It was not hard to imagine a September in which the Phillies, while playing meaningless baseball, looked different. They could stick Nick Williams and Roman Quinn in the outfield, J.P. Crawford at shortstop, and Jorge Alfaro or Andrew Knapp behind the plate. This was in the spring, when the Phillies broke camp with a lineup full of placeholders, and optimism prevailed.
Instead, the season will end with much of the same. The prospects have had mixed results. The players in the majors have combined to produce a .296 on-base percentage, which ranks dead last in baseball and is the worst clip for a Phillies team since 1968.
"Nobody," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said, "has established themselves as a definite."
That is part disappointing and part expected. The Phillies have employed a patchwork outfield. They platooned at first base. Their middle infield, with considerable big-league time, is uneven.
Maikel Franco, viewed as a future lineup cornerstone, has held an on-base percentage above .320 for just two days since April ended. Cameron Rupp, perhaps the best offensive development in 2016, enjoyed a tremendous 37-game stretch in the middle of a season that was bookended by slumps. Odubel Herrera, a Rule 5 pick whose outsize production created distorted expectations, has lost some patience.
The counter: They are young. They are learning. It is hard to be a consistent hitter for 162 games.
"You know, there's nobody really pushing these guys below them," Mackanin said. "Perhaps those players that we're high on are not ready for this level. So, at this point in time, we have to exhaust every possibility of seeing what we've got here and giving them the best chance to show something."
The Phillies couched the recent struggles by their top prospects by maintaining it was best to have them experience postseason baseball in the minors. That could be code for "None of them deserves a promotion." First-year general manager Matt Klentak has said he will not promote players based solely on their potential. There must be merit.
If the front office thought a particular position player was ready to make the jump next year, to be an everyday player, would the Phillies forgo the minor-league playoffs and let that player taste the majors?
"Yeah, I think they would," Mackanin said. "I really haven't posed that question to Matt. It hasn't come up in our discussions. That's an interesting question."
What that means is that 2017, at least at the start, could look quite similar to 2016. The Phillies could pursue trades this winter; Rupp, especially, is an interesting piece. They do not want to pair Rupp with one of the young catchers next season; a veteran backup is guaranteed.
Herrera's name could be floated. The Phillies paid $50,000 for his rights, a worthwhile investment. He may not be an all-star outfielder, but no one expected that. In the end, Herrera has a .769 OPS and profiles as an everyday player.
"Every season, there are ups and downs," Herrera said through an interpreter. "Thankfully, I've been able to play my game, but I know I can do better. I'm just going to be confident in my game."
Mackanin scans his roster and is encouraged by glimpses from Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Tommy Joseph, and Aaron Altherr. At some point, the Phillies will have to make decisions about who is and is not a part of the future.
The way the game is trending, Phillies officials believe, offense will be easier to procure than pitching. There were 1,053 homers hit in August, the second-most homers hit in a single month in major-league history. In 2014, an average of 0.86 home runs were hit by each team per game. That has jumped to 1.16 in 2016. Over a full season, that is a difference of 1,458 homers.
The average on-base percentage in 2016 is up to .322, the highest rate since 2010. The league-average ability to reach base has not experienced the same increase as the power uptick, so it remains a more coveted skill.
It is a skill the current Phillies lack.
"We have enough here to get excited about," Mackanin said, "but they have to start producing."