Look at the Phillies' bright side

Posted: May 21, 2014

IT IS May 20 and the Phillies are within four games of first place. They are also dead last in a division of underwhelming teams, which suggests one of two things:

* They are not as bad as they at times seem.

* They are a whole lot worse than what their current status would suggest.

In the spirit of the Phillies' annual ALS philanthropy, let's flip the doomsday talk for a day and look at this thing from the bottom of the hourglass up.

Can they make the playoffs?

Asked another way, did anyone see the Boston Red Sox winning the whole thing a season after losing 93 games?

Or the Cardinals in 2011?

The Red Sox were a bundle of ifs and buts at the start of last season, especially when it came to their pitching staff. John Lackey had missed the previous season due to surgery and finished 2011 with a 6.41 earned run average. Ryan Dempster was their third starter. Joel Hanrahan, signed to replace Andrew Bailey as their closer, was ineffective before winding up on the disabled list with a bum elbow in May. Bailey, again as ineffective as his replacement, had his season ended by a shoulder injury in July.

Boston got lucky with 38-year-old closer Koji Uehara, gambled correctly that Shane Victorino's 2012 off year was due to pending free agency and not the start of his decline. Daniel Nava hit .304 in 536 plate appearances as a reserve, a 60-point jump over his average in his two previous major league seasons, and 150 points higher than he is hitting this year. And they had healthy versions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz at the front of their order. When they lost 93 games the season before, Ortiz played in 90 games and Ellsbury just 74.

It's why Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. often cites Boston's rise from the ashes as the axis of hope here. The Phillies have enjoyed great health so far among their veteran core. And the bet on Marlon Byrd, like Boston's bet on Victorino, has worked out so far. But Boston had three healthy and experienced setup men in Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller, who performed as their resumes suggested they would. Amaro yesterday again cited the stuff of Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman, and hinted there may be hope nurturing down below, presumably in blossoming fireballer Ken Giles.

So again, in the name of charity, let's play along for a day.

The 2011 Cardinals had their trials, too. Albert Pujols did not get his contract extension before the season began. Before the season began they also lost Adam Wainwright, who had just won 20 games and finished second in the 2010 Cy Young voting, to Tommy John surgery. David Freese and Allen Craig, two young players they were counting on (and who would play a big part in their September-October magic) missed big stretches of with injuries.

And their bullpen failed spectacularly to start the season. By the end of the season the Cardinals were using only two of the relievers they began the season with.

If not for an under-the-radar midseason trade by the Cardinals with Toronto, your Phillies likely would be two-time world champions. At the time it looked like a swap of disgruntled outfielder Colby Rasmus for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, but the key figures turned out to be the minor ones. Relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski pitched effectively as the Cardinals made a late chase at Atlanta for the final wild-card spot.

I asked Amaro if he had the pieces to make such a midseason trade and he answered, "We may not." But the truth is that they do. Rasmus was hitting .246 at the time and the three arms St. Louis sent to Toronto had failed to wow anyone.

Sound familiar?

The real answer is that Amaro would prefer, he said, for the Phillies to follow that Boston model, allowing young arms to mature and savvy up through the experience of big situations, while getting resume-worthy seasons from veterans like Mike Adams and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Adams appears to be getting arm strength, Papelbon has been dominant.

At times this season the Phillies have even given you an idea of how it all could turn into a pleasant surprise. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins have remained healthy. No one knows yet about Cody Asche's offense, but there have been glimpses, like last weekend.

Remember, Utley hit .266 with 13 home runs over 94 games when he was in Asche's age range.

If it's fair to say the jury is in on Dom Brown, then it is also fair to expect a hot month or 2 from him before the season is over. The same modest expectation can be applied to Howard, as long as we concede that his history contains hot months, too. Their utility infield situation is a mess right now, but the development of Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez suggests that could be strengthened a few months from now. Utility men also tend to fall out of trees once teams fade out of contention.

Oh, and one of these days, John Mayberry Jr. is going to have that season like Nava had in 2013. Right?

Again, play along.

Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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