The 2016 season was always going to be one for silver lining hunting, but what was supposed to separate it from the morass of the previous three was that it was at least supposed to be interesting throughout. Odubel Herrera was supposed to reinforce his breakout 2015 with a full 2016 stop the Phillies lineup; Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez and others were supposed to last most of the season before likely shutdowns; cheap pickups like Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Peter Bourjos could buoy flip value for July; young(-ish) curiosities like Maikel Franco, Aaron Altherr and Cameron Rupp were poised to become potential transitional faces. Some of that has borne out, but now, on the heels of Zach Eflin's season-ending surgery putting him on the shelf alongside Nola, the trade deadline having passed without action and the team's clear pretender status coming into yet clearer focus, boredom looms.
The first four-and-a-half months were not without their share of success. Herrera had a wonderful start to his season. Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez stormed out of the gate. Hellickson and Morton had their own impressive stretches, and the surprise emergences of Hector Neris. Things were, even during losses, mostly palatable, and had a distinct "this is a franchise turning it around" feel.
Now, though, the home stretch of 2016 just feels more like 2015 Redux, with little excitement for September call-ups and a rash of injuries leaving the roster in that grin-and-bear-it, show-must-go-on-style neutrality that plagued the previous year.
In the past few weeks, the Phillies have lost Nola and Eflin, have started the countdown clock on Velasquez, seem unwilling or unable to deal either Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz or Hellickson through the waiver period and appear intent on keeping major curiosities J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams in the minor leagues through the balance of the season.
All is not lost, though. At the moment, Herrera, Rupp, Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez are active, healthy and hitting various levels of "well." All or none of them could be on the team by next Opening Day, but even that outlook is an improvement over the "nope, definitely not" outlook of last year's Domonic Brown/Aaron Harang/Jerome Williams crudité. Still, the roster seems primed to be bland. Consider the following slate of likely roster spot squatters come early September:
- Taylor Featherston: The light-hitting infielder who got an extended look in Spring Training has hit 12 HR for Lehigh Valley, but laid a .332 OPS egg in his short, 28-PA time with the big club thus far.
- Emmanuel Burriss: Recently recalled to the active roster after Featherston's optioning. He possessed a .447 OPS entering Sunday. So.
- Cody Asche: He'll probably be back. .286/.333/.505 through his first 99 PA, .133/.226/.205 in his next 93 before being optioned after August 9's game. Mostly a known commodity by this point.
- Freddy Galvis: Fine defender, surprising occasional pop, lots of other unproductive trips to the plate. Turning 27 this fall and with more than 1,600 PA to his name, Galvis is also pretty well understood, and could hope to be a utility player once Crawford eventually does arrive.
- David Lough, Darin Ruf, Cedric Hunter, Jimmy Paredes, Peter Bourjos: As Ben Davis or Mike Schmidt would likely say, these are all, indeed, baseball players.
- The pitching side features a few more legitimate attention-grabbers with Jake Thompson, Edubray Ramos and a re-purposed Severino Gonzalez, but you'll probably also see a fair share of Colton Murray, Dalier Hinojosa and Luis Garcia taking the ball if Hector Neris ever gets a well-deserved rest. Alec Asher could also sneak in, but his shin injury and 80-game suspension have likely removed him from consideration outside of an emergency.
One aspect that goes into every decision to promote or withhold players is the minor league playoff chase. Joe Jordan, the Phils' director of player development, touts the cohesiveness that squads like the 2015 Reading club showed during its playoff run:
"It's tough to do in pro ball when personal performance earns you a chance at the majors," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said. "For those guys in Reading, it was a special time for them.
"We have to get that here in this locker room [at Citizens Bank Park]."
Jordan believes that players simultaneously can focus on their careers and be good teammates. What happened last year in Reading (as well as Clearwater and Lakewood) proved that.
In a related story, the IronPigs currently lead the International League's Wild Card race by six games and are just four games back of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees for the North Division lead. That team carries a handful of the same players who made such a strong push with Reading last season: Crawford, Williams, Andrew Knapp, Brock Stassi and Cameron Perkins all have Major League potential, but being able to win as a unit is important to the organization, and a prolonged postseason run in Triple-A is something the club seems to prefer ahead of a brief MLB glimpse for most of this unit.
The cynical eye may view the suppression of Crawford and Williams with particular scrutiny, as service time machinations may enable the club to carry over extra control on both players if each is kept off the Big League club until a few weeks into 2017. The Phillies haven't really displayed such a proclivity in the recent past with highly-valued prospects (see: Nola & Franco), and so I'm inclined to believe the Phillies both A) know what they're doing and B) kind of have the best interests of the players in a fully rounded and personal sense at heart. Crawford and Williams and some of the others are going to make the Major Leagues, barring cataclysm; having them experience winning at any level is important, especially when the top level isn't primed to do a whole lot of it during the home stretch.
And so, yeah, the late-August and September 2016 Phillies are going to resemble the beige 2015 team, and patience for this kind of first-gear roster is waning to the point where 2017 should show some distinct leaps at the peril of souring outlooks on coaching and management. But the foundation laid hearkens back to the 2015 moves that brought so many of the legitimate interests into the organization in the first place, moves made with this sort of patience in mind.
The opening act is wrapping up, and the roadies are about to revamp the stage in preparation for the performers everyone is so excited to see. The headliners will take the stage soon enough.