Manny Machado

Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Are you ready for a pennant race, Phillies fans?

Of course, you are.

It has been too long.

The Phillies get back to work Friday night and for the first time since 2011 find themselves in legitimate position to make a run at a postseason berth. They lead the National League East by a half-game over the Atlanta Braves and 5½ over the Washington Nationals.

As the players return to town for a weekend series against the San Diego Padres, let’s look ahead at a few of the important storylines that will unfold as the pennant race begins.

The Manny hangover

Fans are disappointed that the team did not land slugging infielder Manny Machado in a trade. The front office has to be disappointed. But the disappointment cannot seep into the clubhouse. This mostly young Phillies team has displayed resilience and toughness all season and that must continue as the intensity of the games increases.

Machado is still a great long-term fit for this team at shortstop for a while, then over to third base and ultimately at first base as he finishes a long contract. The Phillies had two windows to get him. One has closed. But one remains open as Machado will test the free-agent market in the offseason. The Phils were reluctant to empty their prospect vault for him, but you know they will write a big check this winter.

Machado might end up loving Los Angeles and look to stay there. But, for now, he looks like just a short-term fit with the Dodgers, who lost shortstop Corey Seager to injury and are desperate to win a World Series with a ripe core. Machado is from Miami. He has told friends that he wants to play on the East Coast with a team that has spring training in Florida. He has “a thing” for the Yankees so they will be a team to watch. But the Phillies fill a lot of his criteria, too, and winning the division, or at least making the postseason, will help make Philadelphia attractive to Machado. The money will be huge wherever the guy goes. He wants to win and though he’s focused on winning with the Dodgers, he’s watching what happens the rest of season in other potential destinations.

What's plan B?

In pursuing Machado, the Phillies were trying to upgrade their offense. Yes, the team sees pitches, grinds out at-bats and walks, but the overall offense is below average. The team batting average is just .236 and the slugging percentage .390, both in the bottom third in the majors. The lack of offense hurt the Phils on their recent 11-game road trip. They surely could have finished better than 6-5 if they hadn’t averaged under three runs over the final 10 games and been shut out twice.

Improving the offense is a must. Shortstop might be the spot to do it as the pursuit of Machado confirmed. Minnesota’s Eduardo Escobar has been mentioned as a trade target and that would make sense. Landing a shortstop could improve the bench as Scott Kingery could be used in the super-utility role that was envisioned for him at the start of the season.

Message to Maikel

Maikel Franco sat. He was dropped to eighth in the batting order and that can be humiliating for a player no matter how much importance is placed on the spot in a carefully constructed lineup.

Whether the message was intentional or not, Franco seems to have gotten it. He is in the midst of his most productive stretch of the season, hitting .352 with a 1.106 OPS in 22 games since sitting out on June 22 in favor of utility man Jesmuel Valentin. Now, the possibility exists that Franco has, at least for now, played himself out of trade-bait status. If he continues to produce, he could be better than any of the third basemen on the trade market that are viewed as upgrades.

It’s still difficult to see Franco being part of this front office’s long-term plan, but in the short term he might be the best option.

Other ways to improve

Unable to improve the offense with the addition of Machado, the Phils could look for an overall upgrade by improving their run prevention. Bullpen is clearly an area the team would like to address with the addition of a top arm. The team pursued Zach Britton, the Orioles’ lefty closer, in a Machado package and will stay on him. Brad Hand was on the Phils’ radar before he was dealt to Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez, another lefty, and Mets closer Jeurys Familia could also help shorten games.

Yet another way to help the bullpen would be to acquire Toronto’s J.A. Happ in a trade. That could conceivably turn Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta into a power-armed bullpen piece.

The importance of Jake

With an average age of 26 years and 7 months, the Phillies are the youngest team in the majors. They have arrived in a pennant race a year before most expected, but that does not mitigate the need to capitalize on that unexpected position. All of this makes it imperative that Jake Arrieta continue to produce quality starts. He has allowed just four earned runs over 19 innings in his last three starts and the Phils have won all three.

