Phillies 5th Starter Question


One of the big questions all spring for the Philadelphia Phillies has been who will fill out the back end of the pitching rotation as the 2015 season opens. When spring started, Cliff Lee was presumed healthy. His loss has made the options less attractive.

Since Lee’s loss, the two most serious contenders for the 5th starter role have been Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and Kevin Slowey. The team was certainly hoping that MAG would seize the opportunity during Grapefruit League action and justify the contract expenditure on the Cuban. They had brought Slowey in as free agent insurance.

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Both are now gone. Gonzalez was reassigned to minor league camp, and now Slowey has been given his outright release. Neither impressed. Gonzalez had a 7.53 ERA, allowing 25 hits in 14.1 innings, including 5 homers. Slowey had a 6.94 ERA, allowing 15 hits in 11.2 innings, including 3 homers.

The Phillies announced their starting rotation as Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, David Buchanan, and Jerome Williams. Theirs was a mixed big of success, injury, and disappointment during the Grapefruit League.

Hamels received 5 starts, allowing 16 hits in 15.2 innings, striking out 14 and walking 7. He was very effective his last time out, is a notoriously slow starter, and looks healthy. That is really the only question with the ace lefty. As long as he is healthy, he will be fine, and he will anchor the rotation as long as he is around.

Mar 23, 2015; Clearwater, FL, USA;

Buchanan (55) throws a pitch during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Bright House Field.

(Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

Buchanan had a strong spring, following up his solid rookie season a year ago. He appeared in 5 games, 3 of them starts, and allowed just 12 hits across 16 innings with a stellar 11-0 K:BB ratio. His stuff is still not top quality, but he just keeps on getting hitters out.

Williams was a revelation after coming to the team late in the 2014 season. That has not carried over to this spring. He has also pitched in 5 games, 4 of them starts. The big righty has allowed a massive 26 hits in 15 innings, with just a 7-3 K:BB ratio.

Harang has spent much of the spring nursing back problems, which are probably at least partly a result of the fact that he is way out of shape for a professional athlete. The soon-to-be 37-year old got 3 starts, allowing 10 hits in 10.1 innings with a 6-4 K:BB ratio. He also saw work in minor league camp.

Right now the Phillies do not need a 5th starter until next weekend. But on either Saturday, April 11th, or on Sunday, April 12th someone is going to have to take the mound against the division-favorite Washington Nationals.

As long as he stays healthy, and once he builds up his pitch count, Chad Billingsley is going to take a spot in the starting rotation. The righthander is scheduled to pitch in his 3rd minor league game on Thursday, and work his way up to 40-45 pitches, per team insider Jake Kaplan.

At his current pace, Billingsley is not likely to be ready for his first Phillies start until late April. The team is likely to continue building up his count, and then get him game work against AAA competition before giving him the ball. So he is out for the role for now.

The team could go outside for help. Two interesting arms were released just yesterday in Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm. The latter might have the most interest, due simply to his offering a lefty option. But frankly, neither is a major upgrade over what they already let go of in Slowey.

If the team decides to stay internal and make do until the return of Billingsley, they may well turn to Sean O’Sullivan. The righty has made 39 big league starts across parts of a half-dozen seasons, including a pair with the Phillies a year ago.

He started today vs the Toronto Blue Jays in a game that could go a long way to making the determination of his fitness for the role. It didn’t start well, as O’Sullivan yielded a 2-run homer in the 1st inning to Jay’s 1st baseman Edwin Encarnacion. He also walked 3 batters while striking out 2.

No matter how you slice it, the Phillies options as the season progresses do not bode well for a surprising success story. And if, as remains a strong possibility, Hamels is eventually dealt for multiple high-end prospects, things get even more bleak. Was it really just 4 years ago that we were opening what would be a record-breaking season with the “Four Aces’ as our rotation?