Unless you grew up looking like Tom Cruise or Charlize Theron, you likely went through an awkward phase.
You know what I’m talking about, that time in your life when your skin was bubbling with hormones, your voice was creaky, you needed braces on your teeth and you thought wearing all denim was a good idea. We’ve all been there.
It seems as though that’s where the Phillies are in their rebuilding efforts right now. Yes, they’ve been a losing franchise since 2012, but the rebuild didn’t begin in earnest until the 2015 season, the year Cole Hamels was dealt, and the last remnants of the 2008 world champions began to be dealt away.
In 2015, the team lost 99 games, but no one batted an eyelash, because everyone knew it had to be so. Last year, there was improvement, a 71-91 record, and there was hope things were looking up.
In fact, coming into the 2017 season, Pete Mackanin himself said he thought his team could play .500 ball this year. Everyone hoped that the team would take a step forward and would at least make summertime baseball enjoyable for everyone.
We hoped Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco would take steps forward in their third years in the Majors. We thought perhaps Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders would give the team some veteran stability in a young lineup. We thought Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff might be able to establish themselves as No. 3 starters. And we certainly thought the bullpen would be better.
But make no mistake, the 2017 season has been a disaster thus far. The Phillies are 15-27, tied with the Marlins for the fewest wins in all of baseball. Over the last 365 days, the Phils have the worst record in baseball, 62-99. They are on pace to lose more than 100 games, something no one saw coming.
And more than the record, it feels as if many of the young Major Leaguers, specifically Herrera and Franco, are taking big steps back this season, even if general manager Matt Klentak doesn’t agree (quotes via Philly.com’s Matt Gelb).
"I'm not ready to call it regression," Klentak said before Monday's game. "I think there's been a lack of consistency on our team in general. Some players more than others. There's been a lack of consistency - but, especially for young players, two months is a relatively small sample size to categorize it as regression.
"I do think building a team that performs consistently is very important. I think when we look around the league and we see the teams that year in and year out that are competing for championships, they're consistent. They might have a player that goes 0 for 4 or 0 for 8 over a two-game stretch, but they don't go 0 for 20 or 0 for 25. They somehow figure out a way. And those are some of the things we need our players to start doing, too."
As Gelb noted following an 8-1 loss to the Rockies, a defeat in which the team managed just three hits, the trio of Franco, Herrera and Cesar Hernandez have batted a combined .225/.282/.297 this month. Those are three players the team was hoping would be the foundation of the rebuilding effort, with minor league prospects sprinkled in over the next year or so.
But there is frustration and worry. Why can’t Franco stop having such undisciplined at-bats? Why can’t he take what he learns in the cage to the batter’s box? Why is Herrera struggling so much (.232/.284/.348 this season), and how does he stop allowing his frustrations to affect his effort on the field? How does Velasquez (5.98 ERA, 5.16 FIP in 8 starts) get out of his own head and pitch like everyone knows he can?
What the Phillies really needed more than anything else this season was for one or two of these players to step up and show that they could be “the dude.” That the Phillies would have for themselves a couple “star” players, like the Sixers have with Joel Embiid and the Eagles potentially have in Carson Wentz. The hope was that Herrera or Franco would be those guys, but instead, the opposite has happened.
They have regressed, even if Klentak doesn’t want to use that word.
It’s understandable why everyone is frustrated. It’s tough to watch guys you had high hopes for fail to meet those hopes in a season in which it was expected they would progress. It feels to fans as if the master plan is falling apart, and that management isn’t doing anything about it. They’re just sitting and letting it happen.
That’s the perception, even if it’s not completely accurate.
It’s also understandable why fans want to see the prospects they have heard so much about come up to the big league level. After all, if the big league guys aren’t doing the job, maybe the young guys can, right?
Here’s the thing, though. While we expected the Phils would win a few more games than last year, this is still a rebuilding year. And rebuilding does not always happen in a linear fashion.
I know everyone is tired of watching the Phillies rebuild. It feels like it’ll never end. During the summer, the Phils are the only game in town (other than the myriad of Eagles’ minicamps). And the call for prospects on talk radio and on Twitter is spurred on by the number of blogs (including this one) and podcasts (including yours truly’s), that are following these future Major Leaguers more closely than ever before.
We hear about Scott Kingery taking over the MiLB lead in home runs. We hear Rhys Hoskins looking like the second-coming of Paul Goldschmidt. We hear about Dylan Cozens tearing the cover off the ball. And we’ve been talking about J.P. Crawford seemingly forever.
Unlike in football and basketball, where draft picks play right away, virtually all baseball players take years to develop. And when the guys you thought would be good at the big league level are struggling, it’s only natural to want to see those replacements sooner rather than later.
But this is where frustration boils over and rash decisions are made. But the team is resisting jumping the gun, which, of course, is wise. Acting out of emotion rarely leads to positive outcomes.
Now, that’s not to say dealing some of these young MLB players who are struggling isn’t the right thing to do at some point. Herrera is signed for another five years, but given the number of times manager Pete Mackanin has had to talk to him about effort, as well as his streakiness, perhaps finding a taker for him when he starts performing well again wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Perhaps dealing Maikel Franco, should he turn it around at some point, is the wise choice. Certainly Kingery’s season in Reading could lead the Phillies to explore trades for Hernandez in the next couple months. And even though Tommy Joseph is one of two hitters in the lineup who is hitting well right now (Aaron Altherr is the other), moving him to make room for Hoskins would certainly make sense.
What can they do right now? Nothing much. They could call up Roman Quinn to replace Ty Kelly and give him some of Saunders’ playing time. That could be just the kind of shakeup the team needs. But anything other than that would be a panic move right now. It would be selling for pennies on the dollar, and it would be purely out of frustration.
Look, I get it. The Phillies are depressing to watch right now. Earlier in the season they played with spunk and grit and lost a lot of heart-breakers, but over the last week they’ve just been bludgeoned over and over. It’s clear the losing has taekn its toll on the team.
The energy is gone. The life is gone. All the losing and the slumps have crept into the heads of the players, and it’s affecting their on-field performance. Also, some of these players may not be as good as we hoped they’d be.
Waiting out the awkward phase sucks. It’s no fun. And it’s perfectly fair to worry if these struggles have set what has already been a painfully long rebuilding process back even further.
But bear in mind, the season is not yet two months old. There are still four months left. You just have to hope that this awkward phase will all be over soon, and that good times are on the horizon.
Even if that horizon is impossible to see right now.