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Limbo: The Phillies and Next Month’s Trade Deadline

The Phillies are in a peculiar place with about seven weeks to go before the non-waiver deadline. What will they do? What CAN they do?

Philadelphia Phillies v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

For the past few seasons, we’ve led a relatively uncomplicated life as Phillies fans. The team has been stuck squarely in neutral since 2013, and so each July has brought this accepted understanding that the Phillies would do one thing and one thing only: Sell. From expiring contracts like Chase Utley’s and Jimmy Rollins’s and Jon Papelbon’s to multi-year controllables like Ben Revere and Ken Giles, Ruben Amaro and Matt Klentak have sought to import chips for future success the past few summers. It’s been some time since the club’s been looking to buy and add to a competitive team.

This season bring us a horse of a slightly different color, one that got off to a hot start in April and early May. They were in first place on May 26. It looked like, finally, we were watching a team that was really going to make a run at it, and make some teams sweat.

Then came the swoon.

Since they briefly tasted sole possession of first place, the Phillies have gone 3-10, and are now four games back in the division (and the Wild Card chase) after Saturday’s beating at the hands of the Brewers. It hasn’t been easy to watch, and as we all start to think forward toward next month, it bears considering whether this team should really be an in-season buyer after all.

Since 2002, the Phillies are 197-243 in June. That’s a .448 winning percentage, good enough for 72 or 73 wins over a full season. That includes their 1-7 start to this June, as the Giants, Cubs, and Brewers have taken them to task. Their schedule, as you might know by now, certainly doesn’t get any easier through the end of the month. After Sunday’s series finale against Milwaukee, the Phillies play:

  • 3 vs. Colorado (32-32)
  • 3 at Milwaukee (39-25)
  • 3 vs. St. Louis (35-27)
  • 3 at Washington (36-26)
  • 3 vs. Yankees (42-18)
  • 4 vs. Washington (36-26)

That block does come with two days off: One before the Colorado series as the homestand continues, and the other before the series at Washington for a short travel day, for what that’s worth.

Where the Phillies stand as they play that final game against the Nationals at home on July 1 will speak more to their approach in trade discussions than where they stand today, that much is true. Even in the midst of their recent freefall, the Phillies have absolutely not given up on this season, nor committed to going all-in. They’re simply not in a decisive position; not yet.

They’ve slipped into a state of summer purgatory.

That doesn’t mean their needs have changed, or that they will as a rule. We have a pretty good idea of who would not be traded during this season, no matter what - we’ll call this lot the “keepers” - and can use that group as a foundation.

  • C Jorge Alfaro
  • 1B/LF Rhys Hoskins
  • 1B Carlos Santana
  • UTIL Scott Kingery
  • SS/3B J.P. Crawford
  • CF Odubel Herrera
  • 3B Maikel Franco
  • SPs Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta
  • RPs Seranthony Dominguez, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano, Tommy Hunter

Realizing I have to be exceptionally literal these days, I’ll say that there exists a chance any of those guys above could be traded this year, but we’ll call it a less than one percent chance. It’s incredibly unlikely.

And the above list contains a smattering of players who wouldn’t move in-season for a variety of reasons: Core 2019 piece, first year of a multi-year free agent deal, too early to give up on, or too little present trade value. Prescribe the value you want.

But wait, there’s more.

The thing that adds an extra layer of complication to this whole deal is that the list above contains guys whose status could change dramatically once the 2018 season ends; trading them in-season versus using them as an offseason chip is a whole new ballgame, so to speak.

Consider Kingery. He has a long-term contract, only turned 24 in late April, and has been playing all over the diamond. It’s pretty apparent he’s not going anywhere this year; his flexibility, at bare minimum, is essential for this team’s depth, and it’s obviously far too early to give up on his offensive development to sell low on his current output.

I won’t pretend to know who the Phillies could target in an offseason trade - it’s a bit too early to be talking in specifics about next month, much less next winter - but if Kingery rebounds by season’s end and is the guy another team wants for their star, well, maybe you have to consider that. Kingery is one example in a larger point: Outside of Nola and, probably, Hoskins, it’s hard to say anyone on this team is truly “untouchable” right now, and it’d behoove this team to listen to other teams’ interests in the right deal.

Back to this coming July.

The recent skid has made this position easier to take, but it felt understood even before the Phillies slipped back into the pack: Trading for a star rental this year doesn’t make sense. Would Manny Machado make this team better? Hell yeah, he would. Are the Phillies best served by trading the Orioles three or four big chips - as Baltimore has been reported to be asking for early on - for two or three months of Machado? Almost certainly not, and that was true even before top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez hit the minor league DL on Saturday. We know Machado won’t sign an in-season extension, and trading for him as a rental and signing him to a deal are separate moves. And although Machado would instantly upgrade production from the shortstop spot, the Phillies would still be lagging at third base, a corner outfield spot, catcher, a rotation spot, and two or three bullpen spots. This team has multiple holes that Machado alone cannot overcome.

The combination of Machado’s (understandably) high price tag and the Phillies’ tenuous position make it a strange idea to go hard after Manny as a 2018 rental. The internal conflict that makes it so tough to pass this opportunity by is that Machado is both available and a clear upgrade in 2018 to what the Phils currently have, and the Phillies have the prospect depth to make a number of appeasing offers to the Orioles, but the rest of the team isn’t good enough to make Machado alone the addition that puts them over the top and into championship contention. Is it worth using up so much of that depth on one player in a push for the Wild Card game, only to lose and have him walk to sign with the Cubs or Yankees while the Phillies’ pants are pulled down around their ankles?

