It has been a disappointing season for Bryce Harper, the Phillies, and their fans. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The Philadelphia Phillies have been eliminated from the postseason. A season with high expectations has a strong chance to finish with the exact same 80-82 record as the season before. After a huge offseason, fans and the team officials alike thought they had finally re-opened the championship window that had slammed shut on Ryan Howard’s Achilles that fateful night in 2011.

The window is open ever so slightly, but the Phillies are the fly who just can’t seem to find their way in. 

Start hot, fall back to earth

The first week of the season seemed to validate all the beliefs that the Phillies were back. From the first Bryce Harper bow in right field to Andrew McCutchen homering on the second pitch he saw as a Phillie. From sweeping the Braves to Bryce Harper waving to booing Nationals fans. The offense was evoking comparisons to 2008. The pitching looked good enough to win with. Everything was right. This was the year the Phillies would be back.

But much like 2018, it all fell apart. The Phillies’ high water mark came on May 29th. They were 33-22 and in first place. The Washington Nationals, predicted to be their biggest threat in the division, struggled out of the gate. It looked like the reigning champion Atlanta Braves and their off-season acquisitions were not good enough to fend off a stronger division. 

Then the injuries started.

And they didn’t stop. Soon the entire opening day bullpen, minus Hector Neris, was on the injured list. But perhaps the biggest blow came on a Monday night in San Diego in early June. Andrew McCutchen, the Phillies’ lead-off hitter who was having a renaissance hitting atop the lineup and was on pace for an All-Star nod, toppled over running up the first base line on a ground ball.

As we know now, McCutchen tore his ACL on that play and was out for the season. The Phillies offense never quite looked the same without him. They struggled to replace his productivity at the top of the lineup and never quite found an adequate lead-off replacement until acquiring Corey Dickerson at the trade deadline.

Reinforcements never came

The Phillies were barely treading water by the time the Trade Deadline arrived. They had been leapfrogged by the Braves for first place. The Nationals had surged back into the picture and were closing fast on second place. The Phillies had greatly overestimated their pitching staff and were in desperate need of a major pitching upgrade if they had any intention of closing the gap in the division or claiming the Wild Card.

Instead, general manager Matt Klentak opted to go “bargain bin” shopping. The Phillies traded for Jason Vargas and signed Drew Smyly in the hopes they could help a rotation that had the fifth worst ERA (4.54) in the National League up to that point. 

Unlike other acquisitions around the league, these two had relatively no impact for the Phillies. Vargas is 1-3 with a 5.12 ERA in 10 starts with the Phillies entering his 11th start this past Thursday. Smyly was slightly better, posting a 3-2 record with a 4.45 ERA in 12 starts with the Phillies. In some games he looked like the second coming of Cliff Lee. In others, he looked like, well, Drew Smyly, the pitcher with an 8.42 ERA in 13 games with the Rangers early in the season and a career 4.16 ERA. 

Cause of Death

It’s easy to point at the Phillies injuries this season as the cause for their collapse. They certainly played a big part in the team falling to fourth place. However, the real culprit is the flawed roster built by the front office. 

The Phillies entered the season with the same pitching staff that broke down in the second half last season. They opted to hope for improvements from pitchers like Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez in order to justify their decision to not do anything about the rotation.

That decision blew up in their face and will more than likely cost some people their jobs. Pivetta bounced back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen and from the Majors to AAA, ultimately posting a 5.52 ERA in 28 appearances with the Phillies. Velasquez too spent time in both the rotation and the ‘pen, but he did not fair much better. In his fourth season with the Phillies, Velasquez posted a 4.76 ERA in 32 appearances entering Thursday. 

The rotation was not the only position that suffered from neglect. The Phillies also opted to remain with Maikel Franco as the starter at third base. After a torrid start to the season as the team’s eight hole hitter, Franco was demoted to AAA on August 4th. The final game of the season will most likely be the former top prospect’s last with the organization.

Speaking of prospects, the Phillies’ lack of upper minor league depth was another major blow to their season. Once the injuries and under-performances started hitting, the Phillies were forced to thrust journeyman veterans such as Sean Rodriguez and Brad Miller into much bigger roles than anticipated. Adam Haseley was the only of the Minor League reinforcements to perform amicably considering the circumstances. Nick Williams floundered in his limited playing time. Roman Quinn didn’t do much in the few games he wasn’t dealing with an injury. Aaron Altherr was DFA’d.

Changes too little too late

The offense, despite all of its newly acquired star power, struggled mightily at times at scoring runs. Entering the final weekend of the season, the Phillies offense ranks 17th in baseball in runs scored, 23rd in batting average (.245), 19th in on base percentage (.319), and 19th in slugging percentage (.426). 

These numbers are despite Bryce Harper having the most RBIs in a season and the second most home runs in a season for his career. J.T. Realmuto also had a tremendous offensive season, nabbing the team’s only All-Star selection and finishing with a .275/.328/.493 batting line and a new career high 25 home runs. 

Finally, the Phillies decided to remove hitting coach John Mallee from his hitting coach position on August 13th and replace him with old friend Charlie Manuel. Mallee had overseen an offense that was strife with under-performance and at times struggled to put the ball in play. Players who came here under Mallee’s tutelage performed below their career norms, such as Jean Segura whose three season streak of hitting .300 or above will probably come to an end. And perhaps most infuriating, players who left the Phillies performed better, with the biggest example being Carlos Santana who rebounded back to All-Star form with the Cleveland Indians.

Questions looming

The Phillies will enter the 2019 offseason with many pressing questions. After another collapse and listless September baseball, will manager Gabe Kapler be back next season? Or will he be replaced with available managers including World Champions Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi. 

Will general manager Matt Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail return? The pair took over the Phillies in 2015 and have yet to reach the postseason or put together a consistent starting rotation. Their tenuous approach to two trade deadlines where the team was buyers failed to make any major impact or to propel the team forward. They were both quietly given mid-season extensions. Does owner John Middleton still trust them to put together a contender?

Is Rhys Hoskins still a part of the team’s plans? His dreadful second half (.183 AVG, 9 HR, 73 K’s) has turned the conversation from “How much will his extension be?” to “Should the Phillies dangle him in a trade for a starter?”

Can the Phillies catch up to the Braves? Atlanta’s young core has propelled them to the second best record in the National League and 18 games better than the Phillies. Is that a gap the Phillies can close?

One thing is for sure: the Phillies have to find a way to fly through that window into contention.