In time, maybe even before the weekend, the Braves will capture the National League East crown.

It just won’t happen on the Phillies’ watch.

With another win last night, 4-1 behind seven strong innings from Zach Eflin and a Bryce Harper homer, the Phillies made certain that they will depart Atlanta before the Braves clinch the division title.

Raise a glass to the small victories. If the Phillies rack up enough of them over the next 11 days, it might save a few jobs, even embattled manager Gabe Kapler’s.

There’s a quick turnaround for a 12:10 p.m. series finale against the Braves, who will end the season with a losing record against only one NL East team. Would you believe it’s the Phillies ... and for only the second time in eight years? Yet another small victory. Huzzah!

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole recorded his 300th strikeout of the season last night. He's in line to score a contract in excess of $200 million in free agency this winter.
Michael Wyke / AP
Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole recorded his 300th strikeout of the season last night. He's in line to score a contract in excess of $200 million in free agency this winter.

Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon? Which star should be Phillies’ top target?

With all due respect to general manager Matt Klentak, who prefers to talk only about the last 11 games of 2019, it isn’t too early for a 2020 vision. And so, with an eye on the Phillies’ two most pressing needs, we ask the following question:

Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon?

Consider it this winter’s version of Bryce Harper vs. Manny Machado. Cole and Rendon figure to be the marquee names on the free-agent market. Both are likely to receive contracts that exceed $200 million. Both are represented by agent Scott Boras.

The Phillies must improve their starting pitching and their production at third base, and it’s expected that owner John Middleton will continue to spend money to upgrade the roster.

So, who will it be: Cole or Rendon?

Cole, who turned 29 earlier this month, finished fifth in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year and has put up even better numbers this season for the Astros. He recorded his league-leading 300th strikeout last night and has a 2.61 ERA. He has topped 200 innings in three consecutive seasons and four of the last five. His asking price: Think of David Price’s seven-year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox and keep going.

Rendon, also 29, leads the National League in average (.330), doubles (43) and runs batted in (119) and ranks second in OPS (1.036), making him an MVP candidate regardless of whether the Nationals secure a wild-card berth. He has the highest adjusted-OPS (143) among all third basemen over the last three seasons. Nolan Arenado’s eight-year, $260 million contract extension with the Rockies is likely the bar that Rendon will be trying to clear.

The Phillies, under their current regime, have been averse to long-term contracts for pitchers. Team president Andy MacPhail believes strongly in growing arms in the farm system and buying bats on the open market. But Cole makes more sense for them now than Rendon.

After betting big on their young starters this season and seeing Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin either stagnate or regress, they need to add pitching from the outside. Even if Spencer Howard joins the rotation midway through next season, it’s unfair to expect the 23-year-old right-hander to slot in behind Aaron Nola right away. But with Cole and Nola atop the rotation, the Phillies would have a one-two punch that would rival any other in the league.

Signing Rendon to a big deal would block top prospect Alec Bohm, who could be ready for the majors before the All-Star break next year. In the meantime, the Phillies could seek a shorter-term solution at third base. Mike Moustakas could be back on the free-agent market. Or Scott Kingery could open next season at third before ultimately moving to second base.

The rundown

Gabe Kapler and Matt Klentak have been conducting end-of-season interviews with players before the games in Atlanta, as Matt Breen writes. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for some of those.

Although Klentak doesn’t want to discuss 2020 until the Phillies are mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, he doesn’t sound much like someone who wants to fire Kapler. That said, as Breen writes, owner John Middleton might make the final call on that.

A week after Braves lefty Dallas Keuchel suggested the Phillies front office should be second-guessing itself for not signing him, Klentak said he prefers to examine the process by which the team came to its decisions rather than re-litigating them.

Important dates

Today: Aaron Nola vs. Mike Soroka in Phillies-Braves finale, 12:10 p.m.

Tomorrow: Drew Smyly starts the series opener in Cleveland, 7:10 p.m.

Saturday: Jason Vargas keeps chasing his first Phillies win, 7:10 p.m.

Sunday: Phillies vs. Indians on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, 6:37 p.m.

Monday: Nationals host Phillies for five games in four days, 7:05 p.m.

Across the board, Bryce Harper's offensive numbers are slightly below what most projections figured they would be in his first season with the Phillies.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Across the board, Bryce Harper's offensive numbers are slightly below what most projections figured they would be in his first season with the Phillies.

Stat of the day

Late in any season, it’s interesting to look back at preseason projections for a player’s performance and compare them to the actual numbers.

Along those lines, we dug up Dan Szymborski’s “ZiPS” projection from the end of spring training for prominent members of the Phillies lineup and matched it with their stats. (Note: The calculation of Wins Above Replacement is according to Fangraphs.)

Bryce Harper

Projection: .271/.407/.537, 30 2B, 35 HR, 104 R, 109 RBI, 4.8 WAR

Actual: .255/.373/.497, 32 2B, 32 HR, 91 R, 104 RBI, 3.8 WAR

Rhys Hoskins

Projection: .251/.351/.500, 30 2B, 34 HR, 92 R, 113 RBI, 3.3 WAR

Actual: .238/.376/.483, 33 2B, 29 HR, 83 R, 83 RBI, 2.8 WAR

J.T. Realmuto

Projection: .276/.335/.503, 32 2B, 25 HR, 76 R, 84 RBI, 4.7 WAR

Actual: .276/.328/.494, 34 2B, 25 HR, 91 R, 82 RBI, 5.7 WAR

Jean Segura

Projection: .290/.331/.423, 30 2B, 14 HR, 86 R, 61 RBI, 2.7 WAR

Actual: .283/.328/.429, 36 2B, 12 HR, 77 R, 58 RBI, 2.5 WAR

Cesar Hernandez

Projection: .261/.355/.375, 19 2B, 11 HR, 82 R, 49 RBI, 2.3 WAR

Actual: .282/.337/.407, 28 2B, 12 HR, 70 R, 66 RBI, 1.8 WAR

Maikel Franco

Projection: .260/.309/.450, 26 2B, 23 HR, 61 R, 86 RBI, 1.4 WAR

Actual: .234/.297/.409, 16 2B, 16 HR, 46 R, 52 RBI, -0.3 WAR

Scott Kingery

Projection: .238/.283/.373, 25 2B, 12 HR, 62 R, 50 RBI, 0.8 WAR

Actual: .257/.315/.477, 31 2B, 19 HR, 61 R, 54 RBI, 2.4 WAR

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Answer: Thanks, Drew, for reaching out. The overwhelming majority of questions I have received this week have to do with whether Kapler or Klentak will get fired. I wish I had a definitive answer, but my sense is that those decisions, particularly with regard to Kapler, have not yet been made. (Klentak, you will recall, got a three-year contract extension in the spring, so I doubt his job is in peril.)

This might sound silly after nearly two full seasons, but I really believe that these final two weeks are a referendum on Kapler. If the Phillies finish strong, management can point to the first winning season since 2011 as progress, albeit not as much as everyone expected, then cite the rash of injuries as the reason for falling short.

Is that enough spin to allay a disappointed fan base? It might be the best they can do.

Look, it’s impossible to deny that the injuries took a toll. But I agree with you that most fans won’t buy it as an explanation, especially when they look at how the Yankees overcame a similar epidemic to win 100-plus games. Moreover, I agree that Kapler hasn’t connected with the fan base. Maybe that matters to owner John Middleton; maybe it doesn’t. We’ll all find out soon enough.