The good news for the Philadelphia Phillies: They're still in second place! Or at least tied for second place. In fact, they've gone 14-16 since June 19 and haven't lost a game in the standings, still sitting eight games behind the Braves in the NL Least.
The bad news: Pretty much everything else.
Pretty much everything much else means this: The Phillies aren't a good team. They lost 3-1 to the Cardinals on Thursday night, mustering six singles and a double and drawing four walks but going 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Delmon Young hit cleanup against a right-handed pitcher for the second game in a row, and if that sounds like a cleanup hitter on a playoff team then I've got some nice oceanfront property in Saskatchewan to sell you. The Phillies are 49-53 and have been outscored by 59 runs, a total exceeded in the wrong direction by just four other teams in the majors. The schedule isn't necessarily kind the rest of the way either as they've played the Marlins and Mets 25 times so far, but the Braves and Nationals just 16 times.
Still second place is second place and the Braves have basically played .500 baseball since the first two weeks, plus Tim Hudson is out for the season now after breaking his ankle Wednesday. If you're Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., it's pretty easy to delude yourself into thinking your team is a contender and with a few breaks, Cole Hamels shutdown performances the rest of the way and a big deal at the trade deadline, the Phillies could turn into one of those miracle teams that surge out of nowhere, like the 2007 Rockies or 2011 Cardinals and Rays.
The key word, however, is delude: Those teams didn't have a minus-59 run differential after 102 games. As mediocre as the Braves have been, mediocre is much better than what the Phillies are right now.
So, sure, the Phillies should be looking to sell, but it's not that easy. For one thing, Amaro really has only one valuable asset that would bring much in return, second baseman Chase Utley, who has been worth 3.2 WAR and would certainly look nice in an A's or Dodgers uniform. Plus, as Buster Olney wrote Thursday, there are other factors to consider besides on-field performance. Teams are also businesses, and it can be bad business to admit defeat before August. "The chief officers of those franchises must assess what surrendering in July would signal to the fan bases," Buster wrote, "because once the Royals trade Ervin Santana, or the Mariners trade Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales, that means they're telling their fans that they're willing to give up any chance of a comeback, and they'll see the evidence in the attendance."
The Phillies' situation with impending free agent Utley is further complicated by his standing with the club. While he has battled injuries in recent seasons, he's still aging much better than one-time franchise cornerstones Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. Nonetheless, he turns 35 in December and would be a risky investment, no matter his 2013 WAR. The Phillies aren't going to win with a lineup built around those three players and other patchwork pieces such as Delmon Young and Michael Young. There's also the sense that Phillies fans understand this; this group of players had their run, and some sort of semi-rebuild is in order. Utley would be one of the most valuable players available on the market and while most trades at the deadline never amount to much, Utley could bring a legitimate prospect in return.
Amaro probably doesn't want to admit the Phillies can't rally and win the East, but it's time to trade Utley.
For other pseudo-contenders, however, the decisions aren't quite as obvious.
Record: 48-51, 7 games behind Detroit, 7 games out of the wild card, minus-8 run differential
The Royals sold themselves as contenders after the Wil Myers-Shields and Santana trades over the winter, but Wade Davis (5.92 ERA) has been brutal as the No. 4 starter, Luis Mendoza (5.21 ERA) wasn't much better until he recently got the boot and the offense has one player (Eric Hosmer) with at least 10 home runs, and he has 11. Attendance is up only about 500 fans per game over last season, although that's still below 2009 levels, but there is the feeling the Royals are gaining some positive vibes in the community. Shields would bring a nice return because he has another year left on his contract before free agency, but when they acquired him the Royals basically made a two-year commitment; he's not going anywhere. And considering the lack of depth in this rotation, trading him for younger guys would just push the timeline back another couple of years. Santana has pitched well and would bring a couple of midlevel prospects. But for a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2003, achieving that goal isn't completely meaningless.
The guy they should trade is Holland, who has a 1.89 ERA, 25 saves and 62 strikeouts in 38 innings. But relievers are fungible assets and very few have long, dominant runs as closers. As Joe Sheehan recently wrote, closers have a high burnout rate:
Relief pitchers are overvalued as a class because the skills they possess are, as baseball skills go, fairly common. The subset of those relievers dubbed "closers" are even more overrated because of the practice of assuming that the role they fill requires special talent. And within that class, young, hard-throwing closers are perhaps the most overrated of all, because we get blinded by their dominance and project a future for them that, history shows, simply doesn't exist.
The Royals have other potential options in the bullpen; heck, failed starter Luke Hochevar has a 1.95 ERA and even Davis was dominant in relief last year with Tampa Bay. Holland is exactly the type of player a team like the Royals should be flipping.
Record: 48-53, 11 games behind Oakland, 8 games out of the wild card, minus-50 run differential.
The Mariners just reeled off an eight-game winning streak to suddenly look respectable. They have some interesting players who could be had as they try to build around Felix Hernandez and a young infield of Kyle Seager, Nick Franklin and Brad Miller (plus catcher Mike Zunino) that looks promising. They need outfielders and starting pitchers -- precisely why they're unlikely to trade Iwakuma, who is signed to a team-friendly deal that includes a 2015 club option. The rotation isn't good beyond Hernandez and Iwakuma and while Taijuan Walker may be ready next year, that still leaves some holes. They're unlikely to trade fan favorite Ibanez, but Perez is the kind of reliever riding a hot streak who should be dealt.
The tough guy to decide on is Morales. Jesus Montero's failure to develop means the team does need Morales' bat next year (although Ibanez could be a DH option, not that you want to count on him doing this again). Morales is a free agent, but the Mariners could make him a qualifying offer and bring him back on a one-year deal or take the compensation pick if he signs elsewhere. Verdict: I'd keep him. Considering there hasn't been much of a market for DH types in recent years, there is a good chance Morales has little choice but to accept the qualifying offer and sign a team-friendly two- or three-year contract.
Record: 47-52, 11 games behind Oakland, 8 games out of the wild card, minus-12 run differential
Top trade assets: Mike Trout (kidding)
Other than a seven-game winning streak in late June, it has been continued mediocrity for the Angels. They aren't going anywhere, but nothing they have is going to bring much in return. It's pretty much play out the string and hope Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton rebound next year. (And find somebody better than Joe Blanton.)
Record: 46-55, 7.5 games behind Los Angeles, 11.5 games out of the wild card, minus-59 run differential
Wait Jeff Francoeur wasn't the fix?!?
The Giants are in the same position as the Phillies: Because of the weakness of their division, they're still "in" the race, but you look at the run differential and realize they're just not a good team. The Giants have built up enough goodwill with their fans that they don't face the same pressures the Royals and Mariners do to win as many games as possible. And giving up two months of Pence isn't exactly punting a lot of wins anyway. Unless they're willing to make Pence a qualifying offer to potentially bring him back next year, the Giants should look to trade him. Romo has another year before free agency, but again relievers. Trade 'em while you can.