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The Phillies aren’t that far away from wild card contention

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The Phils may not have as much work to do as we think in order to catch up to the other NL wild card contenders.

Los Angeles Dodgers  v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After getting shellacked by the White Sox in Chicago Tuesday night 9-1, the Phillies sat 9 games behind the second wild card team in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the season, they will likely finish more than 10 games out of the playoff picture, which is not a small margin.

Clearly, the Phils have a lot of work to do before they are considered playoff contenders. And that’s fine, because this season was never about wins and losses. No one expected them to come close to competing for a playoff spot.

But as the Phils rumble their way to another 90-loss season, it’s encouraging to see that it may not be all that long before they can consider themselves legitimate wild card contenders.

Sure, winning the wild card isn’t a team’s ultimate goal. All it means is you get to play in a one-game playoff for your postseason survival. But for a team that has not had a winning season since 2011, it’s a worthwhile goal.

SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee recently noted that the Phils have taken some huge steps forward in their development this year, certainly an encouraging sign.

There have been developments on the offensive side for the Phillies. Tommy Joseph has emerged from concussion hell to slug .500. Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez have been the kind of found-money players that every good rebuilding story needs. And while J.P. Crawford didn’t set the minors on fire and roll around in the ashes, he’s been much better over the last two months in Triple-A. His plate discipline is beyond his years, which allows him to succeed and wait for the other tools to catch up at the same time...

...Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin were both shut down for the season with injuries, but both should be ready for next season. Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff have both alternated brilliance with young-pitcher shenanigans, but the quartet should allow the Phillies to take risks and at least consider the possibility that they’ll be ahead of schedule and contending in 2017.

Before the season started, the Phillies had a very, very bad team and a bunch of maybes. Now they’re halfway to a contending roster? Maybe more? All they need is a little money to fill in the holes around the roster, and, oh, look at that, they have just $25 million in committed salary for next season. The best thing that could have happened to the Phillies this year was for a pitching staff to sprout out of the soil, making them feel comfortable with an aggressive offseason.

It’s possible that the Phillies have had one of the best seasons in baseball, considering. You know that 29 teams will be sad between now and November. But there aren’t a lot of teams that can look at the immediate future with as much optimism as the Phillies. I wasn’t expecting to type that sentence at this time last year.

There is also another encouraging sign. As the Phillies look up in the standings at this year’s NL wild card bunch, they can see a collection of teams with a number of holes, and rosters that aren’t exactly littered with amazing players.

Take the current wild card leaders, the San Francisco Giants. They are a very good team and have a true ace in Madison Bumgarner, something every team must have. They also have a solid No. 2 starter in Johnny Cueto. But after that, Jeff Samardzija hasn’t been good (4.17 ERA, 6.71 K/9), Jake Peavy has been a disaster (5.55 ERA) and Matt Cain is flat-out cooked (5.81 ERA). That’s a top-heavy rotation, three-fifths of which is simply not terribly good.

Offensively, the Giants have a couple true stars in Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey. When Hunter Pence is healthy, he’s pretty good too. Brandon Belt is a quality player as well. But Belt is their team leader in homers, and he only has 14. Only three Gaints players are in double figures in dingers.

A flailing offense is one of the reasons the Giants are 28th in MLB in the second half in runs scored. Only the White Sox and Pirates have scored fewer runs since the All Star Game.

The team currently holding down the second wild card spot, the Cardinals, recently came through Philadelphia and took two out of three from the Phillies. As always, St. Louis is competitive. They continually seem to put a team on the field where the sum of the parts is better than the individual pieces.

But they don’t have that one true superstar. The player with the highest fWAR on their team is Matt Carpenter, one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. But he’s the only guy with a WAR of 3.0. Stephen Piscotty is a young player with a bright future, and Aledmys Diaz has been a remarkable find at shortstop, hitting for average with some surprising pop. But the Cardinals are also relying on a number of veteran players who have been mostly league average for much of their careers, including Jedd Gyorko and Brandon Moss, both of whom are having career years.

St. Louis’ pitching staff is nothing to write home about. Adam Wainwright is considered the ace, but hasn’t pitched like one this year, with a 4.71 ERA and a 7.09 K/9. Carlos Martinez looks like the best pitcher in the rotation, but after him, it’s Michael Wacha (4.45 ERA), Mike Leake (4.56 ERA) and Jamie Garcia (4.37 ERA).