Baseball being baseball, that’s obviously not the only possible outcome here. The Phillies could surge forward and take the division, advancing to a best-of-five rather than the single-game play-in. Crazier things have happened, I guess. I’m just not sure I can justify taking a gigantic bite out of the system’s depth for an incremental two-month upgrade at an outside chance of making the playoffs. That seems counterintuitive to the theme of patience that’s been preached for a few years now.

So, what to do, then?

Any move that gets made this summer has to be made with an eye toward 2019. Has to. Last offseason’s moves were certainly made with that contingency in place: Arrieta, Hunter, Santana, and Pat Neshek were all brought on with multi-year deals. There are no rentals on this team, and at 32-30, the Phillies haven’t played themselves into a position to justify importing one now.

The Phillies could - and, depending on your mood any given day, arguably should - be buyers at the coming trade deadline, but not for rentals. Players already under contract or with team control in 2019 (and maybe beyond) are the order of the day, and that’s what makes Machado so tempting but ultimately impractical: Trading for him and signing him to an extension are two wholly separate moves. By trading for him, you get no inherent assurance he stays, and even if he does, you’re almost certainly paying a hefty premium to get him to forgo free agency.

This roster is a bit messy, and could use some untangling.

The Phillies could very well play out the string in 2018 by standing pat, using only who they’ve got to make it through September. But if this season’s first half is any indication, it certainly feels like the way the roster is currently constructed simply isn’t sustainable into 2019, and maybe that’s something that gets addressed this July.

It feels less and less likely that Hernandez and Kingery can coexist on the Phillies for another full season. The same could be said for Hoskins and Santana.

Kingery is athletic enough to manage at shortstop and third base, but his arm doesn’t play there long-term. The ripple effect of needing to play Crawford at third - where his arm plays, but his true defensive value is muffled and his offense doesn’t stack up to league norms - and having him split time with Franco limits his PAs. Franco can also only play third or first, but Santana is logically landlocked at first himself and Hoskins is already out of position in left field. On top of that, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams have hazy futures, and are two guys competing for one spot while Hoskins plays out of position. Even if you flex Santana to right field - which he’s played a decent amount of in Cleveland - that adds more gum in the works for Altherr and Williams.

The team is also sorely lacking in offensive prospect depth, especially in the upper minors, and dealing away any of Altherr, Williams, or even Odubel Herrera if we’re allowing for more wildness in these scenarios, is something that has to be carefully calculated.

What about the rest of the 40-man roster?

Let’s say the Phillies make no moves in either direction in July or August. They play their way into contention for a .500 record, but not a playoff spot, and the current 40-man roster stays as it is.

After this season, the Phillies have a number of players who will need to be added to the 40-man roster, and these players will surely play a factor in deciding what does (or does not happen) to the roster between now and November.

The Phillies currently have 39 players on the 40-man, plus Jerad Eickhoff on the 60-day DL (who, thus, does not count toward the 40-man limit). The following players will all be newly eligible for the coming offseason’s Rule 5 Draft, where another team could pluck them from the Phillies’ grasp if they aren’t protected:

  • Pitchers Enyel De Los Santos, Tom Eshelman, Jacob Waguespack, Edgar Garcia, Garrett Cleavinger, Adonis Medina, McKenzie Mills, and Alejandro Requena
  • Catchers Austin Bossart, Lenin Rodriguez, and Edgar Cabral
  • Infielders Arquimedes Gamboa and Daniel Brito
  • Outfielder Zach Coppola

It should be noted that those are just the players who are first-time Rule 5-eligible and doesn’t mention players like Elniery Garcia, who was on the Phillies’ 40-man previously.

De Los Santos, Eshelman, and Medina immediately stand out for their proximity to the Majors. Cabral may be a necessity simply because the Phillies only have two catchers on the 40 to begin with. Gamboa and Brito - the former more likely than the latter - should attain spots. Again: The Phillies have no one on their 40-man on an expiring contract set to become a free agent following the 2018 season. They will need to make moves in order to accommodate players like De Los Santos and Eshelman if they want to keep them, otherwise they’re near-locks to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft.

Any of those players could be traded this summer. The Phillies aren’t hurting for trade chips and, as we see, are probably well-suited to make a move for 2019 during this year’s trade season.

Okay, let’s sum it up.

The Phillies are 32-30, and on the fringes of Wild Card and Division contention at the moment. They have obvious depth needs at shortstop, third base, catcher and corner outfielder, rather urgently need some sort of left-handed relief, and wouldn’t be silly to consider fortifying the rotation a bit.

They have trade chips of varying values that could, in some combination, theoretically land them almost any player they wanted. They’re also playing multiple Major League guys out of position, and probably don’t want to keep doing that next year.

They need more than one rental, and likely more pieces than one trade deadline alone could fulfill. Manny Machado would absolutely help, but he alone probably doesn’t provide enough of a lift to make this team a championship contender ahead of the likes of Washington, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, or potentially even Arizona or Los Angeles, and that’s before considering whichever American League behemoth is likely to reach the World Series.

Right now, this team has to be thinking about 2019 in every move they make. No rentals make sense unless they’re of a lesser caliber than someone like Machado, who could deplete the farm of its most valuable trade chips for two months of swimming upstream. That, of course, is barring something completely unforeseen that either tanks the Orioles’ ask in trade or alters Machado’s stance toward an in-season extension.

Things could change over the next seven weeks, and hopefully they do for the better, but right now, moves for 2019 have to top the Phillies’ priorities. We’ll find out exactly what shape those moves will take soon enough.