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Where do we go from here?

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It’s time to ask: what does this team do now?

MLB: MAY 07 Phillies at Braves Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We have finally reached Memorial Day, which in baseball usually means that teams will take stock of where they are at in terms of the standings. Ask around the league and you will probably find a handful of team officials on each team who say they don’t even look at the standings until now. That might be pretty easy, especially when they can see the day to day operations happening and can probably tell whether or not the team they are watching are good or not, but for fans, they obsess over standings. Even here, as June dawns, the Phillies are now in third place and sinking. They have lost nine of their past twelve games and to be quite honest, they haven’t even looked all that good in the games they won. One can point to the victory at home against Boston as a dominant win, but that was mostly due to the fact that Zack Wheeler in Philadelphia has been pretty close to money as one can get. Other than that, the games the Phillies have played in have been a brutal watch, both for those at home and more than likely, for those in the dugout as well.

However, this past weekend in Tampa Bay and the series opener against Cincinnati has been something that is just short of embarrassing. It wasn’t just that they lost. It was the utter sense of hopelessness that set in whenever something did not go their way - a batter ball in foul territory that wasn’t caught, a simple flyball that left the leftfielder making the catch falling down, the two-run home runs that extended the lead bit by bit. It’s left fans of the team clamoring for some kind of change, hope being abandoned by a larger and larger portion of the fanbase for this team’s playoff chances in 2021 before we have even reached Father’s Day. The lineup is not hitting the ball consistently, the pitching outside of Wheeler hasn’t been consistent and the defense....well, the less said about the defense the better. It has left a small corner of the fanbase to begin calling for the most drastic of changes.

So clearly, there isn’t much hope amongst the people watching the team. But is a rebuild, a complete teardown what this team needs? Is that the answer this team needs to finally get something going? Or are there other avenues to explore before we begin to light the dynamite?

There a few ways of looking at this. First of all, before anything else, there needs to be some kind of acknowledgement from the team that changes need to happen. Think about this team and what they have done this year. Injuries and ineffectiveness have arisen, but have the Phillies done anything to help remedy that issue outside of removing Matt Moore (after his own return from injury) and Chase Anderson from the rotation, two moves that were clearly needed? Have there been changes to the regular lineup when there have been at least two, maybe three spots that need a change? Not really. Andrew McCutchen has been pretty terrible of late, going 6 for his last 49 prior to Monday’s game. Yet it was only this weekend where manager Joe Girardi has even considered removing him from the top of the lineup. Alec Bohm is a young player that looks almost completely helpless right now up at the plate and out in the field, yet his name in penciled in the lineup almost every day.

These two obvious moves to make that haven’t been made can be explained by a lack of depth that is the responsibility of the front office. You can’t drop someone from the lineup when there is almost no one left to replace them. So as much as one may want to blame Girardi for these issues, it’s not as though he has much to play with. People might be calling for Cornelius Randolph to come up (and they have), but this year has been the first year he has seen any kind of success in the minor leagues. They could try and catch lightning in a bottle with calling him up, but that would require a move to the 40-man roster, something they have avoided at all costs prior to calling up Travis Jankowski this weekend to replace Roman Quinn. It all adds up to a frustrating lack of change that has put the Phillies four games under .500 and should lead to questions about what exactly this front office sees in this team. On paper, they should be much better than this, but that is why games are not played on paper. It’s difficult to look at this team and see much better than that hoped for .500 record, let alone a run at the playoffs.

That puts us back at the original question: what now? Where does the team go from here? There are three things they can do moving forward.

Stay the course, waiting for reinforcements

Bryce Harper and Didi Gregorius are still in the injured list. J.T. Realmuto has only recently returned. That’s three of the team’s eight regular hitters that were missing time. Missing that type of production is going to hamstring any team. You can argue that Gregorius wasn’t exactly “productive” while here, but his presence in the lineup could mean that Ronald Torreyes, who has filled in admirably in Gregorius’ absence, might be able to shift to third base and improve that spot’s offense and defense. Missing Harper’s bat in the lineup is obviously an issue as they have had to rely on Quinn, Brad Miller and Matt Joyce to fill that void. So while they haven’t been the best hitters in the National League, their absence has had a domino effect.

So, the team could simply try and ride out the storm and wait for Harper and Gregorius to return, then see where they are at. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that when they return, this lineup could kick back into gear and start to put more runs on the board, helping out a struggling pitching staff. They still, even with this recent cold streak, are in the hunt for the National League East thanks to injuries and inconsistent play of the other teams. No one has yet to really run away with the division, though the Mets are beginning to get healthier with each passing day. There still is the chance they can make a run at winning the automatic playoff spot that comes with winning the division.

