Phillies winning spurts tempered by lessons of history

The Phillies have won eight of their last 12 games
The Philadelphia Phillies walked off the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night. The 4-3 victory in eleven innings gave the Fightin’ Phils their eighth win in the last dozen games.
Despite the hot stretch of winning baseball over these last two weeks, the Phillies remain in last place in the NL East Division standings.
The Phillies are 24 games behind the first place Washington Nationals. They sit 20.5 games out in the National League Wildcard race. The Phils are even 10.5 games behind the two teams tied for fourth in the division, the Braves and the New York Mets.
I’ve noticed a pattern with these little winning spurts by the Phillies in recent years. When they start winning, all is right in the world. Not only for the players and manager Pete Mackanin, but also fans and the media who follow the team on a regular basis.
When the Phillies are winning, social media explodes with platitudes for the current players, extolling their skills and feats. Talk begins of players in their mid-upper 20’s who will be part of the “winning future” core.
As someone who has always considered themselves a “glass half-full” personality, it pains me to add the “but” to this piece. It’s something that I learned a long time ago, an old saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

MR. KLENTAK, MEET MR. SANTAYANA

Many have heard the saying, or some variant of it, at some point in their lives. It comes from philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863-1952) and his 1905-06 “The Life of Reason” project.
The full quotation leading to that famed finish actually goes as follows: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The Phillies have indeed seen a great deal of change in recent years, all of it necessary. However, GM Matt Klentak and the club’s fan base cannot make the mistake of settling for what they are seeing in short, winning spurts. The change must continue, and it must strike at the heart of this current lineup.
Over the last three years, the Phillies have gone with a core lineup that features Maikel FrancoOdubel HerreraCameron RuppFreddy Galvis, and Cesar Hernandez.
None of these players is to blame for all of the losing. Each of these players has redeeming qualities as a ball player. Galvis can be sensational defensively. Franco has legitimate power. Rupp is a typical catching field general. Hernandez has speed and makes good contact. Herrera is the most talented, and perhaps conversely the most maddening.

LENGTHY LOSING FOLLOWS BRIEF WINNING

The problem with these players, as I have visited in the past, is that they are wildly inconsistent, both individually and as a unit. What it has led to over these last three years is a dysfunctional mix that cannot win consistently.
From April 15-27 this year, the Phillies won eight of ten, lifting their overall record to 11-9. They proceeded to lose 26 of their next 32 games. Prior to this recent win stretch, they had dropped seven of eight.
Last year they played hot for most of the first seven weeks of the season. On May 18, their 24-17 record left them just a half-game off the division lead. The Phils proceeded to drop 26 of their next 32 and never recovered.
That 2016 team would capture eight of 12 games between August 2-14. They went just 15-28 the rest of the season, losing eight of their final 10 games.
In 2015, the first season that the current position player core spent together, there was a six-game win streak in mid-May. The team then dropped 24 of their next 30 contests.
After the 2015 MLB All-Star break, the Phillies came out firing. The club won the first four straight, nine of 10, and 15 of 20 games. It made for a fun stretch of baseball from mid-July through early August.
By the end of August and into September, however, they found themselves dropped 20 of 26 games en route to a last place finish. That season finally saw the end of the Ruben Amaro era, after manager Ryne Sandberg quit on the club less than halfway through the campaign.

MORE CHANGE NEEDED TO CHANGE HISTORY

The point here is to remind fans that this will not last. This current Phillies lineup is simply not constructed to win over months of play. They are simply not that good, at least not consistently. The likelihood is that a fairly long stretch of losing is coming, and probably beginning soon.
I want the Phillies to win. I root for them now, as I have since discovering the existence of the team and the game all the way back in 1971 at age nine. But these 46 years of watching Phillies baseball, and especially these last three years, have taught me valuable lessons.
There has been some recent change. Over the last few days, Klentak has done what was expected as the MLB trade deadline approaches. He dealt away veterans Jeremy Hellickson, Pat Neshek, and Howie Kendrick. That will hopefully open some playing time opportunities for youngsters who might truly become pieces of the club’s long term future.
But those recent deals are not enough. The Phillies will not win again on a consistent, season-long basis until they turn the page from this current position player core group. Until those wholesale changes happen, enjoy the wins when they come, but realize the good times are sure to end soon. That is the lesson of recent Phillies history.

