Phillies second-half preview: Trade needs, road to the playoffs and when will Bryce Harper return? – The Philadelphia Inquirer

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There are a lot of questions for the Phillies to answer over the final 70 games. Let’s dive into a few big ones.
The Phillies have put together one of their best first halves in recent memory. Ninety-two games into the season, they have a 49-43 record, a run differential of +62 — which ranks seventh in baseball — and are in a tie with the St. Louis Cardinals for the third NL wild-card spot.
Because the Phillies have won their season series against the Cardinals, they will have the edge if the two teams finish the season still tied for that wild-card spot. After an April and May in which they went 21-29 and Joe Girardi lost his job, the Phillies turned their season around under interim manager Rob Thomson.
Since Thomson took over on June 3, the Phillies have gone 27-14. They have encountered more adversity — namely that Bryce Harper is out indefinitely with a fractured left thumb — but remain in playoff contention.
What happens in the final 70 games? Is this the year that they break their 10-year postseason drought? Let’s try to answer a few burning second-half questions.
Alex Coffey: Whether or not the bullpen can keep this up. Since Joe Girardi was fired as Phillies manager, the bullpen has a 2.99 ERA (tied for third-best in baseball), a .201 batting average against (fourth-best). They aren’t allowing as much hard contact, and have a 16.1% strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not exactly what we expected from a group that was historically bad in 2020, and not significantly better in 2021.
There are multiple reasons why the Phillies are where they are right now, but a big one is that the bullpen has stepped up in a major way. That includes guys like José Alvarado, who hasn’t allowed an earned run since June 12. Brad Hand and Andrew Bellatti have also been reliable arms that Thomson can count on. Whether this group will be able to keep up this performance will significantly impact the Phillies’ playoff chances.
Scott Lauber: After 10 years, all that matters is ending the NL’s longest active postseason drought. To that end, there may be nothing more fascinating than Harper’s attempt to return to the field.
Harper hasn’t mentioned it publicly, but a source familiar with his thinking said recently the Phillies star believes he can be back by the middle of August. That seems a tad optimistic. It also may explain why Harper has declined to put a timetable on his return. He doesn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.
The Phillies are 12-8 since Harper took a Blake Snell fastball off his thumb. It’s hard to imagine them continuing to win at that rate without him, so they’ll welcome No. 3 back to the No. 3 spot in the lineup as soon as he’s ready. But how effective will he be?
» READ MORE: The Bryce Harper Show remains off the national stage, and that’s bad for baseball
AC: Bullpen help. As mentioned above, the bullpen has looked solid of late, but could use an extra arm to give some of these guys a break — especially Seranthony Domínguez, who has looked shaky in his past few outings. Domínguez has given up two earned runs over his past six games, after giving up one earned run each in the months of May and June.
In his last outing before the All-Star break, on July 15, Domínguez came in for the ninth in a save situation and walked three batters to load the bases in a 2-1 game. It was the first time he’d walked three batters all season.
He could come back from the All-Star break good as new. But Domínguez has been leaned upon quite a bit in the first half, and is coming off almost three seasons missed following Tommy John surgery. It would behoove the Phillies to be careful with him.
SL: As soon as Zach Eflin reported lingering soreness in his bruised right knee after facing hitters in a simulated game last weekend, starting pitching superseded everything as the Phillies’ biggest need even in a trade market that is light on quality starters.
Think about it: The expected returns of Harper and Jean Segura (broken right index finger) should be infusions of offense. And the Phillies have the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball since June 1. But if Eflin winds up missing more time, Bailey Falter or Cristopher Sánchez will have to take a regular turn in the rotation. Not ideal.
When Eflin went down with a knee injury last July, the Phillies traded for Kyle Gibson at the deadline. Want to bet Dave Dombrowski looks to do something similar this year?
» READ MORE: Let’s make a deal: Trade proposals for the Phillies to land another hitter, starting pitching help
SL: The correct answer is Nick Castellanos.
Of the 157 players who are qualified for the batting title, the Phillies’ $100 million man ranks 131st in OPS (.673) and is tied with Detroit Tigers rookie Spencer Torkelson for 157th in Fangraphs’ WAR (-1).
Imagine what could happen if Castellanos has even an average second half.
AC: Since Scott picked Castellanos, I’ll go with a runner-up: J.T. Realmuto. One of biggest obstacles for the Phillies as they head into the second half will be to drive in runs without Harper in the lineup. Castellanos is obviously part of that discussion, but so is Realmuto, who has been streaky at the plate. After a down month of June, in which he posted a season-low OPS of .648, he seems to have figured something out. In July, he’s batting .333/.364/.641 and has raised his OPS to 1.005.
Realmuto has gotten more rest in July (mainly because he wasn’t in Toronto since he is unvaccinated) but he believes that the uptick in his numbers has more to do with how he’s seeing the ball than anything else. We don’t know when Harper is going to come back, but if the Phillies could get more consistent offensive production from Realmuto, that would help soften the blow.
» READ MORE: ‘It’s going to be a fun ride’: Kyle Schwarber wants Phillies to lean into ending playoff drought
AC: I’ll go anywhere from 86-88 wins. Right now, the Phillies are tied for the third wild-card spot with the Cardinals, who are on pace for 86 wins, but as mentioned above, if it comes to a tiebreaker the Phillies will get their postseason berth. For what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight recently gave the Phillies a 66% chance to make the playoffs — simulating a record of 88-74. Seems like that would be the number to shoot for.
SL: Had there been a third wild card last season, 83 wins would have been enough.
Take the over.
From 2010 to 2019, the sixth-best team in the NL finished with 86, 86, 86, 86, 82, 84, 86, 86, 88, and 86 wins. The Phillies and Cardinals are on pace for 86 wins, with St. Louis having a slightly softer schedule (.482 opponents’ winning percentage compared to .504 for the Phillies). There are a lot of bad teams out there. It feels like it may take 87 or 88 wins to get into the tournament.
» READ MORE: Phillies 2022 MLB draft tracker: Meet every pick

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