Phillies

What gives with this Phillies offense that was supposed to be among the league's best?

What gives with this Phillies offense that was supposed to be among the league's best?

With Bryce Harper out of the Phillies' lineup for the first time all season, the Phillies had their weakest offensive performance of the season, mustering just three baserunners — two singles and a double — in a 2-0 loss to the Diamondbacks (see observations).

The Phillies' loss, coupled with the Braves’ 8-7 win in 11 innings, put Atlanta a game ahead and in sole possession first place for the first time all season.

The Phillies were careful, at least outwardly, about looking past the D-backs to the Braves and this weekend's divisional showdown. On Wednesday, they failed to solve 30-year-old right-hander Merrill Kelly, who has allowed just two runs over his last 22⅓ innings.

The lack of offense wasted Zach Eflin's eight-inning gem, which was filled with weak contact and saw Eflin match his career high with nine strikeouts.

Eflin is a mild-mannered guy who doesn't get very high after a good start. He showed a little fire, though, talking after the game about the Phillies' recent stretch of below-average baseball. They've lost eight of 13.

"It's all about how you respond to it," he said. "How much does it piss you off, how much does it make you wanna go out and kick someone's ass? We're gonna be just fine. Just one of those rough patches every team goes through."

The Phillies have fallen short of expectations at the plate this season. They've been a middle-of-the-pack offense, ranking 15th in the majors in runs scored. They rank 20th in home runs and 18th in slugging percentage. This was believed to be one of the majors' deepest lineups, but to this point, it hasn't played out that way.

An interesting exercise is to ask yourself who the Phillies' best hitter has been this season. It's not an easy answer. There's been solid play from guys like Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins and Harper, but none that really jumps off the page.

"I think we're going to hit home runs," manager Gabe Kapler said after the loss. "I guess if you just look at a third of the season, would I have expected that's where we'd rank? Probably not. Do I expect us to rank there at the end of the season? I don't. I think we have power up and down the lineup. We have guys who have a history of hitting home runs. I expect that trend to continue.

"I think we have better baseball in us than this recent stretch of games. We have more consistent baseball in us than this recent stretch of games. We have to play better in order to beat teams like the Braves and the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. These are very good teams."

Realmuto took this one hard, that the Phillies couldn't support a pitcher who was dealing the way Eflin was. Eflin has been the Phillies' best and most consistent starting pitcher this season but the Phils have scored a grand total of 10 runs in his last five starts, which won't win any pitcher many games.

"It's more frustrating from an offensive standpoint when you've got a guy battling like that on the mound and we weren't able to do anything for him and put any runs across the board," Realmuto said. "I can't say enough about the way he pitched today so it's definitely frustrating when they do get a couple runs and it's on weak contact like that. It happens. It's just baseball."

Kapler has some things to figure out atop the lineup. Cesar Hernandez is not effective right now out of the leadoff spot. He is 5 for 50 over his last 13 games and has a .222 OBP since replacing Andrew McCutchen in the leadoff spot.

Kapler acknowledged postgame that a little shakeup is under consideration. It could involve Roman Quinn, who is likely to be activated this weekend in Atlanta.

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MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

Track all the latest MLB trade deadline news and rumors here through July 31.

Phils show interest in Stroman (July 19)

Unsurprisingly, many front offices will have an eye tonight on Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman when he faces the lowly Tigers tonight, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi points out, adding the Phillies are one of the interested parties.

The Phillies hold some level of interest in every available starting pitcher, ranging from the top and most expensive tier to the marginal upgrades.

Stroman is one of the most attractive pitchers on the market. He’s 28, he was an All-Star, and he’s bounced back strong this season. In 19 starts, he has a 3.25 ERA and is allowing a career-low rate of hits. His strikeout rate is similar to Jake Arrieta’s or Zach Eflin’s. Stroman relies on ground balls and has been effective this season getting out of jams. He’s fun to watch when he’s doing it, the most demonstrative starting pitcher in the majors.

Will Cards move Martinez? (July 16)

The Cardinals are 47-45, two games out of first place and tied with the Phillies for the second wild-card spot. Yet they could look to trade Carlos Martinez this month, according to Ken Rosenthal.

Martinez is acting as St. Louis' closer with Jordan Hicks out for the season. Martinez has pitched well in relief, posting a 2.18 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in 18 appearances.

But he's also making $11.5 million, more than a team in the Cardinals' position would ideally like to pay a pitcher to get three or four outs. 

Martinez was a very effective starting pitcher from 2015-18, going 50-33 with a 3.22 ERA and making a pair of All-Star teams. A year's worth of shoulder pain forced the Cardinals to move him from the rotation to the bullpen.

Martinez is an interesting trade candidate because there figure to be at least a few teams who check in on him as a starting pitcher.

