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Phillies need a new "heart of the order"

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The Phils' #3 and 4 hitters have been among the worst in the National League this season. But can anything be done to fix it?

Chase Utley is no longer a 3-hole hitter.
Chase Utley is no longer a 3-hole hitter.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Manager Ryne Sandberg wants more pitching. And hitting. And a rocket car. And a pony. And...

Yes, managers can be quite needy. And greedy. Gimme, gimme, gimme. I want, I want, I want.

Prior to last night's 5-2 defeat of the Padres in San Diego, the Phils' skipper talked about his wish list for 2015, which included arms for the starting rotation as well as some lumber for the middle of the order (per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki).

"Solidify the starting rotation," he said, referring to a rotation that ranked 11th in the National League with a 3.90 ERA and 13th with a 1.32 WHIP.

Sandberg said the team could use "more consistent production" from the middle of the lineup. He said he would like to see fewer strikeouts, too.

"I’d like to see that come down," he said.

And I would like a million dollars! Let's see which one of us gets our wish first.

Certainly the rotation could use some help. It won't need quite as much if Cliff Lee returns to form and A.J. Burnett decides not to retire. In that instance, the Phils' would only need one additional starter to go along with Cole Hamels and David Buchanan.

No, it wouldn't be a dream rotation, and there would be question marks. But let's face it. This team ain't going out and getting Jon Lester this off-season.

Offensively, the middle of the order has been pretty terrible, specifically the #3 and 4 spots in the lineup. These spots are usually reserved for your team's two best hitters, and for the Phillies, those two spots have been taken by the struggling Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Here is how the Phils rank as a team in both those critical spots in the lineup (NL rank in parenthesis).

Lineup Spot BA OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+
#3 Hitter .268 (12) .333 (T-12) .411 (12) .744 (12) .323 (12) 105 (13)
#4 Hitter .231 (12) .311 (T-12) .386 (11) .697 (13) .308 (T-13) 94 (13)

Even though offense is down overall this season, the Phils have still been far below league average in those two spots in the order.

Overall, Utley's numbers are good for a second baseman. His 3.9 fWAR leads the team, and his .271/.341/.410 slash line, with a wOBA of .326 and wRC+ of 107 are all solid numbers among National Leaguers at his position. The only problem is, most teams' second baseman are not also their three-hole hitter. Most teams have players at other positions who are leaned on to provide offense in that spot.

Not only that, after a hot first month in which he hit .355/.408/.570 with a .416 wOBA, 168 wRC+ and 3 HRs, Utley has hit just .254/.328/.378 with a .309 wOBA, 95 wRC+ and eight home runs in 522 PAs. And there's this...

There has been talk of moving Utley to first base, but if he were to move, he would be an even weaker offensive player compared to most who play that position. Of course, he would be an offensive upgrade over the player who sits at that spot now.

While Howard has piled up the RBIs this year (92 in 611 PAs), he has done little else. Only Nick Swisher has had a worse season among MLB first basemen, and his .222/.311/.374 slash line, with 21 HRs, .304 wOBA and 91 wRC+ make him among the worst clean-up hitters in baseball.

The Phils have kept Howard in the lineup almost every day in the hopes he could pile up the RBIs and convince some GM trapped in the late 1980s to offer a warm body for him. However, it's unlikely any AL team will be fooled by his high RBI total, which puts the Phillies in a difficult position.

Do they keep their two cornerstone players in the #3 and 4 spots in the lineup in 2015?

If the Phillies want to put a better offensive product on the field, they have to find a different answer. Unfortunately, elite hitters aren't exactly falling out of the sky right now.

One option is to land Cuban prospect Yasmani Tomas, who could replace Domonic Brown in left field immediately and presumably provide some immediate pop in the middle of the order. Perhaps Maikel Franco, if he takes over third base at some point next season, could be that guy. Although, asking Franco to be a middle-of-the-order bat for 2015 is probably too tall an ask.

The options in free agency aren't too appealing, either. Left fielder Nelson Cruz could be that impact bat if the Phillies can't land Tomas, however, he's going to get a huge contract, he's 34, is a defensive liability, and signing him would likely cost the Phillies a draft pick (if they get a Top-10 protected pick, they would have to relinquish a second-rounder). But Cruz would provide the power the team has been missing.

Left fielder Melky Cabrera has had a very solid season for the Toronto Blue Jays, and could slide in as the team's #3-hole hitter. The switch-hitter has hit .301/.351/.458 with a .354 wOBA and 125 wRC+, but he's in line for a big contract, too.

Other than that, there are no elite hitters hitting the free agent market.

Frankly, outside of acquiring Tomas, Cabrera or Cruz, it's hard to see how the Phillies middle of the order is going to be a whole lot better in 2015. Given the holes on the rest of the team, signing older veterans like Cabrera or Cruz doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And even if the Phils go all-in on Tomas, the odds are better than not they will be outbid for his services by another team.

Ryne Sandberg may want better production out of the #3 and 4 spots in the lineup. It's just not entirely clear if that will be possible anytime soon.