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The Long Warmup: Phillies storylines for the next two months

Teammates can barely hold back Raul Ibanez as the oldest Phillie regular charges, teeth bared, into the future. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Teammates can barely hold back Raul Ibanez as the oldest Phillie regular charges, teeth bared, into the future. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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The Moneyball-era baseball truism holds that in a six-month season, a team spends the first two months figuring out what it has, the middle two getting what it needs, and the last two going all-out to win. This construct doesn’t quite fit, however, for teams like the 2011 Phillies. The talent on hand at the season's start probably exceeded both that of any other of the 29 teams and any of the previous 128 collections of Phillies. As of mid-summer, they didn’t "need" anything to accomplish everything possible in the 162-game regular season; love it or hate it, the Hunter Pence trade happened primarily for the postseason and secondarily for 2012-13. And while nobody who remembers 2007 should feel absolute confidence in a seven-game lead when there are more than seven games left to play, the odds of playoff baseball in Philadelphia this autumn are pretty favorable. (It helps that the Phils’ actual lead for a playoff spot—their margin over the second-place team in the wild card race—is ten games at the moment.)

Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to watch the most ridiculously loaded Phillies team… well, ever. When else has the club had four pitchers who could legitimately start Game One of a playoff series, or three who could come on to close it out? When the lineup includes only four or five all-stars, rather than the accustomed seven, there’s an instinct to complain. At this writing, the team has lost back to back games exactly once in the last two months. It’s become a truism to say that this is the greatest era in team history, but beyond that, they’ve actually spoiled us with their near-universal awesomeness.

So what can they give the fans who have everything? What should we be thinking about and watching for over the next two months? 

1.         The wins record. With 34 more victories in their remaining 56 games, the Phillies would finish the 2011 season with 102 wins, most in franchise history. To win at a 61 percent clip for two months is a tall order, but it would actually represent a dropoff from the .642 winning percentage the Phils have played to through their first 108. Adding on the team’s 49-19 finish from 2010, the Phillies are 117-57 in their last 174 games, for a remarkable .672 winning percentage. Given that the team is healthier right now than it’s been all year, getting to the record seems more likely than not.

2.         Resting the regulars. The Phils needed that charge down the stretch in 2010, as they didn’t overtake the Braves for the division lead until September. Nobody ever complained, but it’s very likely that the imperatives of the playoff race meant Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, among others, came back from injuries sooner than might have been ideal and were not at full strength when the postseason began. Given an older roster dotted with players who have missed time and might be nursing ongoing hurts, the big lead should mean that Charlie Manuel can give Utley, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez and Carlos Ruiz regular off days. Similarly, there’s no need to go to the whip on Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels or the soon to be activated Roy Oswalt. Happily, Manuel already seems to be easing up on Halladay and Hamels, neither of whom reached the 100 pitch mark in their most recent starts. There might be no bigger factor in whether or not this team delivers its second title in four seasons than how healthy and fresh its veteran stars are when the games matter most.

3.         Casting call. If Manuel had to set his playoff roster today, the first fifteen or so names would be easy: the lineup, rotation and back of the bullpen are all set. But beyond backup catcher Brian Schneider on the bench and Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo at the back end of the relief corps, there are October jobs to be won. The current five other reserves are infielders Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez, outfielders Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr., and whatever you’d call Ross Gload at this point. (One of the five might get sent out when Oswalt is activated later in the week.) Domonic Brown, of course, is back at triple-A for the moment, but it stands to reason that he’ll be in this mix come playoff time. The Phillies like to have a designated speed guy on the postseason roster; that could be Brown, or veteran outfielder Scott Podsednik, currently cooling his heels on the injured list at Lehigh Valley. Rumors abound that the team might be looking for another lefty power bat to replace the hobbled Gload; the Rockies' Jason Giambi would have fit the bill nicely, but they might have missed their window to get him as rivals now can and likely will block waiver claim attempts. Do they need both Martinez and Valdez in a short series? Might a similar player like Pete Orr get into the mix? Has Ben Francisco done enough even to keep a roster spot for the playoffs?

The bullpen is similarly uncertain, beyond Bastadson/Madstardo. Based on his early work since returning to action, Brad Lidge seems likely to settle in as a sixth- or seventh-inning option, similar to Chad Durbin’s role in past years. Michael Stutes, the rookie who helped save the bullpen in the first half, has been scored upon in four of his last seven appearances as regression crashes down upon him. Fellow rookie Vance Worley, whose work in the rotation should earn him some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes, could join Stutes in the playoff bullpen or replace him there. Juan Perez will always have the memory of the Immaculate Inning, but the fact that he’s pitched only four other ones this season speaks to Manuel’s lack of confidence in him; a second lefty reliever is the team’s other likely target for an August waiver trade. Other bullpen options include rehabbing Jose Contreras, who if fully recovered could figure into the late-inning mix; David Herndon, who seems to be gaining some trust from Manuel; and possibly minor-leaguers Michael Schwimer or Phillippe Aumont, both of whom Manuel has mentioned as possibilities. (Remember, with Joe Blanton likely to remain on the 60-day DL, the Phillies probably will have added leeway with the postseason roster—thus, Schwimer or Aumont could be options even if they don’t show up before September 1.)

4.         Awards and milestones. Despite the very real possibility that the Phillies will win more games than any National League team since the 1998 Braves (106), they could get shut out of the big awards—largely by virtue of just how many superior performances they’ve gotten. The Cy Young probably offers the best shot, but with Halladay and Hamels both strong candidates, they might split; both will get some MVP consideration, but won’t win, and the only regulars who have any chance to crack the top ten are Victorino and, if he sustains his scalding July pace, Utley. Worley might get a top-five finish in RoY voting, but unless he approaches 15 wins and Freddie Freeman turns into Rafael Santana, he won’t win it. Charlie Manuel seems likely to take another close-but-no-cigar for Manager of the Year honors.

In terms of individual milestones, TGP compatriot schmenkman has the story: the last two months promise to see plenty of accomplishment on that front. Halladay and Hamels can become the Phils’ first dual 20-game winners in memory, which is pretty neat.

The last item, of course, lies beyond the end of the regular season. The Phillies' near-embarrassment of riches gives them a chance to remembered with the great teams of the last several decades—the 1975-76 Reds, the 1986 Mets, the 1998 Yankees—as 100-plus win teams that went on to win world championships. You need both pieces, though: nobody remembers the 106-win ’98 Braves, who lost in the NLCS, or the 105-win 2004 Cardinals, swept by the Red Sox in that year’s World Series. (Their 2006 successors won 23 fewer games before the postseason, but ended their year with a parade.) The 2001 Mariners, winners of an unfathomable 116 games, are mostly remembered for their "failure" to reach the World Series. Unfair? Probably, in that the 162-game test of the regular season presents more and greater challenges than a three-round playoff gauntlet. But ultimately the 2011 Phillies will wait these next two months, along with the rest of us, to really cement their legacy.