Arrieta is 32. He has pitched in pennant races and won a World Series and a Cy Young Award. Aaron Nola has emerged as the ace of the Phillies’ staff, but Arrieta’s experience and presence will be vital in the second half. Pennant races have a different intensity that much of this team has never felt. Arrieta’s been-there-done-that experience will be valuable. Carlos Santana’s, too.

From the day he arrived, Arrieta has said he wants to lead and is comfortable doing that. Fittingly, he gets the ball Friday night and the game will be a tone-setter.

Awards race

The Phillies will give Nola a few extra days of rest coming out of the All-Star break — he won’t face the Padres this weekend — and that is smart given his importance to the team’s postseason chances. When he was drafted No. 7 overall out of LSU in 2014, Nola was projected to be a quick-riser who could eventually be a quality mid-rotation starter. He has become so much more and has a legitimate chance to become the Phillies’ first Cy Young Award winner since Roy Halladay in 2010. With 2½ months to go, Nola is right there in the conversation with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, who has won the last two NL Cy Young Awards.

Nola is tied for the NL lead with 12 wins and is second in ERA (2.30), innings (129), quality starts (16) and pitchers WAR (5.9). He has allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings (0.42). He is third in opponent batting average (.199) and WHIP (0.98) and fourth in strikeouts (131).

Seranthony Dominguez, Gabe Kapler’s favorite bullpen kill shot, is on his way to garnering a serious look for NL Rookie of the Year, and Kapler himself is in position to get votes for NL Manager of the Year. The Phils won just 66 games last season. They are on pace for 90 under the first-year manager.

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Orioles trade Manny Machado to Dodgers; here's what it means for Phillies

Orioles trade Manny Machado to Dodgers; here's what it means for Phillies

Updated: 10 p.m.

No Manny Machado for the Phillies ... this time.

The Dodgers beat the Phillies' offer — at least in the eyes of the Orioles, which is all that matters. L.A. on Wednesday traded top prospect Yusniel Diaz, Dean Kremer, Zach Pop, Rylan Bannon and Breyvic Valera to Baltimore for Machado, a free agent at season's end.

Diaz is a 21-year-old right-handed outfielder with power and plate selection the Dodgers signed out of Cuba for $15.5 million in 2015. 

The Phillies went after the former Orioles superstar aggressively and were willing to part with well-regarded prospects including right-hander Adonis Medina, but in the end, the win-now Dodgers were more willing to overpay for the best available player.

This does not, however, close the book on Machado eventually signing a long-term contract with the Phillies. Corey Seager is the Dodgers' franchise shortstop. He's out for the season with an elbow injury, which is why L.A. made this move. It makes sense for the Dodgers to overpay, it makes sense for them to go all-in given their sky-high payroll, with where they are in their window of contention and with how last October went.

We know that Machado wants to play shortstop. It's a big deal to him and it's where he feels most comfortable. He said this week in D.C. that money isn't the only factor for him this winter, that happiness is most important. If he gets similar offers and one of the teams is willing to let him play shortstop, that could make all the difference.

The Phillies will still pursue Machado this winter. Right now, however, their focus will shift to other available players on the trade market. There are still some nice players out there who could boost the left side of the Phillies' infield, their rotation or bullpen.

Check out the Phils' other options here. The Blue Jays, Royals, and even the Orioles still match up well in a trade. 

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Phillies' trade options outside of Manny Machado

Phillies' trade options outside of Manny Machado

There's no player on the trade market who could replicate for the Phillies the impact Manny Machado would've made in August and September. 

There's definitely no player who would've invigorated the fan base as much.

But the Dodgers beat the Phillies' offer for the best available player, so the Phils will look to make other upgrades.

That could involve acquiring a solid, non-star player for the left side of the infield, in addition to pitching help.

If the Phils can't add huge run production to their lineup, their focus could shift to players who'd assist in run prevention.

Here are some names to keep in mind:

Royals super-utilityman Whit Merrifield

There has been reported interest from the Phillies in Merrifield, and the two organizations have already scouted each other because of the earlier interest in Mike Moustakas.

