Throughout baseball history, the surest way to get through the 162-game regular season marathon was to have five starting pitchers you could reasonably count on to give you a quality start, with some outstanding starts thrown in the mix.
You would have to have an ace, a solid No. 2, a couple consistent innings-eaters in the middle and a couple decent options for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Once in a while the stars would align and you would get the Phillies’ super rotation of 2011, but those types of rotations were rarely seen.
You also used to need really good starting pitching to win in the playoffs, too. So often a big game would be determined by a starter going above and beyond the call of duty, like Curt Schilling’s huge outings with Philadelphia, Arizona and Boston, Sandy Koufax’s epic starts with the Dodgers, Jack Morris going 10 innings in Game 7 for the Twins, or Madison Bumgarner and his heroic feats with the Giants — all are just a few examples of starters who were integral in their teams winning titles.
There are calls for the Phils to add a starter sooner rather than later and, with Dallas Keuchel signed by the Braves, the trade market beckons. Inconsistency from Aaron Nola (4.58 ERA, 1.0 fWAR) and Jake Arrieta (4.29 ERA, 0.2 fWAR) has forced the team to rely heavily on the outstanding work of Zach Eflin (2.88 ERA, 0.9 fWAR), the only starter in the rotation with an ERA under 4.00. Nick Pivetta has bounced back in a big way after his stint in AAA, with a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings since his return, but does that mean we can forget the 8.35 ERA he posted in the first four starts that earned him his demotion? Can we rely on Jerad Eickhoff’s 4.14 ERA and 4.95 FIP?
It makes sense. You look at the rotation and, in Games 2 or 3 of a potential postseason series, the Phillies would seem to be on the wrong side of most pitching match-ups. And as we saw in Los Angeles, having no left-hander in the rotation left the Phils vulnerable against good left-handed hitting teams like the Dodgers. But given the Phillies’ issues in the bullpen and the loss of Andrew McCutchen and Odubel Herrera from the outfield, there are three questions we need to ask.
- Do the Phillies already have enough starting pitching to win the division?
- Where does improving the rotation rank among the Phils’ other needs — bullpen and bench help?
- Do the Phillies have enough prospects to fill all these needs?
- Are any of the available starters good enough to decimate the farm?
Let’s answer the last question first. Many folks jump to Bumgarner, and yes, his deeds in the 2014 postseason are legendary. Depending on the cost, he would make some sense. But his October heroics were five years ago, and Bumgarner isn’t that guy anymore. He has a 3.83 ERA/3.88 FIP, has allowed a .251 batting average against this season, and is giving up 1.34 HR/9.
The good news is his velocity (91.8 mph) is the highest it’s been since 2015, his strikeout rate (23.7%) is his highest since 2016, and his 4.8% walk rate is much lower than last year’s 7.8%. His 3.83 ERA would be second-best on the Phillies, and having a left-hander in the rotation would certainly help against a left-handed heavy team like the Dodgers.
The big question is the cost. How much would it cost to land a player who would only be with the team through this season?
And what about lefty starters like Robbie Ray or Mike Minor?
Minor will probably cost more than any other starter on the market, given he’s been outstanding for the Texas Rangers and he’s signed through next season. In 13 starts, he has a 2.55 ERA and a 3.39 FIP, with a 26.1% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate, all of which are solid numbers, but Minor has also failed to pitch more than six innings in any of his last six starts. He’s also never pitched more than last year’s 157.0 innings, so as he crosses that threshold this summer, would the Phillies be forced to skip him in the rotation to keep him fresh for October?
Ray has been a whiff machine for the Diamondbacks (31.0% whiff-rate), but he’s also walking an insane 11.4%. Opponents are hitting just .229 against him, but he has a WHIP of 1.35. He has a 3.54 ERA and a 3.19 FIP, but has only pitched at least six innings in four of his 14 starts this season. For a team that needs length from their starters, that would force the bullpen to almost certainly have to pick up 2-3 innings every start. However, he is signed through next season and lefties are hitting .229/.270/.314 against him this season.
Even if the Phillies wanted to pursue these pitchers, it’s difficult to see a match when you look at the farm system. They have some top prospects that could interest teams, but how anxious are the Phils to deal them?
Alec Bohm is raking in High-A Clearwater and could be promoted to Reading any day now. It’s not inconceivable that he enters 2020 as the team’s starting third baseman (although that would be aggressive). Spencer Howard has been hurt for much of the season, but he’s the only top-of-the-rotation starting pitching prospect left in the organization with the departure of Sixto Sanchez in the off-season. Adam Haseley, on the Injured List, has already reached the Majors and could play an important role this season for a Phillies team that seems unable to keep a man in center field.
If the Phils can lead a deal for one of these guys with infield prospect Luis Garcia, an 18-year-old defensive whiz in Lakewood who is having a very difficult year with the bat (.519 OPS in 230 PAs), or pitching prospect Adonis Medina (3.44 ERA, 1.289 WHIP, 36/21 K/BB ratio in AA Reading), then it makes more sense, but one also has consider the other needs this team has.
The Phillies have seven relief pitchers on the disabled list and the effect on everything has been obvious. The Phillies entrusted a one-run lead in the 7th inning on Sunday to Jose Alvarez and Vince Velasquez. They also continue to employ Sean Rodriguez and Phil Gosselin as their primary bats off the bench, with the struggling Nick Williams riding the shuttle between Philly and Lehigh Valley.
Thankfully, as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber reported over the weekend, Edubray Ramos is expected back next week, and it appears Adam Morgan and Pat Neshek could follow “soon after.” And Tommy Hunter is almost ready to make a minor league rehab assignment. But relief pitching and quality bench bats are more pressing needs than adding a starter like Bumgarner, Ray or Minor, and it’s hard to envision how the Phillies could get all this done without completely emptying out the farm system.
This is why adding a free agent like Craig Kimbrel would have been so beneficial for the Phils. They could have added a quality relief pitcher without giving up a prospect, which would have allowed them to funnel those resources into getting a bench bat and a quality left-handed starter. Now, they need to turn to the trade market for all three needs, and there are only so many prospects to go around.
While the Phillies could absolutely use an upgrade in the starting rotation, can they win the NL East with what they have? Pivetta has come back from AAA strong, Eflin has been the rotation’s only “stopper,” and one would think Nola will figure things out at some point. A rectification of Arrieta’s inconsistent performance would be wonderful, but no one is holding their breath. The rotation’s 4.18 ERA is 9th out of 15 NL teams, so yeah, adding a solid left-handed starter to the mix would be awesome.
Look, I want a left-handed starter on this team. I want them to get Ray, Minor or Bumgarner, probably in that order. But in order to land one of those guys, Matt Klentak is probably going to have to trade one or more of Bohm, Haseley and Howard, and I’m not willing to go there.
The Phillies can win the division with the starters they have IF they add a couple more reliable bullpen arms and add to a bench that can’t have Gosselin, Rodriguez or Williams taking important at-bats in the second half. That’s why it makes more sense to attack the bullpen and the bench and not go “all-in” on a starting rotation upgrade.
On Episode 293 of “Hittin’ Season,” Justin Klugh and I discussed this, recapped the series against the Cincinnati Reds, talked some Aaron Nola and Gabe Kapler and the ridiculous Bumgarner-Max Muncy incident from Sunday as well!