Each Phillies player found a red shirt draped over his clubhouse chair five months ago when the team reported to Clearwater for the first day of spring training. A motto was born in white letters across the chest.
The Gabe Kapler Era was deemed from the very first day to be the era of boldness. This team, we would learn in the five months since, would not be just a bit different from the teams that slogged through the last six dismal seasons. This team — as evidenced by the adding of Scott Kingery to the opening-day roster, the signing of Jake Arrieta a month before the season, the quick promotion of Seranthony Dominguez, and, most important, the playing of inspired ball for a manager who bucks convention — has been, well, bold.
But there's one bold thing left to do this month: go get Manny Machado.
The Phillies (47-37) enter Friday's series opener at Pittsburgh with 19 more wins than they had after 84 games last season. They already have an elite starting pitcher in Aaron Nola, who has emerged over the last 12 months as one of the National League's best arms. They have a lineup led by Rhys Hoskins, one of baseball's toughest outs even with a fractured jaw.
The midway point of the season has passed, and the Phillies are still in the playoff hunt. There's no more waiting for the youngest team in baseball to fade away. The Phillies, perhaps a season before expected, are for real. And Machado — one of the best hitters in baseball — could be the piece that can make them contenders.
Machado will be a free agent in just five months. The Phillies will certainly be one of the top bidders this offseason for him. But it is just too tempting to not try to add him now. Machado was asked this week if he would sign an extension this month with the team that trades for him. He didn't say no. He actually said the question was "bold."
The hunt for Machado is reminiscent of the case of Carlos Beltran, who was quietly one of the best hitters in baseball in 2004 while playing for a losing team. Kansas City traded him that summer to Houston, and Beltran helped the Astros rally for the wild card. He then had a ridiculous postseason to lead the Astros to just one win shy of the World Series. Beltran signed with the Mets that winter, but the Phillies would have a much better shot at retaining Machado than the Astros ever did with Beltran.
There are quite a few reasons the Phillies are in position to acquire Machado at the trade deadline: Kapler has proved to be a pretty good manager after a rough start. Hoskins is starting to hit as he did last summer. Nola has been excellent. Dominguez has been used successfully as a non-traditional reliever. Arrieta and Carlos Santana have contributed as veterans.
And Zach Eflin — a pitcher who began the season in triple A almost as an afterthought — has emerged as a serious contender to be an all-star. Eflin has pitched so well over the last six weeks that the Phillies reportedly made him off-limits to the Orioles in trade negotiations for Machado. MLB Network reported Thursday that the Phillies would likely say no if Baltimore offered Machado for Eflin. That sounds foolish.
Eflin is a great story. He pitched with knee problems his entire career before having surgery two years ago. The Phillies stuck with him and helped him develop, and now he's finally at full strength and pitching like it. He has a powerful, swing-and-miss fastball and a nice change-up. Eflin is a new pitcher and could be blossoming into a front-line starter. But that cannot be enough to stop the Phillies from acquiring Machado, who would not only make the Phillies favorites to win the division but also give them a serious shot at reaching the World Series.
Any trade will be difficult, and it will require parting with players such as Eflin, whom the Phillies helped grow, for a player who could walk away at season's end. But that's the price you have to live with if you want to add an elite player such as Machado. It would be worth it if Machado delivers as Beltran did in Houston.