With the All-Star break here and the sheer terror of another three hours or so of Chris Berman’s Annual Home Run Derby Yukfest bearing down upon America like the frightening specter of a Glee marathon, there is one thing that should cheer Phillies fans — other than four days away from the team’s Pravda-style TV broadcasts:
The National League stinks.
A quick perusal of the standings shows that seven of the 15 teams have just about eliminated themselves from post-season competition. As soon as the season’s “second half” begins, Pittsburgh will commence its annual slide to oblivion and another sub-.500 season, raising that total to eight.
In other words, no matter how much of a frustrating experience it may be following the 2013 Phillies, it would be wrong to blow things up. There simply aren’t enough NL teams good enough to contend, and with five playoff spots available in a rotten league, the Phils just can’t be dismissed from the post-season. That may sound crazy, considering they have been so erratic. But to begin a fire sale now, when the team is 5 and a half games out of the second wild-card spot, is unwise. The best thing the Phils can do is use the trade chips they have — Michael Young, and if someone is willing to take him, Carlos Ruiz — and beef up the bullpen and outfield. Take a shot at the playoffs and then see what happens from there. If it doesn’t work, use the off-season to begin a complete rebuild.
Remember that the team with the best record doesn’t often win the World Series. Last year, the Giants had the worst record of the NL’s three division winners and took the title. Two years ago, the Cardinals were a wild-card team and dumped the 102-victory Phils in the NLDS. The object of the game is to get there. After that, just about anything can happen.
That is not to say the pressure isn’t off GM Ruben Amaro Jr. In fact, his moves will be under even more scrutiny because they will not be of the blockbuster variety. He has to find a relief pitcher capable of upgrading one of the worst crews in baseball. It’s not as if Amaro has a good track record in that department. Last year’s bullpen addition was Josh Lindblom, who had a penchant for surrendering home runs and was jettisoned cheerfully after the season. If he is going to trade Young or Ruiz, Amaro must get someone who can pitch well and pitch frequently, the better to prevent Charlie Manuel from having to send Jake Diekman or Justin De Fratus to the mound in crucial situations, or any situation, for that matter.
As for the bench upgrade, Amaro hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence, either. Last year’s deal for Hunter Pence brought Nate Schierholtz, a corner outfielder who had a lean .379 slugging percentage and five RBI in 66 at-bats for the Phils. Not exactly the guy you want coming to the plate in key pinch-hit situations.
The other byproduct of the Phillies’ recent success — 9-4 this month — is the rehabilitation of manager Charlie Manuel, whose future, both immediate and long-term, have been the subject of debate this season. It’s not his fault Cole Hamels started so poorly, the bullpen is a disaster and a punchless lineup received little help from the front office during the off-season. But his steady hand helped a team racked by injury and underachievement from high-paid pieces (Big and otherwise) reach .500 at the All-Star break. Manuel continues to be the right man for this team, and until Amaro decides to blow it up, Manuel should stay in the dugout, even if that means extending him another two years.
So, the onus is now on Amaro to improve the team for a playoff run and to do so without taking on a big contract. This has not been his specialty. But the Phillies’ run to the post-season depends on it. There are plenty of good relief pitchers out there, and with two proven, short-term rentals at his disposal in Young and Chooch, Amaro should be able to get somebody who will help. Should.
The good news is that even if Amaro fails in his attempt to upgrade the team, the Phillies are still positioned reasonably well for a run at the playoffs. The starting pitching remains strong, and the offense has awoken just enough to give the team a shot every night. (Let’s not get carried away, though; the Phils have scored more than five runs twice in the past 15 games.) The secret weapon, of course, is the rest of the league. It’s just not that good. Eighty-seven wins might just get the Phils to October, and that’s a .591 clip, certainly manageable, especially since 32 of their last 55 games are at home, and 10 of the 23 road games are against the fetid Mets, Marlins and Cubs. Keep in mind that the lowest post-All-Star winning percentage the team has managed during Manuel’s tenure was last year’s .587, and five of the eight seasons have been above .600.
The next two-and-a-half months could be a lot of fun, provided the team holds together and Amaro does his job.
And don’t forget to make liberal use of the mute button during the Home Run Derby.
• So, once the 2013-14 NBA season starts, will anybody be able to tell the difference between the Sixers’ rookie league team and the regular unit? With a minimum of five members of this year’s roster’s having just completed play in Orlando, it looks as if the team is trying to have the youngest squad in the league. Wise.
• The Inquirer speculated Sunday that new/old Flyers goalie Ray Emery might be more mature than he was during his first stint with the team. If he isn’t, then the team made a serious mistake adding him. Emery would have to throw full-fledged temper tantrums on the ice to be less mature than he was the last time.
• With one week remaining until the Eagles begin training camp, we can finally look forward to an end to the speculation and begin to learn what this team will be able to do. Most of the off-season attention that hasn’t been directed toward coach Chip Kelly has been on the quarterback spot, but fans would be wise to pay close attention to whether a defense that gave up the third-most points in the NFL last season will be any better. The additions made would indicate a huge improvement is unlikely.