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Philadelphia Phillies' Only Improvement Plan Is Hope

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Last Saturday night, after making Padres starter Cory Leubke look like the next R.A. Dickey (also known as Cy Young to Phillies fans), Charlie ryan howardManuel assured everyone that "We're going to score runs. We have to keep going and see what happens. We have a long, long ways to go."

For the last five years, we have heard a similar reaction from Manuel when his team has gone through offensive dry spells.  And, truth be told, he was usually right.

But after 18 games with an offense that has scored two or fewer runs 10 times, one has to wonder if Manuel and the Phillies front office have reached the point where hoping for improvement is the only game plan left.

With no accurate time table for the return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies’ plan is clearly to stay afloat with incredible starting pitching and an elite closer.  It’s a plan that had better work if the Phillies hope to win a sixth straight division title, because there is not much else to like about this roster right now.

There is also not much else that can be done to mix things up over the next 70 games or so.  Howard might not return before the All-Star break, and Utley’s rehab is now considered just a little less than mysterious. So, the trade deadline represents the Phillies’ only opportunity to try for one more impact trade that could resuscitate their offense.

Until then, Manuel will likely line up his hitters in a myriad of different orders hoping that it will suddenly change the way they swing their polancobats. At almost every position, it is his only option.

At third base, Placido Polanco’s career appears to be circling the drain.  Polly has managed one extra-base hit and two walks through 16 games this season.  After the same number of games last season, he was batting .375 with eight multi-hit games.  With the only other third base option coming in the form of Ty Wigginton, the Phillies desperately need Polanco to look stronger as he recovers from an injury-filled 2011.

Joining Polanco on the “cross-your fingers” list is Jimmy Rollins.  At 33 years of age, the Phillies decided that Rollins still represented their best option at shortstop for the next few years. That confidence was represented by the $33 million they committed to the 12-year veteran.  At the moment, they are in desperate need of a spark from Jimmy, who is currently one of the worst three-hole hitters in the majors.  Rollins’ average has dropped to .229, and he has two extra-base hits and three RBI through 18 games.  

jimmy rollinsWhile Rollins certainly hasn’t provided the power the team needed in the absence of Howard, neither has John Mayberry Jr.  The Phillies entered the season with a plan of playing Mayberry Jr. in left field and at first base.  The expectation was that he could provide 20-some homers in a full-time playing role.  But, Mayberry has looked lost at the plate and has received the dreaded vote of confidence that Charlie Manuel gave to Ben Francisco last season (along with the same seat at the end of the bench).

Now, the option in left field is clearly Juan Pierre whose solid, albeit powerless, hitting has resulted in very few runs for the Phillies.  The same can be said for Ty Wigginton, who has assumed the starting first base job.

Just in case you were wondering, Domonic Brown is hitting .264 with no homers and lots of strikeouts at AAA Lehigh Valley.

So, it appears as though the lineup we have been watching is the one that will have to get things going over the next couple months.  The good news is that it won’t take much.  When your team ERA is (going into Tuesday night's game) 2.81 (5th best in the majors), you don’t need offensive fireworks. The Phillies have to hope that the top of their order can start hitting, while Hunter Pence and someone else (ideally Mayberry), take advantage of those new opportunities to actually drive in runs.

If that happens, there is a chance that a power hitting third baseman or outfielder becomes available at the trade deadline.  And maybe that new addition joins Utley and Howard to reenergize the Phillies for another playoff run.

But the problem with using hope as your game plan is that, when it fails, you have nothing else. It’s why lottery tickets are not a sound financial planning strategy.

Right now, though, this team doesn’t have many other options.  The lineup is punchless and the bench provides no spark. So, the Phillies (and we) are left with hope.

At least the odds are better than Powerball’s.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net  

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Photos:
Rollins: Getty Images
Howard: Matt Smith
Polanco: USA Today