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Phillies stars need to “star” the team into contention

If the Phillies are going to win this year, the star players already here need to play like it.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at San Francisco Giants Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

If you look up “mediocre” in an online dictionary, one could reasonably expect to find a picture of the 2021 Phillies roster, or maybe just a big, red “P” sitting next to the word.

Use any synonym you want: “middling,” “average,” “milquetoast,” etc, they all describe the Phillies, who enter their brief, two-game homestand against the Washington Nationals at 34-35. Their dance with .500 this season has been like and drawn-out, a wobbly planetary body trapped in its own mundane solar system.

Perhaps NBC Sports said it best in their weekly Power Rankings for this week.

17. Philadelphia Phillies

Record: 34-35

Last Week: 16

The consistent mediocrity from the Phillies this year has actually been impressive on some level. They’ve never risen more than four games above the .500 mark and have never fallen more than four games below it. They had a 13-13 record in April and are now 21-22 between May and June after losing four of six last week versus the Dodgers and Giants. Something may be wrong with Bryce Harper. Possibly the back? He’s hitting .200/.273/.283 in his last 66 plate appearances since May 19.

It’s maddening that a team with a $184.5 million payroll, the fifth-highest in MLB according to Spotrac, is playing such mediocre baseball, and fans want team president Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld to make changes.

Here’s the problem. There isn’t much they can change.

In the outfield, Andrew McCutchen’s $16.67 million AAV salary is fourth-highest on the team and accounts for 10.84% of the team’s luxury tax payroll percentage. He’s also one of just two players on the team in double figures in home runs (12, three behind Rhys Hoskins’ team-leading 15) so you can’t remove his power bat despite a .228 batting average and 0.6 fWAR. Odubel Herrera is holding down the center field spot well enough, and Bryce Harper plays right field.

In the infield, Hoskins is the team’s home run leader and, a few streaks aside, has had a fine offensive season. Jean Segura, when healthy, has been the team’s best hitter, but he can’t stay on the field. Neither can Didi Gregorius, who just signed a two-year deal this past off-season. So despite his wonky elbow (he could be back in the lineup this week), he’s the shortstop. The team will not be bringing in a new third baseman to replace Alec Bohm, and J.T. Realmuto is an All-Star catcher.

If you looking at the rotation, Dombrowski will not be able to do any better than Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin at the deadline, and while could potentially add a starter to the back of the rotation, the options there aren’t great either.

Overpaying for a No. 4 or 5 starter doesn’t sound like a business in which the Phillies should get in the sand box.

Certainly, if anything, Dombrowski can work on stabilizing the back of the bullpen, and that’s the most likely course of action, but those won’t be the moves that transform the Phillies from a stuck-in-neutral club to one that truly starts playing consistent, winning baseball.

If the Phillies are going to overtake the Mets and emerge as an actual, good ballclub, the stars are going to have to lead the way.

Harper is going to have to get healthy and stay healthy and play like the superstar he was signed to be. Perhaps the back is still an issue and that’s why he’s hitting .200/.273/.283 since May 1 and why he only has eight home runs. His quiet season needs to get loud, and soon. Gregorius needs to come back and hit for the kind of power that helped him put up a 117 wRC+ in last season’s pandemic-shortened season. Segura needs to avoid the soft-tissue injuries that have kept him out of the lineup for extended stretches. Bohm needs to slug better than the pathetic .314 he’s put up this year.

Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin can’t pitch to a combined ERA of 4.31 in a season where the average ERA is 4.12. Nola has a 2.49 ERA at home and 6.00 on the road. That can’t happen. Eflin’s is 2.13 at Citizens Bank Park and 6.26 away from home. That’s insane.

Perhaps the good news is that, if the Phils’ supposed “star” players play up to their billing, this team might actually win more games. The bullpen’s 4.36 ERA (5th-highest) and -0.2 fWAR (tied for 2nd-worst) are bad, but it’s the area of the team that can be most readily helped over the next few weeks. Dombrowski is not going to be bringing in any star hitters or starters. There simply isn’t any room to put them.

The Phillies have enough stars on the team already. They just need to start playing like it.