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Division and Conquer: The Phillies' Road Back to the Top

Yes, the Phillies are on their way to a historically awful season. The road back to the top won't happen overnight.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For just one second, you're going to have to let a man dream.

It's 2018. It's October. The Phillies are in a heated Game 6 of the National League Championship Series with the Washington Nationals. Aaron Nola takes the ball for the Phillies, fires eight innings of one-run ball, and hands things over to Ken Giles in the 9th. Bryce Harper strikes out to end the game. The Phillies win, 4-2. The entirety of D.C. goes dark. The Phillies are on their way to the Fall Classic. Somewhere in there, J.P. Crawford picks up a 2-for-4 night with 3 RBIs.

Alright, snap out of it. That was all just a dream. We'll just keep that pearly little thought in the back of our head somewhere for another day. Could it possibly become more than just a dream?

Sure. It could. Somewhere in this author's messed up mind, there's the actual thought that this could happen. Go ahead and laugh. The Phillies are 33 games under .500 as the second half of the season opens tonight, and we're past the point of pain, the realm of irrelevancy entered long ago.

Twenty-six games under .500 on the road, seven games under at the place that's supposed to be friendly. Nothing is good, and everything is bad right now. The standings have the Phillies 21 games south of Washington at the moment.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a path back to relevancy. A lot of things will have to break right, sure. Nola will have to pitch like a #1 on some nights. Crawford will have to be amazing offensively and defensively. A Pat Gillick in the middle of the night Jayson Werth-like signing will be needed, that one move where you get lucky. (Here's looking at you, Andy.)

The Nationals' first place record is currently 48-39. The Mets, after a hot start, cooled off. They have heated up again once more, and are 47-42. The Braves, Marlins and your Fightins are the NL East's misfit kids right now.

Therein lies that glimmer of hope if you are a Phillies fan. There's even that bone in your body that wishes Ryan Howard magically had 25 HR right now and Chase Utley was hitting .330. You almost wish that the Phillies were near .500 in some miraculous season, because they'd be in the race for the division.

We know that wasn't really possible, but this division has done no favors to this writer's mind when it comes to being too optimistic. It's fun to dream when you look around and say, "Hey, maybe we don't have it so bad."

Again, go ahead and laugh, repeat the 33 games under .500 stat to yourself, and try not to go crazy. No room to talk, right? The Phillies aren't competing for anything any time soon, why even try and tear apart these other teams? Well, quite simply, that's what you do when you're out of the pennant race before you leave Spring Training.

So, how about this competition the Phillies face? The Nationals have the best player in the National League right now in Harper. They have one of the best pitchers in the league in Max Scherzer.

They also have a ton of injuries. The good teams overcome injuries, and the Nationals, have for the the most part, done so. Deep down, though, the Nationals are scared when it comes to Stephen Strasburg's future. Ryan Zimmerman has struggled to stay on the field once again. Ian Desmond has a .589 OPS and appears to have completely forgotten how to hit a baseball.

The Mets have had a strange season in their own right. They started hot with a 15-8 April. May was subpar. June featured a seven game losing streak. They won six out of seven heading into the break. They have a shot to have the best 1-2 punch in the National League for the next few years in Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, but the offense has sputtered, and David Wright, now 32, is dealing with an injury that has left his career in limbo.

The Braves may actually be better than many had even thought they would be, but are 42-47. The Marlins are 13 games under .500, but even a healthy Giancarlo Stanton couldn't have saved this bunch. Then, of course, the Phillies bring up the rear in the basement of the division.

The 2015 season has not been a shining moment for the National League East. That may be the exact reason the Phillies should be excited about their future.

The NL Central currently features three (3!) well-run organizations. One may not be doing things quite so legally, but the other two feature saber-leaning personnel that have succeeded so far, in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The NL West features a team that has pockets deep enough to spend their way out of problems if needed, and a franchise that has won three World Series titles in the last five years and seems to be doing things right. The competition is stiff elsewhere in the National League, to say the least.

This is not to underestimate the talent that exists in the National League East on other teams. The Nationals did win 96 games last year, and 98 in 2012. If Strasburg and Harper are healthy, that goes a long way. They will still be the prohibitive favorites for the rest of 2015, 2016 and maybe 2017, unless the Mets' rotation becomes an unstoppable force.

What will this likely come down to for all these organizations? The future talent that is awaiting in the minors seems like a safe bet. Trades will be made, veterans will be signed, and maneuvering will be done to strengthen from outside the organization.

That being said, the East's top three teams' minor league systems this year were all ranked pretty favorably heading into the season. The Nationals are thoroughly excited about Lucas Giolito, Michael Taylor, Trea Turner and others.

The Mets have reason to be excited about Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, who are fading away from prospect status, but there are bats in the minors, too.

Jose Peraza was highly ranked coming into the year for Atlanta, and though Mike Foltynewicz has struggled, there's a darn good chance he's not going to be this bad for the next few years. The Braves have depth below that.

That is what the Phillies will be competing with. And it only makes sense. It's what we've been stressing around these parts for the last few years. The Phillies' minor league system simply must be better. They appear to have gotten things back on track with these last few drafts. Truthfully, it's the Phillies' only chance to make those wild dreams come true in 2018.

That Gatorade bath would be quite sweet.