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How a playoff drought, a winnable NL East, and Zach Eflin’s knee injury determined the .500 Phillies’ trade-deadline course

In the midst of the wildest trade deadline in recent memory, the Phillies’ moves felt mostly proportional, even if the inclusion of Spencer Howard in a deal with Texas prompted some head-scratching.

Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper in front of the scoreboard Thursday after the division-leading New York Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies are 3 1/2 games behind the Mets in the National League East.
Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper in front of the scoreboard Thursday after the division-leading New York Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies are 3 1/2 games behind the Mets in the National League East.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

After Brad Miller circled the bases, stomped on home plate, and jumped up and down with his delirious teammates Thursday, the Phillies were a .500 team for the 21st time in 102 games. They had still scored fewer runs than they allowed. Their third-best starting pitcher was sidelined with a knee injury. They led the majors in blown saves and had one of the worst defenses.

Objectively, there seemed to be no reason not to sit out the trade deadline at 4 p.m. Friday.

Except the Phillies have the seventh-largest luxury-tax payroll in baseball, the second-longest active playoff drought (nine years), and one of the softest schedules in August and September. The out-of-town scoreboard continues to tease, too. It read “ATL 6, NYM 3” when Miller drove his walk-off grand slam off the second-deck facade in right field to cap an improbable comeback from seven runs down and leave the Phillies 3½ games behind the catchable New York Mets in a middling National League East.

The way forward, then, was to keep moving forward in 2021 while still eyeing the bigger picture. Because, unlike the everything-must-go Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, the Phillies don’t have a still-shiny World Series trophy to gaze upon if they attempted to change course. And for an organization that hasn’t gone to the postseason since the first term of the Obama administration, just getting there would qualify as a considerable achievement.

» READ MORE: Phillies send Spencer Howard to Texas for pitchers Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy in big trade deadline deal

So president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acted opportunistically at the deadline without going all-in. With two trades, he got help for the rotation (Kyle Gibson), bullpen (Ian Kennedy), and the defense (Freddy Galvis) but didn’t bite on sending prized pitching prospect Mick Abel to the Chicago Cubs for Craig Kimbrel, one of the few true difference-making pitchers available.

The Phillies also got cash back from the Texas Rangers to cover the remaining 2021 salaries for Gibson and Kennedy and keep the payroll below the $210 million luxury-tax threshold but gave up previously untouchable 25-year-old right-hander Spencer Howard, whose shine has faded in only a year since his major-league debut.

In the midst of the wildest trade deadline in recent memory -- 10 players who were All-Stars two weeks ago in Colorado changed teams in the final days of July, a single-season record for one year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- the Phillies’ moves felt mostly proportional, even if the inclusion of Howard in the deal with Texas prompted some head-scratching.

“We’re really happy with what took place,” Dombrowski said. “We think it gives us a chance to win -- a little better chance to win -- and of course we’ve got to take care of it on the field. But it gives us that three established starting pitchers now. We think we’re better.”

Indeed, although the Phillies were always on the lookout for an upgrade to the rotation, they ratched up that pursuit this week because Zach Eflin isn’t progressing as quickly as they hoped from tendinitis in his right knee. They thought they added innings-eating rental Tyler Anderson on Tuesday, but the trade unraveled when the Pittsburgh Pirates raised concerns about the medical reports on Class A pitcher Cristian Hernandez.

With other rent-a-starters Zach Davies and Jon Gray staying put with the Cubs and Colorado Rockies, respectively, the Phillies jumped to get Gibson, a 33-year-old righty whom they targeted in free agency two years ago under former general manager Matt Klentak. Gibson has a 4.42 career ERA but a career-best 2.87 mark in 19 starts this season despite struggling recently (15 earned runs in his last 17⅓ innings). He’s also under contract next year for $7.67 million.

But would the Phillies have gone after Gibson -- and moved Howard in the process -- if the trade for Anderson hadn’t blown up?

“I can’t even answer that question, but probably,” Dombrowski said. “I have to think more thoroughly about that one. I guess we’d have been open to it.”

» READ MORE: Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins leave Phillies’ comeback victory with minor injuries

Perhaps, then, the move for Gibson was motivated by a short-term need. Dombrowski spoke kindly of Howard, who, for all the hype in the minors, didn’t record an out in the sixth inning in any of his 13 major-league starts for the Phillies. But Dombrowski also claimed the team had been open to trading Howard before Eflin’s timeline to return became uncertain. If that’s true, it’s an indication that the organization’s confidence in his ability to reach his lofty potential was waning.

Dombrowski insisted the addition of 22-year-old prospect Hans Crouse in the trade with Texas will help offset the loss of Howard in future years. The right-hander had a 3.35 ERA in 13 starts for the Rangers’ double-A club and will begin his Phillies’ tenure with Reading, according to Dombrowski.

“If we were going to trade a guy like Spencer Howard, we wanted to get an arm back, and we like Hans Crouse a lot,” Dombrowski said. “A lot, actually,”

It was all part of the Phillies’ plan to be measured at the deadline. Even Bryce Harper seemed to endorse that approach. Asked Thursday if the sight of the Phillies mobbing Miller at home plate would compel Dombrowski to go big, the star right fielder said, “It’s got to be smart, though. We can’t just do it just to do it.”

The Mets made the splashiest move of the NL East’s so-called contenders, acquiring infielder Javy Báez from the Cubs. The Atlanta Braves, who were a half-game behind the Phillies entering Friday, were the busiest, grabbing outfielders Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler, and reliever Richard Rodriguez.

Surely they feel as confident in their chances to win the division as the Phillies do. Someone has to claim the NL East crown. Now it’s a 60-game sprint to determine which of the three flawed teams can do it.