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What’s Wrong With the Phillies? Almost Everything.

A splashy offseason sent Philadelphia into spring with high expectations, but a horrific start to summer has the team scrambling for answers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

The American Crisis is not the most famous work of Thomas Paine, but this opening is probably his most famous quotation. When the first volume of The American Crisis was hot off the presses just before Christmas in 1776, George Washington had it read aloud to his troops, who were holed up in winter quarters, low on morale and supplies.

Some 35 miles southwest of that camp, and 243 years later, another crisis—albeit with incalculably lower stakes—is in full bloom as the Philadelphia Phillies are dropping like a stone in the National League standings. After spending years building a homegrown core that included power-hitting first baseman Rhys Hoskins, Cy Young finalist Aaron Nola, and hard-throwing relievers Héctor Neris and Seranthony Domínguez, the Phillies went all in this past offseason. They gave Bryce Harper what was at the time the richest contract in U.S. sports history, wooed additional free agents like reliever David Robertson and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and pulled off blockbuster trades for catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura.

The Phillies, who entered the 2019 season as at least cofavorites in a highly competitive NL East, reached their high point May 29. That night’s 11-4 win over the Cardinals put the Phillies 11 games over .500 and 3.5 games up on second-place Atlanta. Since then, the Phillies are 7-16, and in just 23 games they’ve dropped nine games in the standings to the Braves. Monday night’s results took a little bit of the sting out of the swoon, as the Phillies snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating the even more shambolic Mets and the Braves dropped an 8-3 decision to the Cubs. But the big picture remains the same: In about four weeks, the Phillies went from an even-money bet to win the NL East to a 9-to-1 underdog, according to Baseball Prospectus.

This nightmare month has included the start of a 26-game run, from June 14 to July 14, in which the Phillies play only division opponents. So far, the Phillies have dropped eight of the first 10, including a humiliating three-game home sweep at the hands of the last-place Marlins.

These are indeed the times that try men’s souls.

It’s very difficult for a baseball team, particularly a team this talented, to lose 15 of 21 games, as the Phillies had following Sunday’s loss to Miami, without contracting some sort of systemic and debilitating malaise. In other words, it’s tough to approach the Phillies by asking what’s wrong with the team when the answer is “almost everything.”

Arizona Diamondbacks v Philadelphia Phillies
Scott Kingery
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Not literally everything: There are essentially four players on the Phillies who haven’t been disappointing this year. Scott Kingery, the highly touted second base prospect who hit just .226/.267/.338 during a torturous rookie year in 2018, has bounced back with a monster sophomore campaign: .333/.375/.620, while playing five different defensive positions. After spending most of 2018 in left field, an experiment so obviously ill-conceived and thoroughly humiliating it would’ve made a fraternity pledge chairman blanch, Hoskins has returned to first base and the offensive form he showed as a rookie. Hoskins is second among Phillies position players in bWAR, and leads the team with 17 home runs and the National League with 55 walks.

Neris, who saved 26 games for the Phillies in 2017 before a series of messy blowups knocked him out of the closer’s role this year, has regained his previous form. In 2019, he’s converted 15 of 16 save attempts, has a career-best ERA+ of 177, and is allowing just 5.7 hits per nine innings. And 25-year-old right-hander Zach Eflin has been the Phillies’ best starter; he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer in 10 of his 15 starts, and even after taking a beating in Monday’s win, sports a 3.26 ERA overall.

That’s the good news. The bad news is … everything else.

On May 28, center fielder Odúbel Herrera was arrested and charged with assault after an incident with his girlfriend in an Atlantic City casino, leaving the 20-year-old woman with visible injuries on her arms and neck. The league immediately placed him on administrative leave, pending the results of an investigation, and presumably an ensuing suspension, and he has not played since.

Herrera’s actions are the most troubling part of the Phillies’ season, but from a strict on-field perspective, his absence alone doesn’t explain the team’s disappointing performance. Harper has been fine, but not spectacular, hitting .251/.365/.467 on the season—though like Jay Bruce, who homered four times in his first four games with the Phillies before cooling off, Harper’s hot start has inflated his overall numbers a little. Since April 7, Harper is hitting just .236/.344/.426, and after hitting third most of the season, Harper batted leadoff for four straight games over the weekend.

Batting Harper first might look like a desperation move from manager Gabe Kapler, but there’s a logic to it, because at least Harper can still get on base, even if he’s not hitting for much power. Most of the Phillies’ other hitters can’t even say that much. So far in June, only Harper, Hoskins, and Kingery have an OBP above the MLB average of .322.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals
Maikel Franco
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Third baseman Maikel Franco has embodied the Phillies’ offensive collapse. Franco’s been an inconsistent hitter throughout his career, struggling to turn his above-average contact and power skills into reliable offensive production. When he started the season batting eighth, it was at once an expression of how deep the Phillies lineup was and an opportunity for Franco, who’s never walked very much, to become more selective. In the Phillies’ first four games he went 6-for-11 with three home runs and six walks, five of them intentional. Since then, he’s hit .197/.254/.339. After playing 63 of the Phillies’ first 66 games, Franco has been bounced out of the lineup in favor of Sean Rodríguez and Brad Miller, two journeymen signed off the street. On Monday, Franco went 3-for-4 with a home run, but it was just his fourth start in the Phillies’ past 11 games.

