For the Philadelphia Phillies to compete in the NL East with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, the general presumption was that starting pitching would have to shoulder the burden.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels — arguably the best starting top three in MLB — would have to pitch at their best for the Phillies to contend. That became an even greater responsibility when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. failed to add an impact hitter to the team's everyday lineup.
But now that Halladay is on the disabled list with a shoulder injury (please pardon that pun in the first paragraph), where does that leave the Phillies' chances this season?
Halladay was placed on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation. But the fear is that this could be a longer-term injury for the right-hander, who will turn 36 years old next week. As my colleague Jaymes Langrehr detailed in an earlier post, Halladay has been demonstrating signs of concern for at least the past year.
Philadelphia's ace showed a dip in velocity during spring training last year, along with a lack of movement on his off-speed pitches. Yet Halladay and the Phillies insisted nothing was wrong.
An 11-8 record and 4.49 ERA in 2012 seemed to indicate that such worries weren't unwarranted. Halladay also missed six weeks with a strained lat muscle in the back of his right shoulder, limiting him to fewer than 30 starts for the first time in his past seven seasons.
Those same concerns carried over into this season, with Halladay giving up 11 runs, 21 hits and nine walks in 16 innings during spring training. Again, his velocity was an issue as he relied more on off-speed pitches to get batters out.
The Phillies did their best imitation of Kevin Bacon in Animal House. Remain calm! All is well! But then Halladay got rocked for 12 runs and 12 hits in just 7.1 innings during his first two starts.
Yet over his next three appearances, Halladay looked as if he may have figured something out. Whether or not he was still struggling with a shoulder injury was left to speculation. But the Phillies seemed to have their ace back. Halladay allowed four runs and eight hits in 21 innings, striking out 16 batters and walking five.
With Halladay pitching like that, perhaps the Phillies could get back into the NL East.
As of April 25, after he held the Pittsburgh Pirates to one hit over six innings, Philadelphia was seven games out of first place, holding fourth place in the division. Though it was still early in the season, the Phillies weren't looking like a contender. Opponents had outscored them by 23 runs, one of the worst run differentials in MLB.
Roughly two weeks later, has the Phillies' situation improved?
Halladay was battered badly in his two most recent starts, allowing a combined 17 runs and 13 hits in just six innings of work. Now he's on the DL and visiting the office of orthopedist Lewis Yocum, which doesn't bode well for a swift return to Philadelphia's starting rotation.
The Phillies have leapfrogged the New York Mets for third place in the NL East. But with a 15-18 record that has them five games behind the Braves, does this team really have a shot at contention? A five-game deficit in the first full week of May doesn't seem insurmountable.
Yet the Phillies have scored 119 runs, the fourth-lowest total in the National League. Their 149 runs allowed are the league's highest total. That -30 run differential is the NL's third-worst, behind only the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers. Those are not the numbers typically associated with a playoff team.
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have been healthy and productive, which is something else the Phillies needed to compete for a postseason bid. Howard is batting .272 with a .783 OPS, five home runs and 18 RBI. Utley has a .263 average and .798 OPS to go with six homers and 21 RBI. Michael Young has also shown a revived bat, hitting .333 with an .822 OPS. However, that hasn't been nearly enough to keep Philadelphia's offense afloat.
The Phillies are getting no production from their outfield.
Domonic Brown has six homers and 15 RBI, but is batting .250 with a .755 OPS. Ben Revere has a .212 average and .496 OPS, numbers that got him benched Monday night against the San Francisco Giants. Philadelphia's right fielders — a combination of John Mayberry, Laynce Nix and the recently activated Delmon Young — have combined for a .171 average and .555 OPS, worst in the NL at that position.
Upgrading the outfield was supposedly Amaro's priority during the offseason. Perhaps it was because the market surged past what the Phillies were willing to pay, but the team lost out on every player that could have made a difference to its lineup.
B.J. Upton went to the Braves. Later on, Justin Upton went to Atlanta as well. Angel Pagan re-signed with the Giants. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn signed with the Cleveland Indians. If Josh Hamilton was ever a realistic possibility, the Los Angeles Angels blew away those chances with a five-year, $125 million contract.
Even Revere was something of a fallback choice, the "other" center fielder on the Minnesota Twins' roster with Denard Span. Span went to the division rival Nationals, leaving Amaro to settle for Revere, though he filled a big need for Philadelphia.
With a lineup that struggles to score runs and a pitching staff that's had difficulty preventing runs, what chances do the Phillies really have this season? The team apparently feels that it can still contend, perhaps looking at the NL East standings. The front office and ownership likely doesn't want to raise the white flag for a Philadelphia fanbase that led MLB in attendance last year and ranks in the top 10 this season.
But other teams in baseball can see what's going on with the Phillies and are already coveting the opportunity to nab a star player if Amaro decides to sell at the July 31 trade deadline. ESPN's Jayson Stark reports that Utley is generating the most trade buzz right now, since he's in the final year of his contract.
However, Utley would almost certainly have to approve any deal. According to Baseball Prospectus, he can block a trade to 21 teams this season. He will also become a "10-and-5" man (10 years in the majors, five with the same team) in August, which would allow him to veto any deal. That might increase the Phillies' urgency to trade him before those rights kick in.
CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury also points to Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins as players that would attract interest around MLB at the trade deadline. While an outright sell-off likely won't happen, Amaro could trade away a couple of attractive pieces, as he did last year with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.
That doesn't mean the Phillies would go into rebuliding mode. Far from it.
If the team cleared some payroll — such as Lee's and/or Papelbon's contracts — from its budget, there's a bigger goal in mind. According to Salisbury, the Phillies want Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and have inquired multiple times regarding his availability.
Stanton and his right-handed bat would certainly be a great fit in the Phillies' batting order, hitting between Utley (if he stays) and Howard. he would also fill a major hole in right field, allowing Philadelphia to get by with Brown and Revere in the outfield's other two spots.
The 23-year-old slugger is also under team control through the 2016 season. Even if he earns significant raises over the next three years through the arbitration process, the Phillies would presumably have the money available to pay those salaries to Stanton.
That's assuming, of course, that Philadelphia doesn't work out a long-term contract extension with Stanton.
But would Stanton truly turn the Phillies' fortunes around at this point? Though he could be a significant building block for the team's future, trading away prospects and clearing big contracts off the payroll to acquire him might undercut the Phillies' ability to assemble a proper roster around that new star.
As strong as Stanton is, he wouldn't be able to pull the Phillies out of their current hole by himself. And that hole is looking deeper and darker each day.