None of those guys are terrible, but a shut-down rotation it ain’t.

One thing the Cardinals do have is a good bullpen, an invaluable commodity in today’s MLB. San Francisco’s is middle of the pack.

This isn’t to say these teams aren’t good. Clearly, they are winning far more games than they’re losing, and they’re winning enough games to lead the wild card. The Giants are 11 games over .500 and the Cardinals are 8 games over.

But that’s not dominant.

And how about the teams chasing them? The Miami Marlins are just 1 12 games back, but sit just 5 games over .500 entering Wednesday. Before Giancarlo Stanton got hurt, they had one of the best outfields in the game, with Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. But it has been a struggle offensively, clubbing the third-fewest dingers in baseball.

Yes, Jose Fernandez is amazing, and the Fish also have decent No. 2 and 3 starters in Tom Koehler and Adam Conley. It is the strength of their team, but again, Fernandez is the only true difference maker in the rotation. Their bullpen is also very good, with their 3.62 ERA 6th-best in the NL, and their 9.39 K/9 is 3rd-best. And yet, they are just 5 games over .500.

The Pirates, who sit 2 12 out and are just 3 games over .500, have had a down season. Their starters have compiled a 4.52 ERA, 8th-best in the NL, but, like the rest of the teams listed above, they at least have that true ace in Gerrit Cole (3.30 ERA). Youngster Jameson Taillon also has the look of a star (2.92 ERA in 12 starts), but everyone else has pretty much been a disaster.

Their best player, Andrew McCutchen, is having the worst season of his career, with a wRC+ of 98 and an fWAR of 0.8 this season. He’s killing them. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are stars, but their top contributor after those two is David Freese. It’s a team built on four players, Cole, Jameson, Marte and Polanco. One would think McCutchen will be better next year, but it is not a complete team.

And then there are the Mets, 3 12 games out of the wild card. They are just 1 game over .500, their season torpedoed by injuries and a subpar season by one of their outstanding young starters.

Noah Syndergaard may be the best pitcher in baseball not named Clayton Kershaw. Jacob deGrom continues to own, and Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon have both been solid. But an injury to Matt Harvey has ended his subpar season, is hurting them, and bone spurs have some worried about Syndergaard and Matz for the rest of the season.

The biggest problems have been on offense. Yoenis Cespedes is currently injured and is likely to be a free agent at the end of the season. The team traded for Jay Bruce, but he’s not really all that good a player, with a -0.5 fWAR this season. Neil Walker and Kelly Johnson have tried to pick up the pace in Cespedes’ absence, but the team had to go out and sign, and start, Jose Reyes this season, which tells you all you need to know about the state of that team.

Frankly, their manager Terry Collins, isn’t helping. He’s torpedoed the bright career of Michael Conforto, who has languished on the bench or been sent down to AAA at various points this season.

All of the wild card contenders have substantial flaws. They all have glaring holes. None of them is putting up the types of records that the Cubs and Pirates did last season.

If a few things go right for the Phillies next season, there’s no reason to think they can’t legitimately stay in the race through September.

Aaron Nola has to come back healthy and pitch like he did in the first two months, not the last two. Vince Velasquez has to take the next step and become a more complete pitcher, capable of going deeper into games. One of Jake Thompson or Zach Eflin has to be a reliable and effective innings-eater, and Jerad Eickhoff has to keep doing his thing.

Offensively, Maikel Franco needs to take the next step forward in his development, becoming more patient and consistent at the plate. Odubel Herrera has to even out some of his hot and cold streaks, too, but both are potential All-Star building blocks.

Tommy Joseph has to prove he can maintain a .500-ish slugging percentage playing against both left and right-handers. Aaron Altherr has to be a solid outfielder. And a few of the young prospects yet to emerge, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn, Andrew Knapp, etc., need to contribute at the Major League level as well.

And a little more help in the bullpen wouldn’t be bad, either.

But the Phils are not far away. If some of their young players improve just a little bit, and if the rotation can pitch more like they did in April and the first part of May, the Phillies have a chance to be a bit dangerous next year.

And that’s mainly because the rest of the National League wild card contenders aren’t really anything special.