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Hittin’ Season #241: What is the Phillies’ strategy to upgrade the rotation?

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After courting Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, is Mike Minor going to be the rotation upgrade this off-season?

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

I’m confused.

With the Winter Meetings in the rear view mirror, there is one aspect of the Phillies’ off-season plan that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around.

What is the team’s plan with regard to the starting rotation for 2019?

The rotation was one of the team’s strengths for most of last year, with Aaron Nola turning in a Cy Young caliber season, Jake Arrieta putting in and up-and-down year and three young arms in Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin holding down the back of the rotation.

But while it was the team’s strength, it was also maddeningly inconsistent.

Nola was awesome from start to finish, but one never knew if they were going to get the “good” or “bad” versions of Arrieta, Pivetta, Velasquez or Eflin. All four seemed to have month-long stretches where they were outstanding and stretches where they were getting blown up. And so, as the off-season began, it made sense that the Phillies were rumored to be interested in a number of free agent upgrades.

It was surprising the Phillies made such a strong push to sign Patrick Corbin, who ultimately signed a 6-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals. They were also rumored to be in on J.A. Happ, who signed a 2-year, $34 million deal with the New York Yankees with a vesting option for a third. It’s clear the Phillies liked both guys and went hard after them. And yet, the Phils came up short on both, and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal explains why.

The Phillies lost free-agent lefty Patrick Corbin in part because they would not guarantee a sixth year and Happ in part because they would not guarantee a third. The Yankees made Happ the better short-term offer and got their man.

Each team values players differently, and the Phillies’ risk-averse strategies with both Corbin and Happ might be proven correct. But the Phils seemingly took a different approach with free-agent outfielder Andrew McCutchen, whom they signed for three years and $50 million, a number that surprised many in the industry.

The Phillies lack a left-handed starter, but consider one more of a “want” than a “need.” They have been engaged for some time in discussions about a trade for Rangers lefty Mike Minor, who is owed $9.5 million in each of the next two seasons, but no deal is close.

So the Phillies were willing to go five years with Corbin, who would have slotted in beautifully behind Nola in the rotation, but not six? They were willing to go two years for Happ, but not exceed New York’s deal with a vesting option? Or guarantee a third year? And how did Charlie Morton sign a 2-year deal with the Texas Rangers without the Phillies beating that deal (I leave open the possibility Morton did not want to sign with Philadelphia, or course)?

And now, we’re on to Mike Minor? Sure, he might be a slight upgrade over Eflin, at least because he has more experience and is left-handed. But Minor went 12-8 with a 4.18 ERA and a 4.43 FIP in 28 starts last year, with 7.6 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. As a reliever in Kansas City the year before, he had a 2.55 ERA in 77.2 innings and struck out 10.2 K/9 with a 2.62 FIP.

Minor would provide good depth as a guy who can transition between the rotation and bullpen, but isn’t really an arm that makes the rotation much “better.”

There has to be some apprehension about entering the 2019 season with Arrieta as the No. 2. While he was outstanding in May (0.90 ERA) and July (2.80), and was decent in April (3.49), he was awful in June (6.66), August (4.50) and September (6.39). The addition of Corbin or Happ to the top of the rotation would have been a clear upgrade.

The one guy who could still provide that upgrade is free agent left-hander Wade Miley. He made just 16 starts for Milwaukee last year but was outstanding when healthy, with a 2.57 ERA and a 3.59 FIP in 80.2 IP. He only struck out 5.6 batters per nine, but only gave up three home runs all season, and held left-handed hitters to a .225/.337/.268 slash line. Health and low strikeouts are concerns, and he may not sign until February, but he proved to be a very effective left-handed starter last season.

Other than Miley, though, the Phillies may be out of options. The best free agents are off the board, and with a more palatable payroll situation, the Cleveland Indians are no longer pushing to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. The San Francisco Giants appear willing to wait until the trade deadline to deal Madison Bumgarner, and there isn’t much smoke to the Arizona Diamondbacks dealing either Zack Greinke or Robbie Ray.

Barring something unforeseen, it’s likely the Phils will role into 2019 with the starting rotation that held them together for the first four months of last year but fell apart the last two.

On Episode 241 of “Hittin’ Season,” hosts John Stolnis, Liz Roscher and Justin Klugh discuss the team’s inconsistent plan with the rotation, as well as all the latest Hot Stove rumors, including news that Manny Machado is coming to Philadelphia for a visit next week. Also, why isn’t the market hotter for Bryce Harper, and who will sign first? Who will get the bigger contract? Will the Phils sign Andrew Miller? The Mets make another move, and right now, the Phillies are the 4th best team in their own division.