The Phillies entered the month of July with more of a sense of urgency, knowing that they had to play well to convince the front office to buy rather than sell ahead of the trade deadline. They’d played three months without as much as a weeklong run of consistency, and the theme of the season had, again, become blown leads.
These last two weeks in the NL East have changed that conversation.
The 47-45 Phils have won four straight series, beating the Padres, Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins. They are 10-4 in July and closer to first place than they’ve been in exactly two months.
“We’ve got to prove that we can win. It’s as simple as that,” Zack Wheeler said after Sunday’s win over the Marlins. “They’re not going to buy if we’re not consistent. To be able to go out there and win some games and show that we’re serious and show the front office that we’re serious, that definitely helps.”
Over the last two weeks, the Braves have lost Ronald Acuña Jr. for the season to a torn ACL, the Mets have lost Jacob deGrom (forearm) and Francisco Lindor (oblique) and the Nationals have struggled without Kyle Schwarber (hamstring). The Mets needed a seven-run comeback Sunday to avoid being swept by a Pirates team that’s 21 games under .500. They dropped two of three to Pittsburgh right before the All-Star break. They've been in first place for 69 of the season's 90 days but are vulnerable right now.
"We're in this and we're going to try to make our club better over this time period," Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said on Monday's Takeoff With John Clark podcast.
"I think we're better than a .500 team and we've played much better here recently. We are contending, we have a chance to win. We legitimately have a chance to win. We have to do the little things right, we have to advance runners, get runners in from third base, cut down on our strikeouts, make the routine plays from a defensive perspective.
"We're not selling. We're not looking to move players off of our team. Anything can happen in 10 days or two weeks -- if you lose 10 games in a row, then maybe things are different, or if you win 10 games in a row, it's a little bit different. But we're in a position where we're in this."
The trade deadline is July 30, less than two weeks away. The Phillies' clear need is pitching. In a perfect world, they'd add to the back of their rotation and to the back of their bullpen. Vince Velasquez and Matt Moore currently occupy the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation, and the Phils' bullpen leads the majors with 23 blown saves.
The biggest ticket item among relievers would be Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, who is having the best season of his storied career with a 0.53 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 33⅔ innings. Kimbrel is owed about $5.3 million after the deadline this season and has a club option for $16 million next year.
It will take an attractive package of prospects to pry Kimbrel away from the reeling Cubs, but he's not the only reliever worth pursuing.
Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez has been very good the last four seasons and could be an option. He has a 2.67 ERA and 0.82 WHIP since the start of 2020.
Rangers closer Ian Kennedy is another option, one that would cost far less. Kennedy is sort of similar to Ranger Suarez in that he's a non-traditional closer with a deep mix of pitches who gets it done with command. He's saved 15 games in 16 chances for Texas. Mariners closer Kendall Graveman fits a similar description, though the sample size of his success is much smaller.
Rockies closer Daniel Bard is a right-hander who can touch triple digits but can also struggle with command.
Those are just the closers. There are also plenty of setup men available, perhaps every single reliever on the 10 teams completely out of contention: the Orioles, Royals, Twins, Tigers, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Pirates, Cubs and Marlins.
"I think that we can close internally. Ranger Suarez has been outstanding for us," Dombrowski said. "If you acquired somebody with the numbers Ranger Suarez has put up so far, you'd be ecstatic. There are very few closers out there who would be a tremendous upgrade over what we had.
"We upgraded (the bullpen), but it still hasn't performed at as high a level as we had hoped and it's an area you're always looking to upgrade as you're in a pennant race."
The Phillies would not be in the race in any other division in baseball. They have nine fewer wins than every division leader outside the NL East. Some look at that and the best-case scenario of an NLDS meeting with the Dodgers or Padres and ask, "What's the point in buying?"
But there is a point in this organization doing all it can to make the playoffs after nine consecutive non-winning seasons. And if you get there, who knows what can happen. More often than not, the best regular-season team does not win the World Series.
"I've been to the postseason many times with clubs," Dombrowski said. "Once you make it, anything can happen. And if you're in a position with our club, in any short series where you go in with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin throwing well, you could beat anybody.
"If you make the postseason, it's extremely important. I've been on clubs where we've had a much better record than the club that beat us in the postseason. So the first thing is you try to get there.
"But you have to be reasonable. You want to get there, but I'll use an example: Our number one draft choice from last year, Mick Abel, we're not looking to trade and are probably never looking to trade him. He's got that kind of value and ability that he can be a No. 1 starting pitcher down the road."
Abel, right now, is the jewel of a Phillies farm system that is not highly regarded. But Dombrowski is confident the Phillies have prospects other teams are interested in.
"We can make a deal with prospects," he said. "I know people say, 'Oh, they don't have any prospects.' But no, we can make deals if we needed to, there's no question about that. We have a lot of players that are highly regarded by other organizations so that would not be the hold-up in this case."