Jun 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (58) reacts after loosing a lead in the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Mets, 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Can Ryan Howard Lead the Philadelphia Phillies To the Playoffs?

June 17, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Nationals 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies are quietly hanging in there. A 36-39 record earns them a 6.5 game difference between the first-place Atlanta Braves. They trail the second-place Washington Nationals by all of 1.5 games.

A 36-39 record is hardly something to write home about. That’s three games below .500, and in the two other National League divisions, their record would put them in fourth place.

However, Chase Utley returned from the DL on Friday. He had been out since May 23 with a strained oblique muscle. Prior to hitting the DL, Utley was hitting .272 with seven home runs and a solid .814 OPS.

Utley’s return won’t push the Phillies over the top. He will be an upgrade over the combination of Kevin Frandsen and Freddy Galvis, but Philadelphia will remain a mediocre to average team until their bullpen is repaired. The bullpen currently sports the highest ERA in the NL and second-highest ERA in baseball. Mike Adams’ trip the DL won’t improve that mark either.

But on the bright side, Ryan Howard is starting to heat up, and that’s an understatement. He smacked two home run on Saturday against the New York Mets, and he is hitting .432 over his last 10 games with three home runs and 10 RBI. His slash line is up to .282/.332/.46 for the year. That slash line is better than those of his prime.

Jun 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) in the on deck circle in the fifth inning against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

So, one would think that the rest of the Phillies’ offense has heated up as a byproduct of Howard’s success. Not so much. Over the last 10 games, the Phillies are just 5-5. Sure, that’s right at .500, but it shows that solely Howard can’t push them over the top.

The timing in Howard’s uprising hasn’t been great either. Domonic Brown, who hit 12 homers in May, has a .593 OPS over the last seven days. Jimmy Rollins has also compiled a mere .593 OPS. Michael Young has posted a .960 OPS over the same span, and Ben Revere’s .741 OPS is a marginal step towards improvement. It’s essentially been Howard and Young, which isn’t enough.

The 5-5 record wouldn’t clearly paint the picture, however. Three of those five losses have been by three runs or less. The Phillies are 8-14 in one-run games this year, so their latest stretch of close losses isn’t out of the ordinary. The bullpen that I alluded to before has had its fair share of contributions to that record. Negative consequences, that is.

All of the above factors have general manager Ruben Amaro in a tricky situation with the July 31 trade deadline approaching: does he sell off Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and others, or does he pray that his team can muster a late season push to sneak into the playoffs through the wild card?

Well, Amaro recently cleared that up for us, stating that Lee and Papelbon are off the table. So, that’s that. There will still be speculation as the deadline approaches, of course.

Truth be told, Amaro doesn’t need to trade Lee or Papelbon, as both are under contract beyond the final few months of 2013. Plus, dealing either of them would officially signal the start of an overhaul. That’s typically not the “Phillies way,” if there is such a saying. Amaro traded Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the deadline in 2012, but they’ve remained somewhat competitive since. Not 2011-competitive, but you get the point.

Amaro could change his mind in the coming weeks. The Phillies go on a west coast swing for series with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers. When they return home, the Braves and Nationals await them. Being division rivals, I’d circle those latter two series as the events that could change Amaro’s decision.

The notion that Howard will lead the Philies to the playoffs, though, is bold. For a bullpen that is in shambles and an offense that ranks 22nd in MLB in WAR, the Phillies will need more than Howard launching baseballs into the bleachers to make a legitimate playoff push.

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

Tags: Philadelphia Phillies Ryan Howard

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