The first half of the 2018 season officially ended for the Phillies on June 30, when they played their 81st game against the Washington Nationals. The unofficial end of the first half for every team in Major League Baseball falls on Sunday with the All Star break to follow. The Phillies have four games left before the break, one of which is against the team with the worst record in the American League, and the other three against the team last in the National League. Currently sitting at 51-40, the team is just 15 wins shy of equaling its 2017 win total, something that will likely happen by early August. More importantly, that mark is identical to the division-leading Atlanta Braves as both teams sit deadlocked atop the NL East, 5.5 games ahead of the Washington Nationals, the clear preseason favorite.
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Nola will represent the Phillies in Tuesday's All-Star Game.
While new manager Gabe Kapler, has been scrutinized by most fans at almost any opportunity that presents itself, he’s doing a great job with the hand he was dealt. Many pundits expected the Phillies to improve in 2018 and win anywhere from 75 to 85 games. They’re currently on a 91-win pace. Teams like the Phillies can be difficult to peg in March because their nucleus is predominantly young players and young players, in baseball especially, rarely progress on a linear basis. But, free agent signings of Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana were indicators that the team was ready to at least take a step forward and they’ve taken several in the first half. Kapler’s analytical approach finally has the Phillies thinking like most teams operate in Major League Baseball in 2018 and so it comes as no surprise that the Phillies team on-base percentage is among the best in the National League.
Kapler’s influence has also been most relevant late in games with his bullpen management. Relief ace Seranthony Dominguez has been deployed in high-leverage situations since he arrived in the big leagues in May and has answered the bell. Victor Arano, another young arm in the bullpen, has been reliable in big spots in the late innings. Eight different relievers have recorded a save for the Phillies so far this season. The team leader in saves remains Hector Neris, who’s been in AAA for the last two weeks, which says a lot about the right way to use your relievers. Every game is different and different situations will present themselves so therefore a different combination of relievers is probably the best way to close games when you don’t have Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson to rely on. The Phillies are 19-8 in one-run games which is another indicator that the manager is pushing the right buttons late in games and getting the most out of a bullpen that was horrendous to start the year. Adding another left-handed arm to the bullpen should be the top priority for the Phillies with the non-waiver trade deadline looming at the end of July.
The lack of offense on a regular basis has been the most disappointing part of the first half for the Phillies, but there are some silver linings. Cesar Hernandez fits the bill of a prototypical leadoff hitter. Odubel Herrera has already reached his career high in home runs. Rhys Hoskins has put some early-season struggles behind him. Santana is third in the majors in walks. After ceding early playing time to Aaron Altherr in right field, Nick Williams slashed .293/.369/.586 in the month of May. While he wasn’t good in June, Williams is off to a great start in July slashing .387/.472/.645. Williams’ improved walk rate is particularly encouraging given his profile as a free swinger in the minors. Maikel Franco seems to be coming alive at the perfect time for his own tenure with the Phillies. The front office may still opt to move on from Franco in the coming weeks or in the offseason, but his current slash line of .274/.323/.467 rivals his 2015 slash line of .280/.343/.497 when he flirted with NL Rookie of the Year prior to hitting the disabled list.
Franco’s regression in 2016 and 2017, followed by what now looks like a decent first half in 2018, is yet another reminder that the growth of young players is hard to predict. Therefore, slow starts in the big leagues from Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford should not necessarily be cause for pause just yet. It’s also why a bullpen arm makes the most sense for the Phillies at the deadline. Is it possible they go big and acquire Manny Machado in hopes of re-signing him in the winter? Sure. But the recipe for success for this year’s team seems pretty evident. They’re going to win with starting pitching, relievers being used in situations when they’re most effective and timely hits here and there. Given this was not expected to be a year in which the team made the postseason, it’s hard to see them really abandoning the young position players everyone looked at as part of the long-term future. Many of those players require further evaluation, especially with an offseason on the horizon that has a boatload of upper echelon players slated to be free agents. A left-handed reliever and a utility guy who can be a helpful bat off the bench at the very least are probably the best bets when it comes to deadline moves. It’s hard to blame President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak for wanting to sink or swim with their young players, especially when the team might be good enough to make the playoffs anyway.