Mike Foltynewicz becomes reliable starter for Braves

Foltynewicz has been the Braves best starter in 2017
In January of 2015, the Atlanta Braves dealt emerging power-hitting catcher Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros along with relief prospect James Hoyt.
In return, Atlanta received a package led by a former Astros first round draft pick. Pitcher Mike Foltynewicz had been Houston’s selection at 19th overall in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft.
Foltynewicz would make his Braves debut on May 1, and would remain a member of the Atlanta starting rotation for most of the summer. However, in mid-August he began to feel sick, and was suffering from chest pain.
It took weeks, but he was finally diagnosed with costochondritis, an inflammation in the cartilage connecting the ribs to the sternum. The condition developed into pneumonia.
He was then further diagnosed with blood clots in the ribs after his arm suddenly swelled overnight. Diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, he was required to undergo a rib removal.
Beginning the 2016 campaign back with AAA Gwinnett, he once again got the call to the big leagues as May began. But in early June, physical issues arose once again. Foltynewicz suffered from a bone spur on his elbow. He would miss nearly the entire month due to that injury.

EMERGENCE AS RELIABLE STARTER

Returning to the Braves on June 29, Foltynewicz would take a regular turn in the Atlanta rotation for the remainder of the 2016 season. Over his final 15 starts, he went 7-3 with a 4.55 ERA and an 81/25 K:BB ratio over 87 innings.
This season, Foltynewicz has appeared in 20 games for Atlanta, 19 of them starts. He has a 9-5 record with a 3.82 ERA and 1.383 WHIP, with a 101/39 K:BB ratio.
Over his last 10 starts, Foltynewicz has begun to up his game. The 6’4″, 220 pound, 25-year old right-hander has gone 6-0 in those 10 outings. He has a 3.30 ERA in that span, allowing just 56 hits over 60 innings with a 60/24 K:BB mark. Seven of those performances have been of the Quality Start variety.
On June 30 against the Oakland A’s, Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before losing it to a leadoff home run by Matt Olson on a 3-2 pitch.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER WHILE HAVING FUN

Braves manager Brian Snitker was recently quoted by David O’Brien with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding the pitcher.
“I really feel like Folty’s starting to trust himself and believe in himself,” Snitker said. “He’s pitching with some confidence and conviction and belief that he can withstand some adversity of the course of a game now. More just kind of trusting his stuff and believing in himself is the big thing.”
As for the pitcher himself, O’Brien quotes that he is just happy to be a part of that rotation on a regular basis, and having fun.
“I think I’m putting together a lot of good quality starts back to back, giving the team a good chance to win, having a little winning streak when I’m out there. So it’s all fun, and that was the plan coming out of spring training, keep pushing and keep attacking hitters. Keep going out there and pitching the way I am.”
In Foltynewicz, the Braves appear to have found a reliable long-term starting pitcher. Since he cannot become a free agent until after the 2022 season, Atlanta could have him as a part of their mix for at least the next five years.

Cincinnati Reds collapse could cost manager his job

Reds skipper Bryan Price will find his job on the line 
The 2017 Major League Baseball season began well for the Cincinnati Reds. The club got off to a hot start, winning seven of their first nine games.
As late as May 17, the Reds were still in first place in the National League Central Division standings. At that point, the club had a 17-14 record.
Beginning on April 30, the club would win nine of 11 games to reach a high-water mark on the season of four games over the .500 mark.
After a month-long period of struggles, the Reds record had fallen into the red. But then Cincinnati went on a four-game winning streak in early June. The quick spurt got the club back within a game of the break-even mark.
It all began to go wrong for the Reds when they left for a west coast swing out to Los Angeles and San Diego beginning on June 9. Scoring just 20 runs on the trip, Cincinnati lost all six games to the Dodgers and Padres.
That west coast shutout was the start of a nine-game losing streak. The Reds have never recovered. Since leaving for that trip, Cincy has collapsed with a 12-30 record.
The Reds are now in last place in the division, buried 13.5 games out. They’re even further back, 17 games, in the NL Wildcard race.
Cincinnati is tied for 18th in MLB in runs scored heading into Saturday action. The pitching staff is 24th in Batting Average Against. Those statistical positions have been on the decline, propped up by the performances of the first two months.

