Last night, the Phillies lost an Aaron Nola start 8-5 to the Reds in Cincinnatie, and most of the blame for the defeat falls at the hands of Nola, who was simply not sharp. He lasted just four innings, gave up five runs and walked three.
It was most unfortunate, and continues a troubling trend. The Phils have lost Nola’s last three starts, a development that is likely to cripple their chances at catching the Chicago Cubs for the NL’s second wild card spot.
The fact that Nola is this team’s only reliable starting pitcher is a huge problem, and it’s exacerbated by a bullpen that has been riddled with injuries. Last night, in one of the most important games of the season, Gabe Kapler turned to a collective of Cole Irvin, Jared Hughes, Jose Alvarez, Blake Parker and Nick Pivetta to go the final four innings for him.
Irvin and Hughes pitched two innings of scoreless ball and did a solid job of stopping the bleeding and allowing the Phils’ offense to catch up and tie the game 5-5. But Alavarez, so good for much of the season, allowed a go-ahead home run in the 7th, and Parker allowed a two-run shot to the incredible Michael Lorenzen in the 8th to put the game out of reach.
The bullpen wasn’t the reason the Phillies lost last night, but it’s fair to wonder if it couldn’t have been fortified better at some point this season. And it’s fair to wonder if GM Matt Klentak couldn’t have given Kapler at least one more reliable starting pitcher to work with down the stretch, too.
It’s fair to wonder if the Phils screwed up by not signing Dallas Keuchel and/or Craig Kimbrel.
All 30 teams waited until the draft pick compensation period expired for the two veteran arms to get serious about them, but once that period ended, it was expected the Phillies would be in the mix to sign at least one of them. It doesn’t appear as if they ever got close. Instead, Keuchel signed with the Atlanta Braves on a one-year, $13 million deal, and the Cubs locked up Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million contract.
While neither player is the pitcher they once were, certainly both are better than what the Phillies have. And in Keuchel’s case, his contract is up at the end of this season and didn’t require a multi-year commitment.
Keuchel’s first start with Atlanta was on June 21 and, in 14 starts, has a 3.72 ERA. If you take out a clunker of an outing against Miami on August 8 in which he gave up eight runs in 3.2 innings, his ERA would be 3.00. And in his last four starts since that shelling, the ERA is 1.08 (h/t to @Stephen_Gross23 for those last two stats).
Keuchel’s 3.72 ERA would be second-best on the Phillies since June 21, and not by just a little bit. After last night’s outing, Nola’s 2.58 ERA over that stretch is still better, but Drew Smyly is next closest, at 4.75. Vince Velasquez has a 4.97 ERA during that time period, Jason Vargas is at 5.18, Arrieta’s before he got hurt was 5.73 and Zach Eflin, although he’s pitched better of late, is 7.68.
The Phillies’ reluctance to pursue Keuchel over the winter was understandable. The 31-year-old wanted a multi-year deal, he doesn’t miss many bats, and would have cost the Phils a draft pick. But when that draft pick compensation became moot and it was clear he probably could have been had on a one-year contract, why didn’t the Phillies bite? After all, if they were worried about having a veteran left-hander who doesn’t miss many bats making a start every fifth day, why would they have traded for Vargas? Or signed Drew Smyly?
Kimbrel’s 2019 season has been a bit more up-and-down, but it’s hard to argue that his presence in the bullpen last night wouldn’t have helped the team.
His overall numbers don’t look impressive. His 5.68 ERA is bad, and his 6.64 FIP is gruesome. He’s walked 5.21 batters per nine, and given up 2.84 HR/9. In his last outing on Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, he gave up three runs in two-thirds of an inning. He also started slowly with the Cubs, giving up five runs in his first three games combined.
However, in the 17 games he pitched in between those efforts, he posted a 2.30 ERA, with 22 strikeouts in 15.2 innings. Of course, he still walked a ton of guys (8) and gave up three dingers in that stretch, but opponents hit just .193 against him.
Had Kimbrel been in the bullpen last night, he might not have made an appearance, but it may have freed up Kapler to use Hector Neris in the 8th inning. While there’s no guarantee that Neris would have kept the Reds off the board, you like his chances over pitchers like Hughes, Parker or Mike Morin. None of those three should be anywhere near the 8th inning of a game for this baseball team unless the Phils are up or down by four or more runs.
Hindsight is always 20-20, and decisions are easy to criticize after the fact. The decision not to sign Kimbrel is certainly more defensible than Keuchel, given Kimbrel’s up-and-down season the multi-year commitment it took to land him. But for this year, their inaction on both could ultimately play a role in the Phils falling short of reaching the postseason in 2019.
I talked about this on Episode 316 of “Hittin’ Season, as well as Bryce Harper’s surge, Scott Kingery’s outstanding play, and I talked to Matt Winkelman of PhilliesMinorThoughts.com and Baseball Prospectus about the possibility of the Phils calling up Spencer Howard and the departure of the Phils’ director of amateur scouting, Johnny Almaraz.