Race for Ray (July 15)

The Phillies are again showing interest in Robbie Ray, according to Jon Morosi. We have mentioned Ray frequently here as a Phillies trade target dating back to last summer.

Ray would help any contender. He’s a 27-year-old lefty with an extremely high strikeout rate. He experiences bouts of wildness and does lead the National League with 56 walks, but he has also settled in to a mid-3.00s ERA the last three seasons.

The left-handedness and legit swing-and-miss stuff make Ray the type of pitcher the Phillies do not have.

Ray turns 28 on Oct. 1. Based on his age and remaining contract — 2020 is his final arbitration year before he becomes a free agent — he would be a great fit for the Phillies, even if they do continue to fall out of the playoff race. Ray would help them now and next season and would be a prime extension candidate if he pitches well.

The competition for his services via trade will be intense. The Astros (more on them below) are also in on Ray, and plenty of other clubs have expressed interest in the past. The Phillies would have to trade a player or two they don’t want to trade to acquire him.

Speedsters available (July 15)

The Royals have made lightning-fast outfielders Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore available. Neither is much of a fit for the Phillies, who already have Roman Quinn in that role.

Hamilton and Gore could both help a contender in need of a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner. They are both impactful defenders and baserunners who can't hit.

As for Whit Merrifield, it seems unlikely Kansas City would move him despite being 30 games under .500. Merrifield is such a good, multi-dimensional player that the Royals deserve a huge score for him. At 30 years old, he is enjoying by far his best season, hitting .309/.361/.500 with 26 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Merrifield's .861 OPS is 55 points higher than his previous career-high.

Merrifield's dynamic offense and positional versatility make him a fit anywhere. The Cubs would make a ton of sense. 

Astros after a starter? (July 15)

The Astros have gotten huge production from their top three starters, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. But the back of the rotation remains a question mark. Collin McHugh is pitching in a mop-up role, Brad Peacock is dealing with a sore shoulder, Framber Valdez has been lit up three starts in a row, and Corbin Martin underwent Tommy John surgery the first week of July.

The Astros are still maybe the deepest team in baseball. Anything less than a World Series win would represent disappointment in 2019. Madison Bumgarner would make a whole lot of sense for Houston, which is still rich in prospects after all of their graduations to the majors.

Trade season begins

A pair of solid but unspectacular starting pitchers were moved this past weekend to kick off trade deadline activity.

Remember, these next two weeks figure to be even more frenzied than usual in July because there is now a hard trade deadline of July 31. No more August trades, except those involving a swap of minor-leaguers.

The Orioles sent Andrew Cashner to the Red Sox for a pair of 17-year-old position player prospects who had been playing for Boston's Dominican Summer League team. 

The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cashner went 9-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts with the Orioles. Baltimore went 11-6 in his starts and 17-59 in all other games.

The Red Sox needed another starting pitcher with the Nate Eovaldi experiment going sideways. Eovaldi has missed much of the season and will shift to the bullpen upon his return later this month. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Red Sox were 2½ games out of the second AL wild-card spot.

The Royals, meanwhile, traded Homer Bailey to the A's for a fringy Double A infielder. Bailey has been just OK this season, with a 4.80 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. 

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Phillies reach deal with free-agent starter Drew Smyly, who could help ... a little bit

Phillies reach deal with free-agent starter Drew Smyly, who could help ... a little bit

The Phillies have reached a deal with free-agent starting pitcher Drew Smyly, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury has confirmed. 

Smyly, 30, became a free agent Thursday when he opted out of his minor-league contract with the Brewers. 

While Smyly should help, he likely won’t be a savior. After not pitching in the majors in 2017 or 2018 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, the lefty struggled with Texas earlier this season before he was released in June. In 51 1/3 innings this season, Smyly had an 8.42 ERA, 1.909 WHIP and a 50.6 hard-contact rate. 

There was a time when Smyly would have been a much bigger get. From 2012 to 2016, with the Tigers and Rays, he went 31-27 with a 3.74 ERA in 156 games (85 starts). 

Here’s what Salisbury said yesterday about the Phillies’ desperation for starting pitching: 

It is well known that the Phillies are in the market for starting pitching. They have spoken to the Texas Rangers about Mike Minor, the Detroit Tigers about Matthew Boyd and the San Francisco Giants about Madison Bumgarner. They have also investigated the possibility of trading for Zack Greinke, Arizona’s high-priced right-hander.

In addition to inquiring about and gauging what it would take to get a top starter — the price is high and the Phils don't want to give up the multiples of top prospects that other clubs are asking for — the Phils have also considered marginal upgrades like Andrew Cashner, who was traded from Baltimore to Boston, and Homer Bailey, who went from Kansas City to Oakland.

Smyly appears to be one of those marginal upgrades. But it won't hurt to have him. 

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