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE, OR KISS OF DEATH?

Just 10 days ago, C. Trent Rosecrans at Cincinnati.com spoke with Reds general manager Dick Williams. Rosecrans brought up the topic of Price’s contract, which has a club option for next season that has yet to be activated.
That contract, per Rosecrans, has “language that would prevent the decision from going down to the last week, like it did last year.” Williams telegraphed that the decision would not come down purely to wins and losses.
However, the losses have really piled up on Price’s watch. The ball club is nearly a full 100 games below the .500 mark with a 249-340 record in his four seasons at the helm.
If the losing continues at anything close to the pace of the last two months, the Reds will finish with 100 or more losses for the first time in 35 years.
“We’re not losing games in the dugout right now,” said Williams per Rosecrans. “The coaching staff has done a good job. We just need to make sure the talent continues to develop and those guys keep believing in themselves.”
Since Williams made those comments in what appeared to have been a vote of confidence in Price at the MLB All-Star break, the Reds have lost 13 of 15 games.

PRICE IS RIGHT, REDS LOSING EVERYWHERE

Their 7-4 defeat on Friday night at Marlins Park was the Reds seventh consecutive loss to the struggling Fish in Miami. Price was quoted by Fox Sports on the South Florida streak.
“You look at our winning percentage since the second half of 2014, and it hasn’t been very good. We haven’t won a lot of games anywhere. I don’t think this is any different than any other venue.”
Price is right. The Reds don’t win a lot of games anywhere. His last two teams finished in last place, and this one is headed towards that same finish in the standings.
The Reds may not be losing games in the dugout, as Williams claims, but they are absolutely losing them on the field at an alarming rate. If there isn’t some kind of dramatic turnaround in the next few weeks, it’s hard to see how Price’s contract option will be picked up.

MLB Spotlight Series: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers

NL Central lead at stake as Cubs visit Brewers
The most competitive division race in the 2017 MLB regular season thus far is taking place in the National League Central Division.
After appearing to sleepwalk through much of the first half, the defending champion Chicago Cubs are on top once again. However, three teams are within just 4.5 games of the lead.
This weekend, the Cubbies travel just about two hours up I-94 to Miller Park in Milwaukee. Waiting for them will be the NL Central’s second place team, the host Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers actually led the division for much of the season. The Brew Crew jumped into first place on May 17, and until this past Wednesday had spent just two days out of the top spot ever since.
The Cubs, meanwhile, were suffering from a serious World Series victory hangover. By the end of May they were two games under .500 and sitting in third place. As late as July 9, the Cubs were still those same two games below the break-even mark.
However, something clicked for Chicago coming out of the MLB All-Star Game break. The Cubs have won 11 of 13 games since taking those four days off. Conversely, Milwaukee has lost nine of their last 11 contests.
Headed into the weekend, the Cubs hold a 1.5 game lead on the second place Brewers in the division standings. That lead is three games in the loss column. There is no doubt that this series in front of their home crowd is of vital importance to manager Craig Counsell and his ball club.
Milwaukee needs to get back on track, and fast. This is a perfect opportunity to let the Cubs know that they intend to stay in the race for the long haul.
For the Cubs, it’s a chance to stay hot and begin to put Milwaukee further back in the rear view mirror. The champs are looking to make a statement: we’re back, and now we’re going to pull away.