Merrifield can play all over the diamond — first, second, third and all three outfield spots. If Maikel Franco is going well, you could play him in the outfield. If Franco is slumping, he could play third base. But acquiring Merrifield would be just as much about the future as this year.

Merrifield doesn't have nearly the raw power of a Machado or a Moustakas, but he's a proven .290-.300 hitter with gap power, speed and defensive versatility. He led the AL in steals (34) last season and has the third-most doubles (30) in the majors this season.

He would not be cheap to acquire. Merrifield is making $570,000 this season and will be inexpensive again in 2019 before his arbitration years begin. All told, Merrifield is under club control through the end of 2022. These are his prime years and he'll be underpaid for them relative to his performance.

Merrifield is not the same caliber player as Machado, but the cost in trade could end up being similar because Machado is a two-month rental and Merrifield comes with 4½ years of team control. That is a major, major difference that might offset the gap in talent between the two players.

Twins 3B/SS/2B Eduardo Escobar

Another name connected to the Phillies. Escobar, 29, is having a career year, hitting .271/.327/.507 for the Twins with a majors-leading 35 doubles, 14 homers and 57 RBI. 

He's been one of the most clutch players in baseball this season, hitting .367 with a 1.112 OPS with runners in scoring position. That's not exactly a sustainable long-term skill, but it's worth mentioning.

The switch-hitting Escobar would be a rental. He's a free agent at season's end. Thus, it would be cheaper to acquire him than Merrifield.

Top-tier relievers

If the Phils don't get Machado, they could instead land a combination of a bat and a bullpen piece to try to match his overall value.

Zach Britton. Jeurys Familia. Raisel Iglesias. Felipe Vazquez.

Britton would be the cheapest option because he's a free agent after the season. We've known the Phillies have interest in him, and they could still pursue him even if Machado heads out West.

Britton's velocity has returned. He's back to throwing that power sinker in the mid-to-high 90s. His left-handedness would give the Phillies the matchup reliever they need, along with an experienced ninth-inning option that could allow Seranthony Dominguez to be used in a high-leverage role earlier in the game.

If you can't make a move that allows you to comfortably outscore your opponents moving forward, shortening the game is another way to remain in contention.

Baseball has changed. Having upper-echelon relievers in October is more meaningful now than ever before.

Blue Jays pieces

Jim Salisbury reported Monday that as the Phillies await an answer from the Orioles, they're also interested in Blue Jays lefty and former Phillie J.A. Happ.

Acquiring Happ would give the Phils a left-handed starting pitcher, which they haven't had since September 2016. That move could then allow them to move a Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta to the bullpen. Both are high-velocity, strikeout pitchers and both could thrive in a bullpen role. Their velocity and K-rates may even increase.

Imagine the Phillies being up 3-2 with two outs in the sixth inning and their starter at 105 pitches. A combination of Pat Neshek and Velasquez or Pivetta could get you all the way to the ninth. It would also give the Phillies a look at one of those young starting pitchers in that different role to gauge whether it makes the most sense for them long term.

Happ isn't the only Blue Jay to monitor, though. Yangervis Solarte has power and can play every infield position. He also has fair-market club options beyond this year — $5.5 million next season, $8 million the following season.

Curtis Granderson could help, too, as the missing power bat off the bench. Granderson was 0 for 13 heading into the All-Star break, but from June 7 to July 7, he hit .319/.373/.623 with six doubles and five homers.

No, he's not some big-time difference-maker in 2018, but Granderson is a markedly better and more dangerous hitter than the Phillies currently have on the bench.

It's not nearly as sexy of a trade, but acquiring a package of Happ, Granderson and Solarte could improve the Phillies in four different areas: rotation, bullpen, infield and bench.

Josh Donaldson, a much bigger name and more impactful power bat when healthy, is also worth keeping in the back of your mind. Donaldson has been out with a calf injury since Memorial Day but has resumed running and doing baseball activities and could be back by the end of the month. 

He's a free agent after the season as well. The contract status combined with all the time missed over the last two seasons will decrease the price tag. 

But if he's healthy and ready to go, this is a former MVP who hit .282/.377/.524 over the last five seasons with an average of 33 homers and 98 RBI.

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