The 2014 Philadelphia Phillies are a confounding baseball team, stuck between a successful past and a bleak future. In the present, a mediocre potential contender has emerged due to the parity engulfing the National League East.
Heading into play on May 22, the Phillies sat at 20-23 through 43 games. Despite a .465 winning percentage and a fourth-place standing in the division, Philadelphia sat just three games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the loss column.
Over the next six weeks, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. must decide if one more run at relevance is wise or if a rebuilding process should commence through a July fire sale. Right now, Amaro admits to having no idea about what kind of team he possess, per Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.
"I don't have any idea yet about that," Amaro said. "Frankly, we really don't know what we have. ... There's a lot of parity and a lot of mediocrity out there -- including us. We're playing like a mediocre club. We're playing like a .500 ballclub."
If—and it's a big "if" considering the aggressive nature of Amaro—the Phillies fall out of the race and decide to become sellers over the next two months, the entire complexion of the Major League Baseball trade market would shift. Instantly, the Phillies would hold the cards to the 2014 pennant chase and potentially gain long-term payroll flexibility and a chance to rebuild a less-than-impressive farm system.
Despite its losing record and inconsistency, Philadelphia has veteran pieces that could enhance contenders around the game. From Cliff Lee to Chase Utley to Marlon Byrd to Jonathan Papelbon to A.J. Burnett, a quintet of season-changing players could become available to the highest bidders.
Let's start with Lee.
The veteran lefty is currently on the 15-day disabled list with an elbow injury, putting a halt on his value and availability at the deadline. Furthermore, losing Lee for an extended period would hurt the Phillies and potentially lead the team down the path of selling in July.
If healthy, Lee is a game-changer and instantly the top arm on the trade market. Despite $37.5 million in salary guarantees remaining after the 2014 season, no potentially available arm—from Jeff Samardzija to Mark Buehrle to Bronson Arroyo—can headline a rotation like Lee.
Chase Utley is 35, and his days as an MVP-caliber player were supposed to be over. Thus far in 2014, that's far from the case. Heading into play on May 22, the all-time great Phillies second baseman owned an OPS of .934 and an OPS+ mark of 155.
Over the course of baseball history, only two second basemen—Rogers Hornsby and Nap Lajoie—have posted higher adjusted OPS marks during their respective age-35 seasons, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
With contenders such as Baltimore (.590 OPS) and Kansas City (.640 OPS) receiving poor production from current second base combinations, Utley's inclusion on the trade market could bring a substantial return for the Phillies and reshape a lineup in the pennant chase.
Marlon Byrd may fly under the radar, but there's no denying how good he's been since the start of the 2013 season. With an OPS+ of 135, Byrd ranks eighth among all outfielders over that span, per Baseball-Reference. Some names behind Byrd on that list: Matt Holliday, Bryce Harper, Nelson Cruz and Jay Bruce.
Last year, Byrd was shipped from the New York Mets to the Pittsburgh Pirates in an August trade. This summer, a similar deal could commence for an impact hitter on a team-friendly two-year, $16 million contract.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon can be loud, brash and irritating to fans. While his personality is controversial and his contract—$13 million for 2015—is prohibitive for an aging reliever, the former Red Sox star is still productive. When factoring in his production (18 G, 2.08 ERA) and his battle-tested nature, a team in need of a closer could be convinced to surrender either cash or prospects for Papelbon's services this summer.
Finally, there's A.J. Burnett. As the last piece of the 2014 Phillies puzzle, Burnett arrived to camp after the start of spring training to serve as the third member of a rotation trio along with Lee and Cole Hamels. Through 10 starts, the former Marlins, Blue Jays, Yankees and Pirates starter hasn't disappointed, pitching to a 3.32 ERA across 59.2 innings.
With World Series experience and a solid FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark of 3.32 since the start of the 2012 season, Burnett would likely draw a slew of suitors in the trade market.
Every year, franchise-changing moves are made during the trade season. From rebuilding teams selling off veterans to win-now franchises looking to find the final piece to a championship club, expect moves to occur over the next few months.
As the 2014 season evolves, no team holds more weight across baseball than the Phillies. If they stay in the NL East race, potential impact contributors will stay in Philadelphia with the edict of restoring glory to a franchise that owned the NL from 2007-2011.
If the Phillies can't survive the recent loss of Lee and succumb to the perils of an aging roster and neophyte manager, one of the most interesting rosters in baseball could supply contenders with multiple stars for the stretch run.