The Phillies lost yet another Aaron Nola start, so they will now play for their season this weekend with Drew Smyly, Jason Vargas, and Vince Velasquez on the mound. And they could be entering a hornets’ nest.
The Indians have won eight of their last 10 and are tied with Tampa Bay for the American League’s second wild card. The Phillies won two of three this week in Atlanta and have to settle for nothing short of that this weekend in Cleveland if they are to keep their playoff chances alive.
They trail the Brewers by four games and would have to first pass the Mets and Cubs. They have a 0.7% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, which is actually an improvement on the 0.4% they had earlier this week. Maybe things are trending up.
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When the Phillies charted out their season, they imagined they would reach October by hitting homers and watching their high-priced bullpen hold onto leads.
But the home runs did not fly as expected and every high-priced reliever — and a lot of the low-priced ones, too — are on the injured list.
“Obviously, a big part of our season narrative will be the injuries,” general manager Matt Klentak said this week. “That goes without saying.”
The Phillies enter the second-to-last weekend of the season with just a chip and a chair after starting the season with expectations to win a division title. The injuries to their bullpen are not the only reason, but they have certainly played a part. They have placed nine relievers on the injured list this season for a cumulative 971 days and spent $23.6 million on injured relievers, according to data compiled by Spotrac.
No team has lost more days or spent more money on injured relievers than the Phillies.
“When you have as many as we’ve had in one area, that will test your depth. It will test anybody’s depth,” Klentak said. “I’m not sure if there’s a team in baseball that could withstand that.”
The Cubs, Nationals, Brewers, and Braves have all placed at least seven relievers on the injured list this season yet enter the weekend with much better chances to play in October than the Phillies. None of those teams lost as many cumulative days as the Phillies have or spent as much money on relievers unable to pitch, but they still had their challenges this season. The Phillies had it worse, but they were not alone.
The Yankees and Mets each spent more money this season on injured players, but their injuries were spread out across their roster and not just in the bullpen. The Phillies lead the National League in injured players and cumulative days lost by those players.
“I think the biggest key for us has been how highly concentrated those injuries were in one particular area, the bullpen,” Klentak said. “I use McCutchen’s injury as the example to illustrate the point. You use a left fielder who is on a 4.5-win pace and is your table-settler and on-field leader, and you can still go get Jay Bruce. And when Jay Bruce goes down, you can still go get Corey Dickerson. Different styles of players. Different handedness. A lot of different things. They don’t ‘replace’ Andrew McCutchen. But we were able to stay afloat in left field. Those guys did a very nice job.”
The bullpen could have imploded without Pat Neshek and David Robertson and Tommy Hunter and Seranthony Dominquez and Adam Morgan. Klentak plugged in Mike Morin, Jared Hughes, and Blake Parker after they were designated for assignment elsewhere.
And the results have been fine. The Phillies, since July 15, have the 10th-best bullpen ERA in baseball and the fourth-best since Aug. 15. The Phillies will likely miss the playoffs, but it won’t be because of their ravaged bullpen. Credit Kapler, who has managed a shorthanded bullpen nearly all season.
“I think Kap is doing a remarkable job managing the bullpen right now,” Klentak said. “... Those guys have done an admirable job. I think Kap has done a nice job of folding those guys in and finding the right roles for them.”
The injuries are just a part of the narrative of why the Phillies will likely miss the playoffs. Maybe they’d be in a better spot this weekend if Robertson, Neshek, and Hunter were ready to go. But they would certainly be in a better spot for the season’s final 11 games if the lineup that was built to outslug opponents was better than the league average in home runs and slugging percentage. And maybe they’d be leading the wild-card race if they chose last winter — or June or July — to upgrade their starting rotation.
Those two factors — the failure to hit for power and the failure to pitch deep into games — has seemed to affect the team just as much as, if not more than, the cast of injured relievers.
“It’s impossible to look at a baseball season and point to only one thing,” Klentak said. “Within a week, within a game, within a homestand, within a season, there are a variety of factors that play in there. I think that’s a big one for us.
"Again, I’m not looking for sympathy. We’re not the only team that’s had injuries. We’re not the only team that’s lost a key player that’s a leadoff hitter or a key starter or guys in the bullpen. This happens in baseball. It’s part of the game. We need to do everything we can to overcome that. But I do think that’s going to be a big part of this season’s narrative.”
The Phillies will need to go on a historic run to get a wild card, but that run becomes even more unlikely each time they fail to win with their best pitcher on the mound. They dropped Aaron Nola’s sixth straight start Thursday as their ace was roughed up by the Braves.
If you were disappointed to not see Spencer Howard help the Phillies this month, then don’t get your hopes up about seeing the team’s top pitching prospect at the start of next season. Matt Klentak said he expects Howard to begin 2020 in the minor leagues.
The Phillies will soon have to decide if Gabe Kapler is their manager for 2020. Klentak praised the job Kapler has done this season but said that “winning is what matters” for anyone’s job security in baseball. “That’s the cold, hard truth,” Klentak said.
Tonight: Drew Smyly faces Cleveland right-hander Shane Bieber, 7:10 p.m.
Tomorrow: Jason Vargas starts against Indians right-hander Zach Plesac, 7:10 p.m.
Sunday: Vince Velasquez pitches on “Sunday Night Baseball” against right-hander Adam Plutko, 6:37 p.m.
Monday: Zach Eflin opens five-game series in Washington, 7:05 p.m.
Tuesday: Phillies play two in D.C., 1:05 and 7:05 p.m.
The Phillies lost Thursday, but they still finished 10-9 this season against the Braves, just the second time in eight years that they won a season series against Atlanta.
The Phillies have a winning record against the first-place Braves but a losing record (7-9) against the last-place Marlins. The Phils will finish the season with three games against Miami, allowing them the chance to clinch a winning record against them with a sweep. They won the season series against the Mets, 12-7, and enter next week’s five-game set with Washington trailing, 9-5.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.
Question: You mention in today’s article about a difference in the baseballs used at different levels of professional baseball. It seems to me that the balls used at all levels of professional ball should be the same. Why not standardize and eliminate adjustments from one level to the next? Thank you. — William D.
Answer: Thanks, William. You’re absolutely right. It does not make much sense that the major leagues play with a baseball different from what’s used at almost every minor-league level.
Now that’s why Spencer Howard’s promotion becomes tricky. Triple A started using the major-league baseball this season and home runs — just as they have done in the majors over the last few years — skyrocketed. The balls are tightly wound, and the seams are lower.
“It’s a cue ball. It’s slippery, and it’s a lot different than a minor-league ball,” Phillies farm director Josh Bonifay said last week.