The Philadelphia Phillies--your Philadelphia Phillies--currently sit in third place in the National League East with a 26-21 record. They're a mere two games behind the division-leading Nationals and, if you're into looking at Wild Card standings in May, only a game behind the Pirates for the second spot. We didn't expect it, we didn't predict it in our Spring Training "look the sun and warmth and rodents milling around in the yard" giddiness, and, hell, we might not have even wanted it, but the Phillies are on May 26th of the 2016th year of our lord, in contention for the playoffs.
We know that this shouldn't last. The bullpen is terrible and will show it eventually. The starting pitching isn't this good. They'll play good teams. All these things are true, but they've been just as true for two months already. What if they spit in the face of truth for two more months?
But what is truth? Is it what has happened? Is it what is most likely to happen? Is it some combination of the two? Friedrich Nietzsche answers the question thusly: "Truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigor, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer coins." We are only interested in truth as a matter of convenience and security. This might be the "pure truth" or it might not, but that question doesn't matter.
How much longer until we forget the Phillies .553 record is an illusion? By mid-July, that fact will certainly be forgotten enough to at least consider entering the fray of the trade deadline buyers market. What of these considerations? Should the Phillies, given they find themselves in that position, take the leap into pure win-now?
The first step toward answering this question is to envision the scenario in which the Phillies are contenders in two months and assess their potential needs based on that. Our heuristic for that will be to take the current performances of the team at face-value and project their repetition forward. So, the July-contender Phillies will have at least four usable starters, three usable relievers, and not much on offense, with glaring holes at first base and in the outfield.
Our next step is to assess our tolerance of deviating from the long-term rebuilding plan that has been in the works for the last two-plus years. The Phillies farm system is widely regarded as one of the 10 best in baseball and, with the notable exceptions of Cornelius Randolph and Franklyn Kilome, the core of talent in the system is in the high levels of the minors, and figures to appear in the majors within two years.
July won't be far enough into the season to completely forget that the illusion of the Phillies success is just that, so I would borderline refuse to part with any of the advanced-level prospect core of Crawford, Williams, Thompson, Alfaro, Eflin, Appel, Quinn, and Knapp. If hell freezes over and Mike Trout actually becomes available, I'd change my tune, but it would take something close to that to talk about those prospects. Why would you tear down years of planning and careful acquisition of talent to chase what could best be labeled as a pipe dream in 2016? Trust the process; to paraphrase Warren Buffet, via Sam Hinkie, you don't want to spoil a decent record just so you can go out a hero.
If it's a star or above-average regular we're looking for--an elite corner outfielder, a mashing first baseman--I'd direct the conversation to Randolph and Kilome and throw in some filler of Ben Lively-types. But, no team in their right mind is going to give up a valuable regular for two guys who are so far away from the majors and a pile of crap. In other words, to answer the question at the outset, the Phillies should not go into pure win-now mode. They're set up to win plenty in the next five years. There's no reason to subtract from that long-term success for a low-probability short-term play.
The conversation changes then since we're not going to get a lineup fixture in return for what we're willing to offer. So what will the Phillies be able to do to strengthen the team in 2016 in the context of a commitment to the process already underway? The most obvious improvement would be to get a reliever--that's what every contender does at the deadline, after all. Just last year, the Nationals got that from the Phillies and only gave up Nick Pivetta for the services of Jonathan Papelbon. A Papelbon-type--in pitching ability, not personality--would give the Phillies a fourth reliever worth going to outside of Neris, Gomez, and Hernandez.
The other options would be a competent first baseman or an option for a corner outfield platoon. Neither would cost much--a John Richey or Ben Lively should get it done. Nick Markakis was floated as a name earlier this week and players of his ilk are a dime-a-dozen in mid-July. The same goes with first basemen. Mark Trumbo--who, sure, is "really" an outfielder--gets traded five times every year for forgettable returns. In a neutral context, neither sort of player is particularly valuable, but the Phillies are not a neutral context. Here, these guys would replace the likes of Ryan Howard, Peter Bourjos, or David Lough. Even a replacement level player could be an improvement of a win over (nearly) half a season.
The Phillies, should they find themselves in spitting distance of the playoffs in two months time, might be tempted to go into YOLO mode and make a splash. Talk radio callers will certainly be getting red in the face shouting for it. But they should show restraint and consider what they have gone to great lengths and many losses to build. Playoff baseball in 2016 would, gee, sure be nice, but it would be myopic to act as if that is the ultimate goal for the franchise.
The current Phillies roster should be pretty similar, then, to what is will look like at the end of the season. If that team--with a prospect addition here, and a platoon bat there--lucks its way into the playoffs, we'll be beyond thrilled. If it doesn't, well, that's not so bad either. 2016 wins, like truth, are illusions anyway. Unlike truth, we would do well to not forget that.