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Keeping the Faith

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We all hate what’s happened since August. But it doesn’t affect 2019, nor should it make this team’s future seem less bright.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I don’t like seeing my teams lose. None of us does. There’s only so much silver lining you can scrape off of a week of listless beatdowns at the butt end of a two-month tailspin.

But that’s not what this piece is about. This is about realizing what we’ve been watching lately - the club masquerading around various ballparks as the “Phillies” - is no harbinger for doom in 2019, nor is it really even a fair representation of what this team will look like next March. And there’s no reason to call for the Middletons & Co. to clean house as a result of this putrid stretch.

All you’re likely to ever hear about the 2018 Phillies, apart maybe from some glowing words on Aaron Nola, is how bad they were in August and September. How they were 15 games over .500 and eventually finished below. How so many players varied wildly between All-Star performance and...less than that. I’m not going to say that doesn’t suck, but I also don’t think it’s proper fuel for the Philly Bloodlust Generator.

Disappointed, Not Despondent

Sports fans are impatient. Seasons are finite stretches, slices of our lives with defined beginnings and ends, and we can often weave each one in with some watershed time in our personal lives. Naturally, we don’t really like seeing so many contiguous slices get blotched and moldy like this, and after seven years of mediocrity-or-worse, patience is in shorter supply than ever.

It seemed, for four months, like things might be rounding a corner. It hurts more, then, to feel our stomachs drop along with this team’s place in the standings this summer. But the team we’ve all been watching since August 1 bears little resemblance to the fun-but-flawed squad that made it to that point in first place, nor does it say much of anything about where this team is headed in 2019.

Heathen Chemistry

Through the end of July, the Phillies had taken 4,098 trips to the plate, and a robust 12 of those were taken by players set to be free agents this coming winter. Well, check that, they were taken by a single player: Trevor Plouffe. Each of the remaining 4,086 were PAs from guys who all had team control through at least next season. If you’re looking for percentages, that’s 99.7 percent of all PAs taken by guys who, potentially, could be or could have been part of the ‘19 team.

But this team, as we all saw, needed help. They were in first, sure, but their offense was finishing a month where they were hitting .238/.314/.391 as a unit and doing no favors for a pitching staff that had kept hitters under a .680 OPS for three of four months to that point. The bench constantly felt thin, and left-handed relievers had little potency against left-handed batters.

Everything that was wrong with this team, first place or not, couldn’t be fixed in a single trade deadline. And so, short of firing the big guns and picking up Manny Machado (the lone trade candidate who would have helped the Phils both on offense AND defense), the Phillies opted to preserve their most valuable minor leaguers and bargain hunt, seeking out cheap acquisitions who, ideally, could reinforce the team’s playoff position.

And so, in came: Asdrubal Cabrera, Aaron Loup, Wilson Ramos, Luis Avilan, Justin Bour, and Jose Bautista. Add Roman Quinn, who wasn’t a trade pickup but essentially functioned as one with his recall in late July, and the Phillies had essentially imported seven new players from late July through the end of August.

The position players in that group - Cabrera, Ramos, Bour, Bautista - tallied 369 of the 1,968 plate appearances this team had in August and September, through Friday. If you’re looking for percentages again, that’s 18.8 percent. Quinn would add an additional 124 PAs, if you want to toss him in the mix.

That’s not to say anything other than what that appears to say for itself: The composition of this offense changed dramatically in the span of a couple weeks, and playing time became a daily juggling act. What’s more, every single player (new or incumbent) struggled at some point, which obviously won’t help matters.

Then, there are the pitchers. Through July, the rotation looked like this:

  • Aaron Nola: 2.35 ERA, .542 opp. OPS
  • Jake Arrieta: 3.32 ERA, .686 opp. OPS
  • Nick Pivetta: 4.85 ERA, .757 opp. OPS
  • Vince Velasquez: 4.02 ERA, .696 opp. OPS
  • Zach Eflin: 3.64 ERA, .710 opp. OPS

Four of those five are solid, and when you consider Pivetta was having a better season than those numbers would indicate, it’s hard to see adding a starter as some sort of emergency. Sure, adding Cole Hamels would’ve been awesome. A living legend in Philadelphia who rolled through August in Chicago while the Phils’ young guys scuffled amplified the hindsight effect. But even Hamels has been significantly worse in September, and lord knows his dip in strikeouts would have led to more circus chances for the Phillies’ defense. Something tells me he just wouldn’t have been quite as effective with the Phils as he’s been for the Cubs, but that’s really all conjecture.

And the relievers, well...Loup and Avilan are specialists who’ve both been pretty good for a couple of years. Maybe neither is Andrew Miller, but their stark ineffectiveness as members of the Phillies certainly comes as a surprise.

Ultimately, This is Progress

It’s easy to be real with one another on this point: The Phillies were overachieving through July. This is not a team we could have reasonably expected to be in first place at the start of the stretch run. The preseason additions of Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta certainly made the thought of 2018 more appealing than it would’ve been otherwise, but so much about the rest of the team was a mystery.

We are not arriving at this end result in a way any of us would have necessarily predicted in March, but the Phillies have taken a step forward. They tried to sew together a patchwork run at the playoffs, adapting to surprising circumstances, and the moves didn’t work out. Many of these players (Cabrera, Ramos, Bautista in particular) are mercenaries and probably won’t be retained. The future of the team is no worse for the wear, and those expected to be back in 2019 now have a better idea of what they need to do to prepare for next fall.

The Phillies will finish 78-84, 79-83, or 80-82. That is, at worst, a twelve-win improvement over 2017. The last time the Phillies had an improvement that large was 2001, when the club won 21 more games than the previous season.

The woes of August and September will occupy the front of your mind, if you let them. They will make you forget that this team was 63-48 as it began to change its shape into something it will mostly not resemble in 2019. It is not at all like the end of 2017, inverted. The construction of the respective teams and the outlook of the respective offseasons are wildly different, and so it’s important to remember that this team was good for four months and bad for only two.

So it’s a second Spring Training. So it’s ugly, and we’ve probably been appropriating some of this embarrassment onto ourselves as fans. So the players look demoralized. It stops mattering after Sunday, when this team will shift their full-time focus to making the significant improvements we all want and know the team needs. Hopefully, in six months, we’ll all be able to look back on this stretch and quietly laugh to ourselves, shaking our heads as we finish ordering that Machado or Bryce Harper shirsey. Until then, we endure.