CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.
The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.
In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.
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The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.
But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?
If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.
Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.
While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.
If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.
Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.
Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.
If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways than one if he continued to do so.
Switching over to the glass-half-full side ... there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.
If they stay in the race.
Getting to Herrera’s bat flip ... it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.