PITCHING MATCH-UPS

The weekend starting pitching match-ups are scheduled as follows:
FRIDAY: Jose Quintana (6-8, 4.22 ERA) vs Brent Suter (1-1, 2.84 ERA)
SATURDAY: Kyle Hendricks (4-3, 3.95 ERA) vs Junior Guerra (1-4, 5.22 ERA)
SUNDAY: John Lackey (7-9, 4.97 ERA) vs Zach Davies (12-4, 4.45 ERA)
Quintana was a big trade acquisition two weeks ago from the AL’s crosstown Chicago White Sox. He has been fantastic in his first two Cubs starts, winning both. Suter began the year pitching out of the Brewers bullpen, but started July in the rotation. He has not allowed more than two earned runs since, and three of his four outings were of the Quality Start variety.
Last year’s third place finisher in the NL Cy Young Award vote, Hendricks is fresh off a seven-week stint on the Disabled List. He surrendered eight hits and lasted just 4.1 innings in his first start back earlier this week. Guerra was a pleasant surprise a year ago, emerging as a reliable starter at age 31 after bouncing around the minor leagues for a decade. But this season, MLB hitters appear to have caught up with him. He hasn’t reached the fifth inning in four of his last five starts.
The 38-year old Lackey is the senior member of the Cubs rotation. Now in his 15th big league season, the righty has just seven Quality Starts among his 19 turns so far this year. Davies is a 24-year old who is emerging as a reliable mid-rotation option. He got banged around by the Cubs back in April, but then beat them with a solid effort earlier this month at Wrigley Field.

STATISTICAL COMPARISONS

Milwaukee is seventh and Chicago just 14th in baseball in runs scored this season. However, the Cubs recent hot streak has been spurred largely by an offensive awakening. The North Siders have scored seven, nine, and 10 runs once each and put eight runs on the board three times since the All-Star break. They are averaging exactly six runs per game in that time.
The Brewers hold a slight edge in OPS at .768-.763 for the season. On the basepaths, however, it’s no contest. Milwaukee has stolen 87 bases, tops in all of Major League Baseball. The Cubs are way down at 25th with just 37 bags swiped.
On the mound, the Cubs hold the edge. The Chicago staff has a .237 Batting Average Against, fourth in the game. Milwaukee’s staff at .259 ranks just 18th in the game. In both WHIP (1.27-1.38) and K/BB ratio (2.53-2.35) the Cubs staff holds the edge.
The Cubs are coming off a four game home-and-home with the Chisox in which they won the final three games to capture the 2017 “Crosstown Cup” trophy. They have won five of the nine games against the Brewers so far this season.


This are two teams who have begun heading in opposite directions. The Cubs are on the rise, the Brewers are falling. It’s something that many believed was inevitable. Now it’s up to the Brewers to answer the Cubs challenge. After this, the two teams won’t meet again until the second week in September.

Phillies rebuild reaches difficult transition phase

Hernandez, Herrera, Galvis part of recent losing core
For a fifth consecutive year, the Philadelphia Phillies are in the midst of a miserable season.

The glorious winning decade of success from 2001-2011 reclaimed old fans and captivated a new generation of younger fans. All of that glory and excitement is now, sadly, a faded memory.

The collapse of that Phillies era came shockingly fast. Age, injuries, and poor decisions by the previous management regime conspired to erase any hope of a seemless transition into another generation of similar success.
For a couple of years, the Phillies went through a necessary transformation. There were purges everywhere, from the roster to the front office, even up to control of the ownership group.
The new regime took over where the old had ended, completing the job of turning the page from that faded former glory. As new prospects were brought in via trade and the MLB Amateur Draft, the farm system gradually regained respect from the wider baseball industry.
During the transitional period, a group of players has been taking the field for a few years now as the core of the Phillies lineup. That core group has not experienced very much success.

