All that stands between the Phillies and their worst record since the end of World War II is the Atlanta Braves. Take away the Phillies' 12 wins in 14 games against Atlanta and they are 37-81 this season, which translates to a .314 winning percentage.
Six Phillies teams – more than twice as many as any other franchise in major-league history – have played to a worse winning percentage than that, but the last Phillies team to sink that low was the 1945 team that went 46-108.
These Phillies are going to avoid the dubious distinction of being one of the worst teams ever only because of the Braves, who got a reprieve from their season-long beatings from the worst team in baseball when Tuesday night's game at Citizens Bank Park was postponed by rain. The teams will play twice Wednesday with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m.
It is interesting that Atlanta is the one team the Phillies have been able to beat this season because it's entirely possible that it is the team they are going to have to beat in the not-too-distant future. Like the Phillies, the Braves openly admit they are in the midst of a rebuilding project. Both teams have spent the last few seasons trying to stock their farm systems through the draft, international signings and trades.
Even though the Phillies have had their way with the Braves – they have outscored Atlanta 66-48 and held them to three runs or fewer in 11 of the 14 games – it would be foolish to think that what is happening now will continue in the future. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, in fact, had no real explanation for his team's dominance over a club that has otherwise been five games under .500 this season.
"We just seem to step up and play our best games against them for whatever reason," Mackanin said. "It happens sometimes and I don't have an answer."
You could have a nice debate about which team is ahead of the other in the rebuilding process. The Braves, even with veterans Brandon Phillips, Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers and R.A. Dickey, were far from being a playoff contender this year. Atlanta's stock is in the minor leagues and Baseball America ranked the Braves' farm system the best in baseball before the start of this season.
The Braves had nine players ranked in Baseball America's top 100 midseason report. By comparison, the Phillies have seven, which was tied with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox for the second most. The Braves, however, had six players listed in the top 42 while the Phillies' top-ranked minor-leaguer was center fielder Mickey Moniak, who checked in at 46 and will likely drop below that after a difficult first full professional season at single-A Lakewood.
The Phillies' players who spent time at triple-A Lehigh Valley this season understand exactly how good the Braves' future could look. Atlanta's top prospect is 19-year-old Ronald Acuna, a Venezuelan-born outfielder who has climbed from the single-A Florida State League all the way to the triple-A International League this season while hitting .325 with 20 home runs and 42 stolen bases. He could be in the Braves' opening-day lineup next season.
Phillies disabled pitcher Zach Eflin faced Acuna this season at triple-A and came away impressed.
"Oh, he's going to be a special player," Eflin said. "He's very aggressive and does a lot of first-pitch swinging, but he has everything you could want in a player."
The Phillies, of course, have their own reasons to be excited, starting with the rise of Rhys Hoskins, but certainly not ending there. At this point, it appears as if the Phillies might have more major-league-ready talent than the Braves, but Atlanta's top prospects could end up having a higher ceiling.
Inevitably, it could all come down to which team is better at developing its pitchers. The two teams will go into Wednesday's doubleheader ranked 12th and 13th in the National League in team ERA. The Phillies are looking for someone to stand up behind Aaron Nola in their starting rotation and the Braves have been unpleasantly surprised by ace Julio Teheran's step in the wrong direction this season.
Mackanin does not really care how long it takes for the Braves to rebuild and he's not interested in comparing them to the Phillies. He just wants the Phillies' rebuilding job to be over as soon as possible.
"I don't want to take any lumps," Mackanin said. "I'm tired of taking lumps. It's not fun. It's hard every day and you keep looking for positives and you're looking for signs we can improve over next year and who to eliminate and who we can hold on to. For 162 games, I don't find any solace in the idea that we are rebuilding."