There are several ways that one might describe the 2015 version of starting pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. “Dumpster fire” and “unmitigated disaster” would be a couple of those ways. Many of the others are simply unfit for print, so I will leave them to your imagination.
Regardless, if one is discussing the entire season, there is no way that anyone could say anything positive about the starting rotation as a whole. Sure, there have been bright spots, such as Cole Hamels‘ no-hitter, and Aaron Nola‘s debut, but taken collectively, this rotation has been worse than imagined.
As John Stolnis wrote a few days ago for The Good Phight, those starting efforts can even be considered as historically bad for the franchise. With the offense cobbling together a fairly impressive second half, and the defense at least stabilizing itself, the pitching has been the main culprit behind the team’s recent run of losing.
With an eye toward 2016, the question becomes: how can the starting pitching rotation be fixed for 2016 and beyond? There are several options.
1) SIGN A TRUE ACE
This offseason should see a large crop of true ace-level starting pitchers become available to the highest bidder on the free agent market. Set to become free following the World Series are lefty David Price and righty Johnny Cueto. We could see Zack Greinke join the list, and if you want to include him as an ace, Jordan Zimmerman could be available as well.
That’s a lot of pitching firepower that could potentially head up any team’s rotation. It just so happens that the Phillies will be entering the offseason with quite a bit of money to spend as well.
Remember, the team jettisoned two expensive vesting options this past deadline in Chase Utley and Jonathan Papelbon, money that obviously can now be spent more wisely. Sure, they also will have to pay $12.5 million to make Cliff Lee go away, but other than that, there are very few large contracts anymore that might prevent them from spending freely.
Couple that with the Comcast money about to kick in as well. The Phillies new television rights deal with the cable giant will yield them $2.5 billion over 25 years, beginning next season. As you see, the Phillies will have an almost unprecedented amount of money at their disposal.
The argument for them to go chasing after such a high-quality starting pitcher as those mentioned above is that it would allow the existing arms to slot into a spot in the rotation more suited to their profile.
Nola has looked pretty good in his major league audition, but to classify him as an “ace” at this point in his career is silly. Fellow rookies Adam Morgan and Jerad Eickhoff seem better suited for roles as #4 pitchers, even though for the balance of 2015 both will have to pitch opposite better competition as the team plays out the season.
Let’s also not forget about Matt Harrison, the veteran lefty acquired in the Hamels deal. In the past, he’s been a good #3 starter. But to count on him performing at that same level after multiple back surgeries is foolish, at best.
Were the team to have someone such as Price available to head up the rotation, it would relieve undue pressure on the young arms from having to pitch above their profile, all while giving them a veteran mentor from whom they could learn.
Those who underrate this type of mentorship need only look at how well Cole Hamels did under the tutelage of Jaime Moyer. Having that experienced, talented ace to learn from might be overstated at times, but it certainly should help the Phillies young pitchers.
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Of course, paying for that ace requires a large expenditure in salary. All of these pitchers are looking at $180-$220 million on the free agent market, along with the required years of control it would take to make that much money.
Large commitments of dollars and years to free agents is one of the things most people think the Phillies need to stay away from, especially with the new emphasis on having youth on the roster. However, if the team does decide that they want an ace, there will be some available. They will just be expensive.
2) SIGN A COUPLE ‘BELOW-ACE’ STARTERS
Not only are there aces available for the taking, but there are several good, experienced arms that could be signed that would rank right below that level, but that could still help a team like the rebuilding Phillies.
Pitchers such as Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, and Mat Latos are all going to be looking for work, and fit this profile. They all fit into another strategical route the Phillies could follow: sign and build a rotation of solid #2-3 starters for cheaper than signing one expensive ace.
For example, instead of forking over the nearly $200 million it would cost to sign a Price or Cueto, the team could use that money, spread it around, and get both Kazmir and Leake, or any combination of mid-level starters they thought might fit. Instead of having just one ace pitcher and a few question marks after that, you’ve built a solid rotation that includes not only quality, but quantity.
Signing multiple solid pitchers could have the added benefit of letting the team stockpile names like Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, and Jesse Biddle at the minor league level, delaying not only service time, but hedging their bets against injuries decimating the rotation.
The pitchers available at the Leake/Latos level will often times have injury concerns that have followed them during their careers. With this strategy, if one of your pitchers gets hurt, there would be quality depth available to fill out the rotation instead of having to rely on the Sean O’Sullivan‘s of the world. And no one wants to go down that road again.
3) PLAY THE ‘ONE-YEAR’ PITCHERS GAME
No, I don’t mean actually signing Jerome Williams, whose acquisition last year and re-signing for this season fit the category. Lord knows the fans have suffered enough watching Williams pitch in 2015. But similarly, I’m talking about signing pitchers to one year deals in hopes they pan out.
Obviously, that didn’t work too well this season with Williams and Aaron Harang, but such a strategy could still work in theory. This strategy would be targeting formerly top quality arms coming off injury, signing them to one year “pillow” deals, hoping they would provide solid innings.
Such pitcher could be used at the trading deadline, or could help the team to ride unexpectedly into a Wildcard playoff race. This strategy would mean looking at potential free agents such as Clay Buchholz or Brandon Beachy, pitchers who’ve had success at the major league level that haven’t been healthy in recent years.
There are two ways this strategy could go. Either the pitchers are good, pitching to their capability and outperforming their contract, or they continue getting hurt, leaving the team scrounging for innings yet again. Should they pitch well, you have a solid, underrated rotation that could prove playoff-worthy.
Those minor leaguers I mentioned earlier would still be available at Lehigh Valley, competing for available spot starts, and providing the necessary depth to get through a season. However, if the free agents get hurt again, the Phillies would basically be right where they are now, auditioning the minor leaguers to see who could help in the future. Of all the strategies, this is inherently the riskiest.
Most people are well aware of the need for quality starting pitching on the mound. This year has been a painful reminder to Phillies fans of that, especially once Hamels was traded. These are just some of the avenues that could be pursued in order to strengthen the team not only in 2016, but also potentially in the future as well.
Looking at the minor league level, there isn’t someone of the caliber of the great young Mets arms, such as Noah Syndergaard, coming any time soon to lead the Phillies’ rotation. Instead, prospects who have the potential to turn into top of the rotation starters, such as Franklyn Kilome, are still a few years away.
As the 2015 season ends, and we begin to look forward to the ‘Hot Stove’ season, watching how the Phillies deal with the pitching rotation, especially considering their new, deeper pocketbook, is going to be very interesting.
Whether they choose to follow one of these paths, or have another one charted ahead of them, there is no doubt that some improvement is needed if new president Andy MacPhail entertains any hope of contending for a playoff spot, or even a .500 record, as soon as next year.