Although the 2006 season is not yet half-over, Phillies GM Pat Gillick can't afford to be unrealistic about his teams' chances of making the playoffs this season. Nothing short of a miracle will derail the 42-25 Mets, who own the best record in the National League thanks to playing in the non-competitive NL Least. If the Mets stumble badly and play just .500 the rest of the way, they will finish with 90 wins, more than the Phillies have managed since 1993.
For the Phillies to match that record, they will have to go 56-37, a winning percentage of .602. Only the runaway Mets and Cardinals have managed to play at that pace so far this season in the NL. Nearly everything has to go right for a team to play at a .600 clip for over half a season. At the moment the Phillies look far from ready to dominate the remainder of their schedule.
To expect such an extreme reversal of fortune is feverish fantasy, especially after the Mets swept the Phillies so handily last week. The Phillies are closer to last place than first place in the NL East and shouldn't get their hopes up about catching the Mets.
What about the Wild Card? Sure the Phillies could pull a 180 and make the playoffs as the Wild Card - look at last season's Astros. But wait a minute. The Phillies won't get to play against themselves, will they? The Astros squeaked into the Wild Card by one game last year thanks to a 6-0 record against the Phillies. Maybe the Astros will return the favor and go 0-6 against the Phillies in their six September contests. I'm sure Roger Clemens won't have a problem with that.
Well, one can always dream, but the Phillies need to wake up and smell the coffee. Not only are they buried in the NL East, they are quickly becoming a long shot in the Wild Card race. At the moment the Flopin' Phils are tied for ninth and looking up at six other teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that has yet to finish over .500 since re-joining the NL in 1998.
The next few weeks represent a definite tipping point for the season, and for several Phillies, a tipping point for their careers. No doubt Pat Gillick is paying attention to who plays with urgency and who mails it in.
How a team handles adversity says as much about them as anything else. While manager Charlie Manuel tries to stay positive and convince his boys that anything can happen in the NL East, one wonders whether open skepticism and a more passionate challenge to their pride might be more effective.
For the moment, the punch-drunk Phillies are on the ropes and seem to lack a sense of urgency. Even in Sunday's victory they once again lacked focus on defense and running the bases. Avoiding a sweep against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays behind a solid effort by starting pitcher Ryan Madson was a good sign, but at this point, with the starting rotation in disarray, Madson is playing as much for next year as he is for this year.
Madson needs to find a groove in the second half or risk being banished to the bullpen. If Madson tanks the finish, it could be years before he gets another chance to start again. On the other hand, a strong finish could win him a starting spot with the Phillies in 2007 or even land him on another team in the thick of a pennant race this year.
Guys like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu are having decent seasons but decent hasn't been good enough and it seems unlikely that the Phillies will hold on to both of them with Shane Victorino and David Dellucci waiting in the wings. The Phillies have a glut of outfielders and surely, another team will pay a premium for their services in the heat of a pennant race.
Guys like Ryan Howard need to show a dedicated effort to improve on defense or risk earning the reputation that he should be traded to the American League where his shoddy fielding won't be a liability as a DH. It can take years to shake a reputation like that and come contract time it is never a good thing to halve the number of teams willing to bid for your services. This is the National League. Defense matters.
Guys like Brett Myers and Jon Lieber have to show they can be an ace or risk watching a newcomer take the job. For Myers in particular, the time is now to earn the job, especially while Lieber lingers on the DL. Whether the Phillies make the postseason or not, it is important for Myers to seize the day so that any pitching acquisition by Gillick will have the advantage of arriving without the pressure of being the titular ace. If Myers can't rise to the occasion soon, he might never have the honor of becoming a team's top gun. Meanwhile, Lieber has become a giant question mark.
A handful of Phillies veterans don't have many more seasons left in them and their odds of tasting glory are running short. Many players with long careers have retired without ever winning a championship; especially if they played for the Phillies or the Cubs.
If the Phillies don't stage a miracle comeback, guys like Rheal Cormier and Arthur Rhodes have to finish strong and hope a playoff team deals for them down the stretch. This time next year they might not be in such high demand. This time two years from now they might not be in baseball at all.
The clock is ticking for the 2006 Phillies and it will be interesting to see what Gillick does as the season goes on. Can skipper Charlie Manuel save his job? Can he snap the Phillies out of their summer funk and lead a serious playoff run? Or will Gillick be forced to overhaul the team come fall and hire a new manager to boot.
The answer may come as soon as July. This team is dangerously close to passing the point of no return. Who will rise to the occasion and show that he belongs in a pennant race? Who will fight the good fight to the bitter end? Who are the contenders among the pretenders?
Pat Gillick wants to know.