Things aren’t much better elsewhere in the lineup. Opening Day leadoff man McCutchen tore his ACL on June 3, and will spend the rest of the season on the sideline, where, if his Instagram is any indication, he’s rapidly going stir-crazy. Finding a replacement has not been easy. Last year’s leadoff man, second baseman César Hernández, has posted his lowest OBP since 2014, and is hitting just .225/.271/.315 since May 30, despite having an active streak of four straight multihit games. Shortly after McCutchen went down, the Phillies called up 2017 first-rounder Adam Haseley to take his spot in the order. Haseley lasted all of two games before landing on the IL himself with a groin injury. He began a rehab assignment on Monday.

The Phillies’ two big trade acquisitions, Realmuto and Segura, are both having their first below-average offensive seasons since 2015. There simply hasn’t been anywhere for Kapler to turn for offense.

That’s a problem, because the Phillies pitching staff, the team’s primary question mark heading into the season, has been a disaster. The two most trustworthy pitchers in the rotation were Nola and Jake Arrieta. The other three spots in the rotation were reserved for the Phillies’ bumper crop of talented but unreliable 20-something right-handers: Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Enyel De Los Santos. Of those, Eflin’s been great, and the less said about the others the better.

Even the top of the Phillies rotation has been disappointing. Arrieta has been a little better than league average (4.12 ERA in 91 2/3 IP) if a bit homer-prone (1.5 HR/9, 4.55 DRA), but Nola’s taken a huge step back from his astounding 2018 campaign. An exceptional command pitcher dating back to this days at LSU, Nola is now walking a career-high 9.5 percent of opposing hitters, giving up hard contact on 39 percent of batted balls—a career high by nearly 10 percentage points—and allowing home runs on 20.6 percent of opponents’ fly balls, the second-highest rate in the majors.

In 2018, Nola was a human insurance policy against long losing streaks and bullpen overuse: He made it through at least six innings in 26 of his 33 starts, and the Phillies went 22-11 in those games. In 2019, Nola has made it through six innings just eight times in 16 starts, and the Phillies are just 9-7 when he pitches.

The bullpen has been even worse. The Phillies have invested heavily in their bullpen over the past two years, both by pursuing veterans in trades and free agency, and by promoting talented arms from their own farm system. Of those, Neris is the only unqualified success in 2019. Almost everyone else the Phillies were counting on to fill out their bullpen has been hurt, ineffective, or both.

Phillies Bullpen Woes

Pitcher ERA 2019 IP Current Status Estimated Return (if injured)
Pitcher ERA 2019 IP Current Status Estimated Return (if injured)
Héctor Neris 2.59 31 1/3 MLB
David Robertson 5.4 6 2/3 IL (elbow) Mid-July
Seranthony Domínguez 4.01 24 2/3 IL (elbow) Unknown
Pat Neshek 5 18 IL (hamstring) Unknown
Tommy Hunter n/a 0 IL (forearm) This week
Víctor Arano 3.86 4 2/3 IL (elbow) Unknown
Adam Morgan 3.32 19 MLB
Edubray Ramos 4.15 13 AAA
Juan Nicasio 3.94 32 MLB
José Álvarez 3.81 28 1/3 MLB

Given that the Phillies have been without six of their seven best relievers (including Morgan, who has just returned from a forearm strain) at some point this year, it’s easy to understand why they’ve had so much trouble keeping runs off the board.

But what’s so troubling about the past three and a half weeks is that there isn’t one easy fix. They need a third baseman to replace Franco and a center fielder to fill in for McCutchen, but that’ll do only so much good if the rest of the lineup doesn’t get back on track. They need at least one more reliable starting pitcher, probably two, but they also need Nola to get himself sorted out and they need some of their top relievers to return to action.

Worst of all, the Phillies are running out of time to either snap out of this skid or make the roster moves necessary to stop the bleeding. The Braves, who were in second place two weeks ago, are now 5 1/2 games up in the division, and on the verge of running the Phillies out of the race altogether. After making such splashy moves this past offseason, it would be a gigantic disappointment for the Phillies to miss the playoffs this year, and unless something changes, they might not even be able to salvage their first winning season since 2011. At least things can’t get any worse. Before Monday’s win over the Mets, GM Matt Klentak told reporters that the club had no immediate plans for a Hail Mary blockbuster trade, or for a shake-up of the big league field staff. This is in contrast to the similarly rudderless Mets, who fired two coaches last week and seem on the verge of cashiering manager Mickey Callaway. For now, at least, Kapler’s job is safe, and the group that controlled the division through Memorial Day will win or lose on its own merits.

A few days after having The American Crisis read aloud to his troops, George Washington led his famous crossing of the Delaware River. His army overran the Hessian camp in Trenton on Christmas, reinvigorating public support for the Revolutionary cause. The Phillies are going to have to pull something similar out of their hats, and quickly, if they want to deliver on the potential they showed this spring.

On Monday, Miller showed up to the park with a potted bamboo plant, which he claimed had the power to change the team’s luck. Early returns—13 runs and four homers later that night—are good. But if the bamboo fails, these sunshine patriots could soon find themselves in fourth place, with no way to recover.