by Vince Velasquez, Cole Irvin or Enyel De Los Santos – has been a black hole. Every fifth game has turned into a likely loss where manager Gabe Kapler is forced to exhaust his bullpen.
It remains true that to reach the postseason and to be able to do any damage in October, the Phillies need another front-line arm. But that notion assumes that Nola, who has a 4.22 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 2019, will pitch like an ace from here on out. Even if he does, it’s almost impossible to make the case that the Phillies are one ace-caliber pitcher away from being assured a postseason spot, let alone being able to make a run in the National League playoffs.
It’s probably a flawed line of thinking to suggest that at this stage of his career, Madison Bumgarner – who has a 4.21 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 17 starts in 2019 – is going to move out of playing his home games at Oracle Park and help push a team over the top. Even if the soon-to-be 30-year-old lefty could be the missing link for a team that’s one piece away from being a World Series contender, the Phillies don’t fit that description.
The Phillies need multiple starting pitchers – a front-line arm and a back-end innings eater, at least – and even then have needs elsewhere. Going all-in on a rental at this juncture would seem to be malpractice for the Phillies, who are thin on desirable prospect depth.
Toronto Blue Jays RHP Marcus Stroman and Detroit Tigers LHP Matthew Boyd are among the controllable starters that could be had this summer, but unless the Phillies get really hot in the coming weeks, making a trade like that is becoming harder to justify. Sure, the Phillies could acquire a controllable starter knowing that they are in the playoff mix this season, and even if they don’t ultimately reach the postseason, they’ll control said arm for at least another season.
The Texas Rangers did that with Cole Hamels in July of 2015 and ultimately stormed back to win the American League West. There’s that side of things, but there’s also the possibility that the Phillies trade for a controllable starter that suffers a major injury in the second-half of the 2019 season and they look foolish for pushing their chips to the center of the table in a year where they probably weren’t going to make the postseason anyway.
If it becomes clear in the coming weeks that the Phillies are probably just competing to reach the one-game Wild Card playoff in the National League, they may hold off on diving head first into the market for controllable arms until this offseason.
Even if the Phillies land a front-line arm – be it a rental or a controllable starter – Pivetta and Arrieta would remain in the rotation. As outlined above, there’s reason to think Eflin may struggle in the second-half of the season, at least relative to how he’s pitched so far.
The Phillies are two arms away from having a playoff-caliber rotation, meaning someone like Reds righty Tanner Roark could be of interest. Roark, the long-time National, is having a bounce-back season in his first year out of D.C., and given that he’s only a rental, the cost likely won’t be prohibitive. That would be the difference between a rental like Bumgarner and Roark – who has a 3.36 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 16 starts. Even if the Phillies opt to just tweak around the edges at the trade deadline, like they did a year ago, Roark may make sense.
Here’s another issue: 14 relatively meaty paragraphs were just used to discuss the issues in the Phillies starting rotation alone. Certainly, the Phillies have areas of need in their starting lineup and in the bullpen as well.
Scott Kingery has perhaps been the Phillies most valuable position player this season, but if you told the Phillies at the outset of the season that Kingery was hitting over .320 more than halfway though the year, the thought likely would have been that he would have usurped Cesar Hernandez as the starting second baseman.
That’s not even a consideration, though. The combination of Odubel Herrera’s arrest, Andrew McCutchen’s season-ending ACL tear and an inconsistent at-best offensive season from Maikel Franco has pushed Kingery into the super-utility role that the Phillies envisioned him playing a year ago.
It’s great to have a player capable of filling that role. But Kingery has seen meaningful time in center field, left field and at third base, and he can only play one of those positions at a time. He’s illuminated a need for the Phillies to add at least one more everyday player, assuming the organization doesn’t expect outfielder Adam Haseley and No. 1 prospect Alec Bohm (who just got to Double-A Reading) to be productive starters in the second-half of the season.
As far as the bullpen, the Phillies may just choose to bank on internal options getting healthy, whether they are aggressive at the trade deadline or just make some smaller additions.
Tommy Hunter made his first two appearances of the season over the weekend in Miami. Adam Morgan has been off the injured list for nearly 10 days, but he has allowed six runs to cross the plate in four appearances.
David Robertson hasn’t appeared in a game since mid-April, but he completed his first bullpen session Sunday and is targeting a return at the end of July. Seranthony Dominguez avoided Tommy John Surgery by receiving a platelet rich plasma injection in his right elbowin mid-June. The Phillies are hoping for an update on Dominguez’s status later this week.
The Phillies bullpen has been ravaged by injuries in 2019, and has a 4.79 ERA as a unit in 2019 after a brutal month of June. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, but still quite a bit of moving parts for a bullpen that was seen as a potential bright spot entering the season. A notable external addition isn’t likely, but it sure couldn’t hurt.
Tuesday, the Phillies will open up a crucial three-game series in Atlanta, who they trail in the National League East. They’ll round out the first half of the regular season by visiting the Mets for three games next weekend before the All-Star Break. After the All-Star Break, the Phillies will host the Washington Nationals for three games, before welcoming the National League-best Los Angeles Dodgers for four games.
That 13-game stretch, which includes the four-day All-Star Break in the middle, may decide just how aggressive the Phillies are before July 31. But the feeling here is that there are quite a few holes to fill, without a ton of resources to move and a team that hasn’t yet done enough to convince anyone that they’re worth making major additions to.
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