June 20, 2013

The quest for 81-81 continues.

The Philadelphia Phillies are 35-38, and that's exactly where they should be.

In fact, they're exceeding expectations. They've scored 269 runs and allowed 319; the team's Pythagorean win-loss record is 31-42. The bullpen ERA is last in the National League at 4.63; the pitching staff's overall ERA is not much better (4.22). The team OPS is .703, narrowly ahead of unsurprisingly bad offenses in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Tyler Cloyd, who'll make a nice living being called up twice a year to eat innings in doubleheaders, has already logged six starts. Jon Pettibone is good enough to keep Carlos Zambrano locked in a minor league holding pattern, which isn't saying much. John Lannan has only recently returned from his backiotomy. Cole Hamels, through little fault of his own, is 2-10.

Michael Young is on pace to challenge Jim Rice's record for most double plays grounded into over a full season (he's at 14; the record is 36). Delmon Young is batting .222/.277/.400, and still starting everyday. Ben Revere, though better lately, is miscast as a leadoff hitter and barely able to lob the ball from center field to second base.

Has a team even been more destined to go .500?

If Roy Halladay and Chase Utley were healthy and, well, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley, maybe they'd be giving the Atlanta Braves a run for the division. Or at least look like strong competitors in the double wild-card race.

But that's the problem: What were the odds of a team packed with aged stars staying upright and productive for 162 games? It was wishful thinking at best to assume that, after the horrors of last year, Halladay's arm could provide another batch of 200+ innings. Or that Utley's increasingly brittle bones would keep him at second base long enough to make an impact, even in a contract year.

We're talking about an organization that went into the season with Domonic Brown, Revere and John Mayberry Jr. as its starting outfielders. And Brown, he of the 19 homers in 262 ABs, was considered the weak link.

The annoying thing is, if you squinted just right at the roster in spring training you might've seen a team with promise. You've heard of all of these guys! Gritty veterans who know how to win. If everything breaks just right...

And that's where we are right now: Consistently talking ourselves into a team with an $160-million payroll and no direction whatsoever. With a $62-million infield and a $2-million outfield, with three aces and a bullpen that's among the worst in the game. Ruben Amaro says he doesn't do five-year plans, and I believe him. Sometimes I doubt he has a plan at all.

Every franchise hits a rough patch once in a while, but the Phillies have painted themselves into this specific corner with horrific contracts, knee-jerk trades and a misguided insistence that good times are just over the horizon. It's an increasingly delusional situation, presided over by a general manager who seems to be relying on luck and name recognition to carry his flawed ball club to unattainable playoff glory.

The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 with in-their-prime bats, an ace who couldn't lose and three dominant bullpen arms that secured every lead from the seventh on.

Yet here we are years later and the survivors from that team – Utley, Howard, Rollins, Hamels, Ruiz – remain the main attraction. And while some of them have juice left in the tank, the only meaningful add-ons are Brown (finally) and Cliff Lee. Everyone else has been injured, traded, worn out their welcome or never panned out in the first place. Reinforcements have not arrived.

A team that's banking on 2008's stars to power a 2013 championship run? Sounds like one that'll beat up on San Francisco and Washington and then lose to Milwaukee and Minnesota: the very model of inconsistency.

I don't expect them to sell Jonathan Papelbon or Lee. I expect Amaro to retool and tinker, believing his team to be one more massively overpaid free-agent away from competition.

And frankly, I'm fine with that. The Phillies have barely developed a capable position player since the mid-2000s, let alone a series of stars. Nearly every high draft pick has faltered; Brown was can't-miss, and still almost did.

I don't trust Amaro to blow it up. I don't trust him to patch things up either, but one more big blunder might force the organization to make a change. To me, that's the fastest way out of baseball purgatory.

The Phillies have become perpetually frustrating, and there's no more annoying record than 81-81. For a team built without a plan, that might even be more than they deserve.