Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure didn’t exactly throw in the towel on his team's season on Tuesday night, but he waved it. It was the bottom of the eighth inning in Baltimore, and the Phillies, who had lost seven straight coming into Tuesday night’s game, were trailing 18–3. On the mound for Philadelphia was rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, who was well into his second inning of work having already thrown 38 pitches—more than starting pitcher Jerome Williams had tossed in the game. The bases were loaded with just one out, and McClure wanted to get someone else warm in the bullpen. The problem was that the bullpen phone, located just over the right shoulder of coach Rod Nichols, was resting in the phone box off the hook, and no one had noticed. It was the Phillies’ 2015 season in a single moment.
McClure got Nichols's attention with the towel and eventually got another pitcher to warm up, but not before going to the mound to give Francoeur a breather and getting cursed at by veteran second baseman Chase Utley. Francoeur ultimately got the last two outs on his own, and the Phillies lost, 19–3, allowing more runs and losing by a larger margin than any other team has this season.
That loss wasn’t just the Phillies eighth in a row; it was their 11th in their last dozen games and 20th in their last 24 games. Philadelphia not only owns the worst record in baseball (22–44, .333), but also the league's worst run differential (-111), one which blows away the next worst mark in the majors, the Rockies’ -72. Based on their Pythagorean record, the Phillies are being outscored at a rate that projects to 112 losses on the season, a depth reached just six times in major league history and just once since the infamous early days of the expansion New York Mets.
That might seem like a far-fetched projection, but as a team overdue for a rebuild that still hasn’t fully committed to stripping its roster, the Phillies' disastrous performance over the last month could finally convince them to sell off their few valuable veterans as we close in on the July 31 trade deadline. Having scored just 3.03 runs per game on the season, by far the fewest in the majors (the Mariners are 29th with 3.43), the Phillies may have nowhere to go but up on offense, even if they do manage to find a taker for Ryan Howard, whose .272 on-base percentage is completely undermining the return of his power this season, or concede to trading Utley, who’s 54 OPS+ is second-worst among qualified hitters this season, above only that of potential All-Star Omar Infante.
They have something to lose on the other side of the ball, however. The team’s three most valuable players according to Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement are all veteran pitchers expected to be on the trading block. Cole Hamels (2.8 bWAR) was the subject of heavy trade rumors over the winter and is expected to be one of the most sought-after names at this year’s deadline. Aaron Harang (2.0 bWAR) seems like a lock to be dealt. The 37-year-old—signed to a cheap, one-year deal—leads the majors with eight losses but has been a solidly above-average pitcher this year after his career-salvaging showing for the Braves in 2014. Meanwhile, closer Jonathan Papelbon (1.1 bWAR) has cranked his strikeout rate back up and continues to be a dominant closer who would be a boon to almost any bullpen in the majors.
There are contractual issues that seem likely to impact the market for all of those players save for Harang, but given the current state of the team, the Phillies would be best advised to get what they can for all three, as well as Utley and Howard and Ben Revere and Carlos Ruiz and any other veteran player they can possibly move. In Papelbon’s case, the catch is a $13 million option for 2016 that will vest when he reaches 48 games finished this season (giving him 100 for the last two years combined) and a no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to 17 teams. A no-trade clause is the big stumbling block for Hamels as well, as he can block deals to 20 teams, the exceptions being the Angels, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Padres, Rangers and Yankees. Of course, no-trade clauses are often just leverage for the player to get his new team to sweeten his current deal—say by picking up Hamels’ $20 million option for '19 (thereby increasing the amount left on his contract from $73.5 million over the next three years, including his '19 buyout, to $87.5 million over the next four).
Howard and Utley can also veto deals thanks to their 10–5 rights, which allow them to block a trade to any team. Utley also has $15 million options for each of the next three seasons that vest with 500 plate appearances in the season before. In Howard’s case, that ability to reject any deal may be moot, anyway, as he has been a sub-replacement-level player thus far this season and is owed another $35 million after this year even if his 2017 option is bought out.
There's not much else beyond Howard and Utley on offense, either. Setting aside rookie third baseman Maikel Franco—whose strong showing this month (.364/.397/.745 with five homers including one Tuesday night) has been by far the most encouraging aspect of the Phillies’ season—Philadelphia's most valuable everyday player on the season, per bWAR, has been light-hitting speedster Revere, another player who has been the subject of trade rumors.
So let’s say the Phillies can’t manage to move Howard and opt to keep Utley around for the sort of veteran leadership he showed in standing up for Francoeur on Tuesday night, but do manage to deal Hamels, Harang, Papelbon and Revere for some combination of prospects and salary relief. How bad might this Phillies team be come August? It’s frightening to think about it. As it stands, only three teams (the Rockies, Red Sox and Brewers) have allowed more runs per game than the Phillies’ 4.71. Take away their three best pitchers, and the Phillies could easily allow more runs and score fewer than any other team in baseball. If they don’t get any major league-ready replacements back in those trades, they could easily sink to 112 losses, if not more. The 1962 Mets’ record of 120 defeats isn’t likely in jeopardy, but it could be in the conversation.
Ruben Amaro Jr., who has guided the Phillies to this point since ascending to the general manager position after the team’s 2008 World Series win, claims “there is a plan in place,” based around prospects such as Franco, J.P. Crawford (whom I rated the sixth-best prospect still in the minors on Monday), Double A righty Aaron Nola and the top overall pick in next year’s draft that seems sure to result from this year’s dismal performance. But Phillies fans can be forgiven if they’re not convinced and lack confidence in Amaro’s ability to execute the rebuild—one he continues to appear to put off, due in part to his inability to unload the awful contracts he himself negotiated.
The Phillies are clearly hitting rock bottom this season, but a quick ascent from here is far from a given, and new leadership in the front office seems very much overdue. Perhaps McClure should wave his towel at ownership. It could be their phone has been off the hook, as well.