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The Phillies Fifth Starter Conundrum

Plenty of options, no real choices

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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret. The Phillies are in dire need of a fifth starter. Frankly, they could just even use someone who can throw 3-4 competent innings every five days as part of a bullpen game.

The Phillies lost their latest bullpen game on Monday in Arizona after five pitchers combined to allow 9 runs on 13 hits to the Diamondbacks. The only pitcher to not allow a run was Jeff Hoffman who pitched a clean ninth inning.

Matt Strahm has struggled after saving the team early on. Strahm stepped from the bullpen into the rotation out of necessity and pitched to a 2.31 ERA in 23.1 IP across five starts and one bullpen appearance in March/April. But in 12 games since including four starts, Strahm has a 5.82 ERA in 21.2 IP. It appears the shifting of roles and his workload, or rather lack thereof, in previous seasons may be catching up to him. Strahm pitched a total of 72 innings and made one start from 2020-2022. He’s already up to 45 IP and 8 starts in 2023. He’s already surpassed the 44.2 IP he threw with the Red Sox last season.

Dylan Covey once again failed to give Philadelphia anything close to serviceable bulk innings. After a strong first impression as the “bulk boy” on May 23rd, Covey has allowed 9 earned runs and 12 hits in 5 innings across four appearances. His days on the roster are likely numbered, even if there aren’t any clear better options. It’s an unenviable situation the Phillies find themselves in, but it’s not like they didn’t have a plan coming into the season.

The Phillies opened spring training with a starting pitching depth chart that looked something like this:

  1. Aaron Nola
  2. Zack Wheeler
  3. Ranger Suárez
  4. Taijuan Walker
  5. Andrew Painter
  6. Bailey Falter
  7. Nick Nelson
  8. Michael Plassmeyer
  9. Cristopher Sánchez
  10. Griff McGarry

They opted not to sign two starters because they liked their options to fill the fifth spot internally. Painter was obviously the favorite and the job appeared to be all but his with the next three players listed as the fallback options. In fact, you could’ve made the argument that the Phillies had some of the best starting pitching depth in baseball on paper to start the year. It seems so long ago, but Falter was huge down the stretch last year, pitching to a 3.66 ERA from the beginning of July through the rest of the season. He looked every bit the part of an MLB-caliber fifth starter and was likely going to start the season in the bullpen as the sixth SP. Many agents and veteran players around the league who were searching for opportunities likely saw this perceived depth and opted to find better chances elsewhere to make a roster.

Then as it happens, everything that could’ve gone wrong went terribly.

Painter, Nelson, and McGarry were injured. Falter inexplicably lost almost 2 MPH on his already light fastball and was ineffective. Plassmeyer and Sánchez have struggled at Triple A. Even Suárez dealt with an injury and didn’t join the rotation until mid-May, further stressing the depth.

Now, the Phillies are essentially in a spot where they have to rotate the uninspiring options they have until either something clicks, Painter is healthy and ready, McGarry is deemed ready, or the trade deadline comes. A trade isn’t in the cards right now as there’s no real clarity on exactly who is selling and the options on who is are certainly not worth the current acquisition cost which is likely astronomical. Would you want to give up at least two top ten prospects for Kyle Freeland, Chase Anderson, or Trevor Williams?

It’s a bad situation. No one is arguing that. But this also isn’t a Phillies exclusive problem. The Dodgers, a team known for being a pitching factory and the third-best team by record in the NL, ran two bullpen games last weekend against the Phillies because there were no better options. The Braves, the team with the second-best record in the NL, started Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster against the Phillies the last time they played. Dodd was demoted after his start and hasn’t returned while Shuster has a 5.05 ERA in 7 starts this season. The Tampa Bay Rays, who own the best record in baseball at 48-21, have had 13 different pitchers start a game for them and also utilize a bullpen game. The lack of starting pitching is an epidemic around baseball, one which the Phillies were ironically in a good position to weather before the season started.

The Phillies’ problem up until recently was that the rest of the rotation was also playing poorly, which put more emphasis on the failures of the fifth spot. Wheeler, Suárez, and Walker seem to be rounding into form, but Nola is still struggling with inconsistency. The best remedy for the fifth starter spot right now is for all of the other four starters to consistently pitch like they were expected to and then roll the dice with whoever is next on the churn list. The guess here is that the next candidate is Sánchez with Falter and Nelson in line behind him. McGarry is still ramping up after his oblique injury and the team may not be willing to try him in the Majors just yet anyway. The only real option is to try and find a way to get about another month’s worth of semi-competent pitching from what is inside the organization and then hope that there’s some options available at the trade deadline that make the high acquisition cost more palatable.