NEW YORK — Bryce Harper said during the final week of the season’s first half that the Phillies wanted to put pressure on the front office to be buyers at the trade deadline. They had hovered around .500 for the first three months of the season and had not exactly played an inspiring brand of baseball.
So the Phillies responded by winning 8 of 11 and arrived this week to Yankee Stadium looking like a team that would be searching for upgrades come July 30.
“I don’t even know if we’re putting the pressure on, but also we’re playing like the team that we’re supposed to be playing like at the right time,” Harper said. “We’re all getting back on the field at the right time. Guys are hitting well. We’re pitching. I think as a team we’re where we need to be. I think if you’re a good team, like we talked about in spring training and things like that, then there’s not much pressure you have to put on your front office because we’re in a spot where we need to be to make those moves if need be and to get better down the stretch.”
The Phillies look like buyers, but a lot can change in 10 days.
They spent their first day in the Bronx placing a pitcher on the injured list with a knee injury that required surgery five years ago, adding two relievers to the COVID-19 injured list, and watching their opening day starter pitch another subpar game.
The Phils still began Wednesday just 2½ games out of first place, but there’s still nine games left before the trade deadline.
“I think we’re in a spot where we’re really going to realize where we are in the next 10 days, right?” Harper said. “We have a big series with the Yankees, a big series with Atlanta, and the Nationals come to town. These next couple days could really determine where we’re at.”
Harper’s deadline shopping list starts with pitching. The Phillies, if they are buyers, will be in the market for a starting pitcher and a reliever. They could also use a center fielder. The Cubs are expected to trade Kris Bryant and the Twins are shopping Byron Buxton, while Starling Marte of the Marlins is an intriguing option who has terrific numbers — .398/.449/.643 — in 25 games at Citizens Bank Park.
The rotation was already thin, but the Phillies’ pitching depth will be tested even more while Zach Eflin is out with tendinitis in his right knee. The Phillies could have replaced Eflin with Bailey Falter, but he’ll miss time while on the COVID-19 injured list.
The bullpen could use help both in middle relief and at the back end. The Phillies have liked how Ranger Suarez has performed in the ninth inning, but they could target an experienced closer this month. Craig Kimbrel of the Cubs and Richard Rodriguez of the Pirates are two closers who would be good fits, but the price could be steep.
The bullpen has the fourth-highest ERA (4.64) in the NL, fourth-highest batting average against (.248) and the sixth-highest WHIP (1.39) along with the most blown saves (23) in the majors.
“Everybody will look in our bullpen, right?” Harper said. “That extra arm. You always need pitching. You always need depth, too. Any time you get pitching and that depth inside your organization — if that’s starting pitching, if that’s the bullpen pitching — not even just now during the trade deadline. You look at all the teams that are really good in baseball, they all have depth. Keep all your chips. Keep everybody, you know what I’m saying? All around our team, we can always be better. So anybody that we go out and get, hopefully, they come in here and make our team better and give us that attitude and that mindset to go out and compete.”
The trade deadline will be Dave Dombrowski’s first since being hired last December as the team’s president of baseball operations. Dombrowski’s first offseason was short since he was hired late and it came in the midst of the pandemic. He was still able to add players before the season, but the deadline presents a major chance for Dombrowski to alter the roster. It will provide an indication as to which prospects — think more Mickey Moniak and less Mick Abel — Dombrowski is willing to deal.
“I think he’s done great things with the roster right now,” Harper said. “Especially with [Travis] Jankowski coming in and [Ronald] Torreyes coming in. Those guys have actually performed really, really well for us. ... I’m looking forward to it because you just never know, right? You never know what teams are in on players and what teams are out on players. We’ll see in the next couple of days.”
The National League East was expected to be the toughest division in baseball, but instead it was underwhelming in the first half. FanGraphs projects the winner to finish with just 87 wins, which would be the lowest win total since the divisions were realigned in 1994.
And that’s why the Phillies, despite being an average team for most of the season, can still be buyers later this month. The division is in reach and they may just need a few upgrades to return to October for the first time in a decade. But the deadline is still more than a week away.
“I mean, you can never count our division out because it is such a juggernaut of everybody beating up on each other all the time,” Harper said. “The Mets, as much as they give up the lead, they are taking the lead back. Their lineup is coming through right now. [Michael] Conforto looks like he’s swinging it well right now. If Conforto gets going, it’s always tough for everybody in our division. It looks like [Washington’s Juan] Soto is getting it going right now as well. It’s definitely going to be a grind down the stretch.
“We’ll see where we’re at in the next couple of days. But I’m looking forward to it. I’m really excited to see where we’re at. I think also a lot of people in Philadelphia are looking at it and seeing where we’re at and what we’re going to do.”