To make this decision, they’ll need to look at what’s left to win. Looking at the calendar, the Phillies haven’t exactly had the easiest schedule to contend with and the next two months don’t seem to be much different. With their June and early July schedule, they’ll get to see NL East teams quite often, seeing the Braves and Mets seven and four times respectively. They’ll also get visited by the Yankees, as well as plan trips to the Bronx and to Boston, two of the more powerful teams in baseball. That should mean that, by the time the trade deadline rolls around, they should know what they need to do next. Their fate in the division will more than likely be decided, which means they’ll then have one of two choices if they are no longer in contention.

Retool for 2022

It is possible that when the morning of the trade deadline dawns, Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld realize that the team is not going to contend this year and that the wisest move for the team would be to sell off any assets that aren’t going to help now and get ready for the next season.

This would require looking at the current roster and determining who they will build around. That’s something we can do pretty easily from the outside.

Bryce Harper? Keep him
J.T. Realmuto? Yessir.
Aaron Nola? Please.
Zack Wheeler? Absolutely.
Alec Bohm? More than likely.

Outside of that group, they will need to make some decisions about what the best course of action will be. Is Rhys Hoskins apart of this organization’s future at the prices he will likely cost in his final years of arbitration and beyond? Is Zach Eflin someone who they want to keep around via an extension, or will they shop his #3 starter status at a modest salary with multiple years of control on the trade market? Are the bullpen pieces they have for 2021 only in Archie Bradley and Hector Neris something other teams would be willing to trade a decent prospect for? Would they be better served paying down as much of McCutchen’s contract just to move him and see what they have in Randolph or Mickey Moniak or even Adam Haseley?

If these and other questions can be answered correctly, they can take the defendable step backwards the rest of the 2021 season in order to clear up some salary and playing time and hold auditions for players who might make an impact in the next season and beyond. It’s not the sexiest thing to do, especially as the dog days of August hit and teams are trying to get people into the ballpark, but if it helps the short- and long-term health of the team, it’s something to consider. Remember: they’re going to have some money coming off of the books regardless and the free agent market next season is looking mighty enticing. Perhaps there are answers to the roster conundrum waiting in free agency.

Of course, if things go really sour, there is always the option of lighting a match and doing the hardest part of all.

Burn it down and rebuild now

The big one, the one that will require the most trust by the fanbase, the one that will cause the phone lines at WIP to burn brightest.

Imagine, if you will, this team deciding that they are no closer to the division lead thanks to the Braves’ superior drafting and development, the Marlins’ talent core coming together quicker than anticipated and the Mets getting an owner not afraid to spend. Now imagine they have to walk down the hallway and approach the players who signed here for the next five years (or much, much longer) and telling them that a rebuild is needed and would they like to stay and go through with it or be moved.

How do you think that conversation is going to go?

A complete and total rebuild, as appealing as it might be to some who are witnessing the 76ers get ready for a run to the NBA Finals, is probably not going to be in the cards any time soon. John Middleton, for all his faults, has spent money. He brought in Harper, he extended Nola, he signed Wheeler and Realmuto and Gregorius. He convinced one of the more decorated general managers in the game to come to Philadelphia and help lead a turnaround of a team that seemed lost. These are not the moves of someone who is going to be willing to burn it all down.

Not to mention that they don’t have much to burn down. With teams about to go though a CBA negotiation that might change the economic structure as we know it, it’s safe to assume that owners will still come out on the other side valuing winning at the smallest possible expenditure more than simply spending the money necessary to win. That means that finding a dance partner in trade negotiations for these high priced veterans will be difficult unless the Phillies were willing to pay a significant portion of the salary to be moved in the first place. At that point, there brings into play the question of is it even worth it? Is paying someone to play somewhere else worth the return that would likely be needed to justify moving the player in the first place? Look at what the Rockies just received for Nolan Arenado. While it’s not the best comp to what trading someone like Harper would be like, it shows what the general philosophy would be of rival general managers who are negotiating a deal.

The moves of the previous regime have undoubtedly left this organization in a tough spot. They left the cupboard bare in terms of depth of prospects in the farm system, the ones that could be used to try and acquire different players to help turn this ship around, but they also brought in the likes of Harper and Realmuto and Wheeler. The problems we are seeing now is that it’s very easy to point at one of those guys and wave a ton of cash at them in the offseason to try and entice them to join the team. It’s the grabbing the players at the margins where they failed mightily, the ones that could provide the depth they needed to withstand the injuries and ineffectiveness we are seeing with more and more frequency these days. They’ve left the team in a tough spot with regards to what they do next. Of course that’s why Dombrowski and Fuld were brought in, to make those decisions about how to lead the team back to the playoffs. What they do will have lasting repercussions, both in 2022 and well beyond.

Let’s hope they get it right.