BOSTON — Long before the trade deadline arrived, two things about the Phillies had become evident. First, they are ahead of schedule in their rebuild back to playoff contention in the up-for-grabs National League. And second, their young players are the reason they have reached this point.
When team officials considered making roster upgrades before July 31, they identified star shortstop Manny Machado as the one truly available difference-maker for whom it was worth giving up present or future assets. But the Baltimore Orioles preferred the Los Angeles Dodgers' package and dealt Machado during the all-star break.
Upgrades were still possible, though, albeit on the margins of the roster. And with Tuesday's 4 p.m. deadline to make trades without waivers drawing near, the Phillies pulled off nearly concurrent low-risk deals that demonstrated creativity and assured that playing time won't be compromised for most of their young players.
The Phillies acquired two-time all-star catcher Wilson Ramos from the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named later or cash. Then they got lefty reliever Aaron Loup from the Toronto Blue Jays for triple-A righthander Jacob Waguespack. Ramos and Loup will join the Phillies this week, although Ramos will remain on the disabled list with a left hamstring injury that has sidelined him since July 14 and is expected to keep him out until mid- to late-August, possibly even Sept. 1, according to general manager Matt Klentak.
But when Ramos returns, he figures to provide more offense from the catching position. Loup gives the Phillies the lefty specialist they have lacked in their bullpen. And like Friday's trade for infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, they were acquired without the Phillies giving up a player off their big-league roster.
"What I am happy about in all three of those cases is that it will not dramatically affect the playing time of our young players," Klentak said. "Our young players are principally the reason we are where we are in the standings, and we want to continue to let those guys play."
In particular, the Phillies didn't want to take at-bats away from third baseman Maikel Franco and rightfielder Nick Williams, question marks early in the season but two of their hottest hitters for the last month. Franco entered Tuesday night's series finale at Fenway Park batting .336 with eight doubles, eight home runs and a .994 OPS in his last 32 games. Williams, meanwhile, was batting .311 with four doubles, seven homers and a .908 OPS in his last 39 games.
"I've said from the beginning that if our young, developing players take a small step forward, we can accomplish some big things here," manager Gabe Kapler said. "So, to be able to improve our ball club but to also let our young players develop is a huge win at the deadline."
But Klentak knew he couldn't stand pat, either. According to one NL talent evaluator, Ramos doesn't represent much of an upgrade over below-average defensive catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp. But Ramos has 14 home runs and an .834 OPS (.346 on-base percentage, .488 slugging), an improvement over the .709 combined mark of Alfaro and Knapp.
The Phillies will pick up most of the approximately $4 million left on Ramos' contract this season. Ramos, 30, is also eligible for free agency in the offseason, so while the return has not yet been determined, Klentak said it "won't be that heavy."
"We're uniquely positioned to take on a risk like this," Klentak said. "We had full support of the owners to make the financial investment in this area."
In pursuing bullpen help, the Phillies targeted high-strikeout relievers to help mitigate their overall poor defense, according to multiple league sources, and prioritized lefthanders. And although Loup had a 4.54 ERA in 35 2/3 innings this season for the Blue Jays, he has averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings and held lefthanded hitters to a .357 slugging percentage.
Klentak said the Phillies envision the 30-year-old facing almost exclusively lefthanded hitters, a potential asset late in the season when they face the lefty-heavy lineups of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.
"What he can do against lefthanders to neutralize them is important and it's something that we need," Klentak said. "We haven't really had it this year."
To make room for Ramos on the 40-man roster, the Phillies designated lefty reliever Zac Curtis for assignment. To open a spot for Loup, they designated infielder Trevor Plouffe.
And now, the question will be raised about whether the Phillies did enough to improve their chances to win their first division title since 2011, especially after the Braves beefed up by adding a starter (Kevin Gausman), three relievers (Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and Jonny Venters) and an outfielder (Adam Duvall).