After the New York Mets swept a three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies last week — those five-time defending National League East champions — Manager Charlie Manuel, upset over his squad’s play, called a team meeting. Something was painfully amiss in Philadelphia — a fact that was already apparent to the Phillies’ opponents.
The Phillies, at least for the first month and a half of the season, have been a shadow of their former selves, owners of last season’s best record in baseball. The hitting has been lackluster. The defense hasn’t been sharp. The relief pitching has been a mess. The last time they had a record like this at this point in the season was in 2007.
Manuel ripped his team for not playing to its potential. But that is the heart of the matter: With this roster, what is their potential? In the offseason, General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. supplemented his roster with players that could keep the team afloat until stars like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley returned from injuries. Many of those acquisitions were veterans living on their past abilities. Instead, the Phillies have shown a lack of depth during this stretch of injuries.
The Phillies’ brass put their faith in players such as 34-year old Ty Wiggington (whom they acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rockies) and 41-year old hero Jim Thome to fill the void at first base while slugger Howard recovered from his Achilles injury. They put their hope in relievers such as 33-year old Chad Qualls and 40-year old Jose Contreras (fresh off elbow surgery). Their best move may have been signing Jonathan Papelbon, their $50-millon closer.
As a result, the Phillies, as of Friday morning, have the worst bullpen in majors by almost a whole run. Their traditionally potent offense ranks in the bottom half of the majors in several offensive categories.
“Something needs to change,” Cliff Lee told reporters after the most recent loss to the Mets. “We need someone to shake it up and get us back on track to being the team we know we can be.”
General Manager Ruben Amaro even suggested this week in local news reports that the Phillies may be sellers if the season turns further south — which could be interesting to watch as center fielder Shane Victorino and Hamels are both upcoming free agents.
The Phillies’ saving grace so far has been their starting pitching. As of Friday morning, they ranked among the top five staffs in the majors — even with only four starts by recently-returned Lee. The hitting and relief pitching has failed Lee and two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay; through Friday, the Phillies were 0-8 in the duo’s last eight starts. But when Cole Hamels, Hallady and Lee hit a groove, the three elite starters can easily turn the Phillies’ season around.
A lineup lacking hitting, especially power, will receive a boost when Howard returns, possibly in June, and the already declining Utley’s aching knee recovers soon, potentially. Those reinforcements will answer a crucial concern about the Phillies: Is this a team whose identity could change soon or are they still capable of continuing their reign?