The pennant race begins right now.
For the first time since 2011, the Phillies will emerge from the all-star break with a legitimate chance to reach the postseason. How legitimate? Consider this: With a 53-42 record through 95 games, they can go only 34-33 the rest of the way and still finish with 87 wins, the same total as three of the last four National League wild-card teams.
The Phillies are in first place in the NL East, a half-game ahead of the Atlanta Braves and 5 1/2 in front of the heavily favored Washington Nationals. But can they stay there? As the season resumes Friday night at Citizens Bank Park against the San Diego Padres, let's look at five big questions facing the Phillies over the next few weeks.
With Manny Machado headed for Hollywood, offense remains the Phillies' top priority leading to the July 31 trade deadline. In particular, they seek more production at shortstop and right field, where they rank 13th and 14th, respectively, in the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage.
Here's the problem: The biggest available bats — Kansas City's Mike Moustakas and Texas' Adrian Beltre — are third basemen. Adding one would mean subtracting Maikel Franco, a move that wouldn't necessarily improve the Phillies offense despite Franco's maddening inconsistency.
Minnesota's Eduardo Escobar and the Mets' Adrubal Cabrera are having good years at the plate and have played shortstop in the past. But multiple talent evaluators recently expressed doubt that either is still viable at shortstop. Escobar is mostly a third baseman now, while Cabrera has played primarily second.
Keep this name in mind: Detroit's Nicholas Castellanos.
The 26-year-old has moved from third base to right field and leads the Tigers with 15 home runs and an .877 OPS. Bringing in Castellanos would give the bench a boost, too, by pushing Nick Williams back to a reserve role. And unlike Moustakas, Beltre, Escobar and Cabrera, Castellanos is under club control next year before being eligible for free agency after the 2019 season.
Pitching — both the rotation and the bullpen — has been a strength. The Phillies rank fourth in the NL in starters' ERA (3.70) and eighth in relievers' ERA (4.08). Standing pat in these areas wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
But if the Phillies find the Machado alternatives to be underwhelming, they could make a solid pitching staff even better by adding a veteran starter or another late-inning reliever.
The Phillies scouted Padres lefty reliever Brad Hand before he got traded to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday. They also have discussed Baltimore Orioles lefty Zach Britton and Mets closer Jeurys Familia. Britton has ties to many of the same Phillies officials (president Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak, director of player development Joe Jordan) as Machado. After signing his first pro contract, Britton even got a lift to the airport from then-Orioles staffer Ned Rice, now the Phillies' assistant general manager.
Former Phillies lefties Cole Hamels (Texas Rangers) and J.A. Happ (Toronto Blue Jays) are notable names on the starter market. The Blue Jays, who have made Happ available to contenders, scouted the Phils' farm system this week.
But if the Phillies acquire a starter, who would move out of the rotation? Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta, who will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively, must continue to cement their spots.
Cesar Hernandez, Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, and Carlos Santana are fixtures in the Phillies lineup. When Franco hits the way he has lately (25 for 71, six doubles, four homers, 1.016 OPS over the last 22 games), he puts himself into that category.
The problem, of course, is that the 25-year-old third baseman tends to disappear for long stretches.
Hitting coach John Mallee has worked with Franco on hitting the ball in the air more often and reaching base with greater consistency. Maybe Franco is finally getting the message. Or perhaps another cold spell is lurking. Franco's ability to remain productive could influence the Phillies' aggressiveness in shopping for another hitter.
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Even if Jake Arrieta hadn't railed against the lack of effectiveness of the Phillies shifts after a June start, the club's defensive deficiencies would be evident by now. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Phils rank last in the league with minus-74 defensive runs saved.
Manager Gabe Kapler has made a vigorous defense (no pun intended) of rookie Scott Kingery's adjustment to shortstop. But while the Machado trade has removed the only heavy-hitting shortstop from the market, defensive whizzes such as Jose Iglesias (Tigers) and Adeiny Hechavarria (Tampa Bay Rays) remain.
During the all-star break, ace Aaron Nola said he knew the Phillies were serious about contending this season when they signed Santana in December and Arrieta in spring training.
"I think the biggest part for our team was to bring those guys in and kind of follow their lead," Nola said.
Santana reached the playoffs in each of the last two seasons with the Indians, who got to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. Arrieta started that game for the Chicago Cubs, one of nine postseason starts he has made over the last three years.
As the Phillies play meaningful games in August and September, Santana and Arrieta will be the ones to show them the way.