The Phillies look great for a few days, then they play like they played last week against the Blue Jays. What do you think?
-- Corey K., Philadelphia
The Phillies are 17-19 and have carried a losing record for nearly two-thirds of the season, but it could be worse. They have a minus-30 run differential, which is the third worst in baseball. Only Arizona (minus-63) and Houston (minus-60) have been outscored more than the Phils. Those numbers are worth mentioning because no team has made the postseason with a negative run differential since the 2007 Diamondbacks (minus-20) won the National League West.
The Phillies won five consecutive NL East championships from 2007-11 with the following run differentials: plus-71 in 2007, plus-119 in '08, plus-111 in '09, plus-132 in '10 and plus-184 in '11. The current minus-30 number encapsulates Philadelphia's problems in a very simple way: The team is not hitting enough or pitching well enough to win consistently. The troubling part is the Phils are healthy. They have said they would be a better team in 2014 if everybody stayed healthy. Cole Hamels missed a few starts last month, but otherwise the team has been intact. The results have not materialized, which is concerning.
Do you think the offense can score enough runs to be competitive?
-- Jonathan S., Washington
The Phillies are ninth in the NL in runs per game (3.92), but at least they have been getting runners on base. They are sixth in the league in on-base percentage (.317) and tied for fourth with runners left on base (280). I mention their runners stranded only because baserunners are half the battle. The Phils finished first or second in the league in runs scored six consecutive seasons from 2005-10. They also stranded 210 more runners on base over those six seasons than any other NL team. The biggest difference between these Phillies and those Phillies? Those Phils teams hit for more power. They led the NL in slugging percentage over six seasons, while these Phillies are ninth with a .377 slugging percentage and 12th with 0.69 home runs per game.
Philadelphia has received below-average production at first base (11th in league with .725 OPS), third base (13th at .622), left field (15th at .567) and center field (14th at .612). It is tough to score consistently with production like that from four of eight positions and an inability to hit a home run every once in a while. Those numbers need to improve.
How are Ethan Martin and Darin Ruf coming along?
-- Patrick T., Chadds Ford, Pa.
The Phillies just announced Martin and Ruf will continue their rehab assignments with Triple-A Lehigh Valley beginning Monday. Both could be options for the big league club in the future. Ruf is intriguing because manager Ryne Sandberg said last week Marlon Byrd is an option to play center field. If Ruf can hit a little bit, perhaps Sandberg would play him in one of the corner-outfield spots and move Byrd to center. It could help the Phils in the power department.
How worried should I be about the bullpen?
-- Jimmy C., Tabernacle, N.J.
The Phillies' bullpen still ranks last in the league with a 4.95 ERA, which includes a 6.48 ERA in its last five games. It's tied for second in the league with eight blown saves and has allowed 15 of 38 inherited runners to score, which is the second-highest percentage (39.5) in the league. Jonathan Papelbon could not pitch Sunday because of general soreness, which forced Roberto Hernandez, who threw 99 pitches Friday, into action. That showed just how thin the bullpen has become.
Personally, this is the most concerning part of the roster. Perhaps the offense will improve as the season continues, but the bullpen is so wildly inconsistent, it's hard to picture the team getting on a sustained roll without more competent pitching from its relievers.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.