THE LOSING CORE

Those players include catcher Cameron Rupp, who turns 29 years old in two months. Rupp has been the starter behind the plate for most of the last two and a half seasons.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez and shortstop Freddy Galvis, both 27 years old now, are each in their third season as the starting Keystone combo.
Center fielder Odubel Herrera is 25 years of age. ‘El Torito’ is in his third starting season as well. Third baseman Maikel Franco, who turns 25 a month from now, is now in his third season as the primary starter at the hot corner.
For the vast majority of the last three seasons, that core of Rupp, Hernandez, Galvis, Herrera, and Franco have been written into the Phillies starting lineup.
In 2015 they finished 63-99, the worst record in Major League Baseball. They barely avoiding becoming the first Phillies team in more than a half-century to lose 100 or more games.
In 2016 they “improved” to 71-91, and thus finished ahead of seven of MLB’s other 29 teams. There was hope that maybe, just maybe, they were taking a step forward. Alas, it was not to be.
Thus far in 2017 the Phillies are 35-64, which is back to being the worst record in all of baseball. There has been no progress shown down at Citizens Bank Park. Not by the team as a whole, and not by this core group of players who remain regulars in the starting lineup.

PHILLIES NEED SOLUTIONS, NOT EXCUSES

I constantly read and hear writers and broadcasters extolling the virtues of one or the other of these players. Those platitudes usually come during some hot streak of play.
What I rarely, if ever, see addressed by those same people watching this mess is the totality of their efforts.

The fact is that with this Phillies core, the proof is in the pudding. They have been the core now into this third season. The team is a combined 85 games below the .500 mark in that time.

You can nitpick all you want and say that it isn’t all their fault. Yes, a couple have been injured for stretches and missed some of that time. Yes, the team has been transitioning on the mound as well. We all know that pitching is at least half of the puzzle.
But the fact is that a large share of the blame for the Phillies consistently poor play these last three years rests with the lineup core. They simply aren’t very good big league ballplayers.
Let’s look at their career slash lines. Rupp carries a .239/.302/.409 line. Hernandez is at .281/.349/.368, Galvis has a .243/.284/.378 line. Herrera slashes .286/.344/.424, and Franco has a .249/.304/.427 line.
That’s five of your eight starting position players doing nothing special. That comes to thousands of plate appearances over three years accomplishing little on a consistent basis.

PROSPECTS ARE NEARLY READY FOR THEIR SHOT

Some of the Phillies most exciting prospects are nearly ready to advance from the minor leagues. By no later than spring training of 2018, second baseman Scott Kingery and shortstop J.P. Crawford will be ready to begin trying to approximate what Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins did in the middle of the Phillies infield a decade earlier.
First baseman Rhys Hoskins is ready right now for his shot. But the Phillies keep giving at-bats to Tommy Joseph, who is slashing .253/.312/.453 for the season, and just .233/.299/.457 since mid-June.
I have real concerns that the Phillies brain trust does not recognize that their recent/current core players are simply a dysfunctional group of placeholders.

Maybe worse, perhaps management recognizes it, but has invested so much in publicizing these players that they have already written off the 2017 season completely, and are willing to just let it die.

TIME TO TURN THE PAGE

Rupp should be traded right now. Hernandez and Galvis need to be dealt away by early next season at the latest. Me? I’d be floating Herrera’s name right now. Franco is the only one of the current core who I would keep around and factor into my 2018 plans.
I don’t think that the Phillies will suddenly become a winning team if the prospects are called up. I don’t even think that 2018 will be a winning season if the kids take over for the current core.
What is certain is that Phillies baseball will be far more exciting when fans believe they are watching the future develop in front of them. Nick Williams is demonstrating the possibilities. But right now, he is a lone bright light.
Williams is also a good example of the problem. He had been hitting for weeks, and his overall game had obviously improved right from the start of the AAA season. Yet he only got the call due to injuries at the big league level.
Will Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail be able to move on from this losing core by will, and not simply wait for circumstance?

Due they have the stomach to look beyond the positives that the current core players have in certain areas of their games, and give the full-time opportunities needed by the younger, higher upside kids?

The next phase of the Phillies rebuilding program may be the hardest, coming in the closing weeks of this season and into next spring.

Moving on from core players who have been here, holding down the fort for 2-3-4 difficult, losing years. But it is a necessary phase, one that it is the management team’s job to see through successfully.