Phils retooling a strange sight after recent success
Trio of pitchers provides solid core for 2013, but outfield now stage for auditions
PHILADELPHIA -- Here's the capsule version of the last six Phillies seasons:
Winning. Winning. Winning. Winning. Winning more than ever. Retooling.
Five division titles in a row, two National League pennants, one World Series championship and then, in 2011, a magnificent regular season, the best in franchise history with 102 regular season victories.
But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, this August, the 2012 Phillies, having traded two relatively expensive outfield starters, are now holding auditions for regular jobs and looking ahead to 2013. After all the winning, this is not a particularly easy transition for the Phillies to make.
"Yeah, it's tough," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Saturday. "But I never think of it. I think of us coming out and winning.
"We haven't been mathematically eliminated or anything. We could surprise ourselves and surprise somebody else, too, if we keep doing that. That's kind of how I look at it. Competing is a part of playing, and that's actually the kind of players that you look for. Those are the ones you want.
"I would think that we would want to come out and show people how good we can play. Also, this is a good chance for guys to get a chance to play and show what they can do. If they can improve and play real good for us, we should win games. We've got 50 games to go. Who knows how many we can win?"
This season has been a seemingly hexed blend of injuries and underachievement for this club. There is enough talent still on board that the Phillies can look at this season and see a fluke, an aberration, anything other than a trend.
Remaining at the core of the Phillies' plans will be three starting pitchers; Cole Hamels, recently signed to the second biggest pitching contract in history, two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay and 2008 Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee.
Halladay's return from the disabled list continued to trend upward with a brilliant performance in a 3-1 victory over St. Louis on Friday night. Lee, however, continued to suffer from a lack of run support in a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday night. Lee entered this start with the sixth lowest run support among Major League starters. Lee's 2-7 record remains hard to believe.
Lee threw five shutout innings at the Cardinals, then was hit for a single, a double and a home run in succession to open the sixth.
"He still pitched good enough to win if we got him some runs," Manuel said.
One way or another, the Phillies should enter 2013 with a core of talented, proven starters on hand. At some of the everyday positions, there is far less certainty.
The Phillies appear to be committed to giving Domonic Brown a prolonged opportunity to transform himself from prospect to productive Major Leaguer. If he can turn his potential into production, that's one outfield spot covered. Maybe it could be the turn of John Mayberry Jr., too, but at 28, it might be late for that sort of transformation.
The search for outfield help explained why Nate Schierholtz, part of the trade that sent Hunter Pence to the Giants, was playing center field for the first time in his professional life in the last two games. Schierholtz had a reputation as a solid defender when he played right field for the Giants. At this point, there is no reason not to see if he could also be a center fielder.
"When I watched him play right field for the Giants, he definitely can go get the ball in the alley," Manuel said. "I want to see him play in center. We can definitely experiment with some guys. Is he going to catch every ball? I hope he does. His arm is very strong. Shows a good arm from right field.
"More than likely before the season's over, we'll play Dom Brown out there, just to see how he looks."
Another arrival in the Pence trade, Kevin Frandsen, has created a favorable impression at third base, making difficult plays the last two nights. If the Phillies do not re-sign Placido Polanco, there will be a vacancy at third as well. Frandsen's offense could be a question, but next winter's free-agent pool of third basemen does not include a lot of game-changers.
Manuel believes that, despite everything that has occurred this year, his team still has the winning attitude which characterized its successful season.
"I think we have it," Manuel said. "There's things we have to do to make it better, of course, from a team aspect. But yeah, we've still got that. I know the guys we have and what they're made of."
This has been a truly difficult season for the Phillies in many more ways than one. The NL East neighborhood became more difficult, too, with the Braves making improvements, and the Nationals staging what amounts to a transformation.
But the Phillies aren't going to devolve into perennial pushovers. There is too much talent and organizational strength here for that to happen. For the moment, though, after the last five successful seasons, it is strange to see the Philadelphia baseball team deep in the heart of August, with one eye on next April.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.