Phillies taking battle for basement of baseball to the wire

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Whose name will Commissioner Rob Manfred call out when the festivities get underway next June? “With the first pick of the 2018 Major League Amateur Draft the ____ select….”

Not which player. But which team?

With a week to go in a season they’d rather forget the “battle” to be the worst team in baseball is going down to the wire. What seemed a foregone conclusion all summer when the Phillies seemed headed to more than 100 losses, could go any one of four ways. Heading into Monday’s action only 2 ½ games separated them.

The current basement “leaders” for the honor of earning that coveted No 1 are the 61-95 Giants. Should Bruce Bochy’s club, a 2016 wild card team which knocked off the Mets in the wild card game, then extended the eventual champion Cubs to four games in the Divisional playoffs, stay there it will complete a remarkable turnaround: first to worst in just three years. Remember in 2014, as in 2012 and of course, 2010 when they knocked off the two-time defending champion Phils in the NLCS, the Giants won it all.

But should they “falter” by winning a couple of games while the others go into a tailspin any of three teams are poised to take their place. One, is, of course, the 62-94 Phillies, whose next win will assure them avoiding the ignominy of losing 100 games.

Since Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro have been summoned from Lehigh Valley, that abysmal record has turned almost respectable, the Phils going 20-25.

Meanwhile two American League teams, the Tigers and White Sox have quietly moved into the hunt. Tied with the Phils at 62-94, Detroit, which after trading off J.D, Martinez , Justin Upton and Justin Verlander just announced manager Brad Ausmus would not return next year, is staggering to the finish line. The White Sox, who went 78-84 in 2016, have nosedived to 63-92.

Schedule-wise the nod the Tigers would appear to have the toughest road, traveling to post-season bound Minnesota and Cleveland. The Phils, with home games against both the Nats and Mets should—at least on paper– have the most favorable route. The Giants travel to Arizona, then finish up with the Padres at home while the White Sox host Mike Trout and the Angels, before winding up at the Central champ Indians.

You could argue that what’s at stake isn’t all that big a deal, since there’s no guarantee the first pick of the draft will be a major leaguer, let alone a star. It’s still early in his career, but clearly Phils’ 2016 No. 1 pick Mickey Moniak has a ways to go, after hitting just .236 this season at Class A Lakewood But the clock may soon run out on 2013 No, 1, pitcher Mark Appel, who was traded to the Phillies in the 2015 Ken Giles deal, but has yet to make much impact due to injuries combined with ineffectiveness.

While that final draft order won’t be determined until Sunday, another one of those big questions in terms of the Phillies future figures to remain undetermined until next spring.  Namely who’s the No. 1 catcher?

Following an erratic season from Cameron Rupp, who’s displayed power but has struck out 109 times in 86 games while hitting just .218, ideally it’s time for Jorge Alfaro to take over. And Pete Mackanin says for the most part he’s liked what he’s seen, especially behind the plate.

“What I like the most not so much the hitting, but I’m pleased with game calling,” said the manager of Alfaro, who’s hitting .293 with 4 homers and 11 RBIs in 99 at bats. “Catching is a defensive position, and hitting is a bonus. I think he’s going to hit, but his improvement as a catcher is just as important.”

The 24- year-old Alfaro, who came over in the Cole Hamels deal along with Nick Williams, Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson, is out of options. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to inherit the job, which might lead to the Phils finding a veteran to handle more of the load and bring him along slowly. That might leave Rupp, along with Andrew Knapp, who had a his moments in limited action, at the mercy of GM Matt Klentak’s ability to find that guy.

That’s just one of the issues Klentak will have to deal with as the Phils mercifully soon head to the off-season. The fates of Tommy Joseph, still the team leader in home runs, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis are at the top of his list, followed by finding some quality arms in the rotation.

Come the June draft they figure to add what they hope will be another potential stud pitcher to the mix. Will the Phillies be picking 1, 2, 3 or 4 at that time?

We’ll know in a week.

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