It seems like the Philadelphia Phillies have been weighing whether to be buyers or sellers at the non-waiver trade deadline all season, right? According to their front office, you aren't imagining things.
"I think we've been in sort of a holding pattern all year long," assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said Friday in the visitors' dugout at Citi Field. "A lot of it, we haven't played particularly well, we've been very inconsistent. And I think we've probably played our best stretch of baseball over the last week to ten days... I think we're gonna let it see how it plays out."
While for some teams, their position in the standings, their success cycle, or both, have made the blueprint for the next 11 days obvious, any number of factors when it comes to the Phillies make predicting what they'll do incredibly difficult. There are awfully strong arguments for dumping veterans for prospects, and starting a rebuild that many believe is overdue. But there's a compelling emotional argument to giving the Ryan Howard/Chase Utley/Jimmy Rollins/Cole Hamels Phillies another chance at October, and economic arguments, like keeping television ratings as high as possible ahead of renegotiating their local television contract, which is up in 2015, to consider as well.
Let's start with the win-now idea. The Phillies are 48-48 entering Friday night's game, 6.5 games out of first place in the National League East, behind the division-leading Braves, and a half-game behind the Washington Nationals. They trail the Cincinnati Reds, current leader for the final wild card, by 5.5 games, with only the Nationals also ahead of them.
So the Phillies will hardly require a miracle to catch the teams ahead of them. And Proefrock is right about recent form: the Phillies have won nine of their last 13. At that pace, they'd finish the season 46-20, which would make them a 94-win team, a contender in any season.
Charlie Manuel, the team's longtime manager whose contract is up after this season, isn't shying away from the reality that the Phillies need that kind of run to make the playoffs.
"It's gonna take, I'd say, you better if you want to win something, it's gonna take 90 games, 92 gonna get you something," the thoughtful Manuel said in the Phillies dugout Friday. "Sometimes 85-90'll get you something, too. But we've got 66 games to go. We've got to win a high percentage of those games."
Lately, they have been. Utley, a free agent after the season, is hitting if not like vintage Utley, still like an elite second baseman. Domonic Brown isn't homering like he was in May, but still looks like the All-Star he just was. Cliff Lee is, again, dominant. Hamels hasn't lost in nearly a month. There's talent here.
The Howard/Utley/Rollins infield that played in 46 playoff games over five seasons remains on the roster. But time is running out for a veteran group, each season that much further removed from their peak.
"We've been running," Rollins said of the team's recent play. "And the good thing is, we've been playing good teams. And that always helps you. You want to play the teams ahead of you."
Of course: it's 13 games. Even the Houston Astros have an 8-5 stretch this season. Baseball Prospectus rates the Phillies' playoff chances at just over six percent entering Friday's game.
And even while the Phillies were winning, they were losing players, as if the baseball gods were urging the Phillies to sell. Howard tore his meniscus, the July 10 knee surgery costing him the next 6-8 weeks. Darin Ruf has stepped in admirably, but that keeps the Phillies from potentially dealing Ruf for, say, additional bullpen help, or a better starting right fielder than Delmon Young.
Then Ben Revere broke his foot on July 13, and had surgery of his own. Not only did that rob the team of its best defensive center fielder and stolen base threat, it's turned John Mayberry Jr., nobody's idea of a starting center fielder on a contending team, into the team's … starting center fielder. For now. Proefrock made no secret of the team's interest in finding another center fielder, stat.
"We're examining all sorts of other options when it comes to center field. We're not putting all our eggs in that basket," Proefrock added, referring to the recovery of Revere. "I mean, I wouldn't rule anything out."
But again: the Phillies were on the periphery of contention with Revere playing well of late. Now, if they are to make a trade for a center fielder, it will come using chips that otherwise could have been used to improve other parts of the team.
And yet: these Phillies have been around long enough, they've managed to be both buyers at the deadline during their five straight NL East titles from 2007-2011, and sellers last season, when they reached a season-worst 37-51 mark in mid-July, 11 games out of the final wild card, and shortly thereafter, shipped out Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton. Of the group the Phillies received in return, two of the players, catcher Tommy Joseph and pitcher Ethan Martin, rank as the team's sixth and seventh-best prospects, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Deals for Utley, or Michael Young, or certainly Jonathan Papelbon or Cliff Lee would bring in even better prospects, and help revitalize a farm system that, as of now, lacks much in the way of high-end young talent beyond third baseman Maikel Franco. Even pitcher Jesse Biddle, recently in the Futures Game, looks more like a back-end starter to many prospect observers.
Interestingly though, the Phillies followed up on that 2012 low point and veteran sell-off by reeling off a 40-23 streak that got them to 77-74 by September 21, just three games out of that final wild-card spot. Would adding at the deadline, and keeping what they had, have been the difference? That question can't be far from the mind of general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who Manuel said will be in town to meet with him on Sunday for further discussions.
In the meantime, the Phillies have a little under two weeks to prove to Amaro that they are worth the investment this season, too. Perhaps the biggest indicator on the team will be Rollins, whose O.P.S.+ has dropped precipitously this season, to 82 from last year's 97, and whose defensive metrics no longer rate him as a plus at the position. Manuel believes in Rollins, however, and Rollins has a second-half OPS of .793, 68 points higher than his first-half mark of .725. To start the second half, he put Rollins in the just-vacated leadoff spot Friday night.
"I look for him to have a good second half," Manuel said of Rollins. "We're .500, we need to win some games. And he knows it. I think he concentrates a little bit more. And he wants to win."
For Rollins' part, he doesn't believe track record should have anything to do with whether the Phillies buy or sell.
"No one deserves credit," Rollins said about getting the benefit of the doubt. "There's no, because they've been in the past, we should be more lenient, one way or the other, because that doesn't necessarily have to be the case this year. We know it. But we still have to go out there and do it."
Eventually, these Phillies are likely to stop winning, not only in the first half, but the second half as well. Some reinforcements would help avoid that reality of age.
Maybe next year. In the first inning on Friday night, Rollins went out and led off with a single. He scored on Chase Utley's triple. The Phillies put up four runs in the first inning. Wise or not, it may not be rebuilding time in Philadelphia just yet.