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How did the Phillies’ top targets sink to their level?

The Phillies know they’re not shopping for their last piece.

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Three Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Not so long ago, Phillies fans were stricken with a bout of Jose Bautista fever. Someone floated the idea of digging into the reserves and throwing it all at the 36-year-old slugger for a six-month uptick in home runs in Philadelphia. The thought trickled into posts and columns and was eventually settled upon as a silly idea, though it did serve as a brief distraction from the slate gray nothingness of the baseball calendar through which we are currently trying to push.

The more realistic three free agents most commonly associated with the Phillies now are down a few levels as far as "star power." How exactly did they wind up in the Phillies’ targeting window of effective, affordable, left-handed transition hitters?

Michael Saunders

In a line up featuring Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Tyr, the original Germanic god of war, the Blue Jays were inexplicably blessed with the likes of Saunders in 2016. The season’s first half was an unfair boon for Toronto as he hit .298 and slugged .551 with 16 HR. Blue Jays fans loved that Saunders was a Canadian-born hero, offering him a distinction the stars on the roster didn’t have. They also liked that he would do things like hit three home runs against the Orioles. Some say baseball was set back years among the north's savage icemen, as Saunders helped give the impression a baseball lineup is supposed to be comprised of nine hitters, up and down, and not two or three guys who get hot occasionally and six or seven who have no business on a big league roster, like a real team.

So what has stopped 30-year-old Saunders and his team from having some intensely polite negotiations, followed by a celebratory maple syrup chug? Well, "stat nerds" tend to count things such as "the season’s second half," and have single-halfedly ruined Saunders’ value on the free agent market. He’d already crossed career-high thresholds and was marking the season’s midpoint with his first-ever All-Star Game appearance. Afterward, his at-bats started adding to the Blue Jays’ bulbous team strikeout totals, failed to come through in the clutch spots in which he’d thrived, and saw his extra base hits become less daily and more weekly.

His BABIP was re-balancing, but the truth of it was, the long stretch of malaise was very uncommon for Saunders throughout his career since 2009. However, it was scarring enough that when the question came to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins of whether he’d be extending qualifying offers to Bautista and Encarnacion, he laughed, "...that’s about as easy as a decision as we’ll make." But in regards to the budding Saunders, his quiet, one-year veteran who hit .178 in the second half and .149 in September-October, Atkins was not so quick with a decision. Now, Saunders is available for high expectations in Philadelphia, where we monitor a hitter's success in the first half of a season and then just stop.

Again, like a real team.

Brandon Moss

When Moss swung at an 0-2 pitch offered by Chris Young of the Royals on June 30, barring some disturbing clairvoyance, he probably had no idea where it would land. But if it was one of Young’s classic meatballs like I'm imagining, he had to know it would go far.

It did. Farther, in fact, than any other baseball in Busch Stadium history, at 477 feet.

Moss was hitting .256 at the time and would eventually see his average crawl all the way to .270 in late August, but would finish the season slashing .225/.300/.484. He actually threw the Cardinals roster into chaos by stepping on first base at a weird angle in early July, forcing coverage at his position and shifting Mike Matheny’s team out of its ideal alignment. The 33-year old wound up in a walking boot for a month, returning in August; a month in which he put up some of his best numbers of the season.

A slow burner, Moss had been gathering momentum after weak outputs in April and May, hitting .333 in 72 June AB at the time of his ankle trouble. Some guys, after missing a few weeks of reps, wouldn’t be able to pick up right where they left off, and Moss certainly wasn’t able to recapture that exact heat. But he did match his June home run total (8) and doubles (5), while putting up his highest monthly hit total of 2016 (28 in 103 AB). And then, because life is an experience of checks and balances, Moss was regulated by the baseball gods and saw his numbers sink back down to their low early season levels as he prepared for winter hibernation.

The more exposure he gets, the more confident Moss becomes, and if the Phillies want a platoon partner for Tommy Joseph at first base - and after watching the Ryan Howard/Darin Ruf chronicles this season, who wouldn’t - Moss would be the option who offered the power they want. Just look at that power. Mmm. [Sets up lawn chair]. That's real nice.

Andres Blanco and Howie Kendrick are veteran infielders who can play multiple positions and try to bring pop to the plate, but if the brief, frantic Bautista fervor around Christmas was any indication, this is a city starved for power. While Moss is vulnerable to the long stretches of air-producing at-bats that Saunders seems to evade, though not this year, he is a cheap slugger in a land trying to remember what that looks like; while Moss was setting home run distance records in 2016, our last prolific slugger popped out on the first pitch of his final Phillies at-bat.

Jay Bruce

Some day, the Phillies will be two or three deft, expensive free agent moves away from being real trouble in the East again. 2017 will not be that season, so when the name "Jay Bruce" is brought up, all you can do is move your head in a sort of nod/shake backed by an utterance of neutral mouth sounds like "Mmm" or "oh" or "tha... yeah."

Players like Bruce often to see a patch of success throughout the long year and are rewarded with local TV packages, asking what keeps him going through the year, shining some light on their personal lives, and illustrating "what he brings to the lineup." Weeks later, they are usually bottoming out, confirming for us once more that for every action in this universe, there is an equal, opposite one. The universe really wanted to make sure we all knew Bruce’s monstrous June in which he hit .291 with a .928 OPS, seven home runs, 18 XBH, a stolen base, and an All-Star Game berth, was yet more of its cruel trickery.

His solid bat-on-ball-putting spiked his value and sent him from basically eliminated Cincinnati to contending New York, where his offensive numbers plummeted and he went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the NL Wild Card game, leading to all sorts of mean comparisons involving the saying of real numbers.

The Mets, who picked up Bruce's $13 million option as a means of quelling concerns about Yoenis Cespedes' return, have been trying to push Bruce onto the trade wire for weeks, with mixed results; the results being "no" and "please stop."

Sometimes at work, you want to juggle and pivot and create all sorts of appealing options for yourself.

Other times, you just need to trade Jay Bruce.

The likelihood of the Mets being able to trade Bruce anywhere, including the Phillies, will only increase through the passage of time as teams grow desperate at the gleefully falling number of days between now and the first pitch of spring, as well as when bored starting players stick their tongues in oscillating fans during the off-season and necessitate an emergency replacement who hit .183 last August. They will just have to recall that while he is being acquired as a bat, he will have to play defense, which is not what many would refer to as Bruce's "specialty."

The market is weak; the Phillies are between time and space; the world awaits the 2018 free agent class, a time we have been assured will be far sexier than the current climate. But, the Phillies have done us all the favor of making their interest clear - a potent left handed offensive weapon, on a market that asks them to redefine the notion of "potent." As with all baseball things, their best options will come from a gallery of multicolored disarray, price tags lowered due to drop-offs, bad luck, the folly of stepping on bases, the length of the MLB season, and being Jay Bruce.