Whatever you may think of Andy MacPhail after his recent comments on the state of the Phillies — and based on a cursory scroll through Twitter, the team president is either a truth-telling realist or an out-of-touch buffoon — he’s right about at least one thing.
“I still believe,” MacPhail said, “if you have to be active in free-agent pitching, that’s a dicey market to be in.”
It's true. For every Max Scherzer, who has been worth every cent for the Washington Nationals, there are dozens of Homer Baileys and Jordan Zimmermanns and Yu Darvishes. Pitching is so unpredictable, from a standpoint of both health and performance, that paying for past success and praying that it continues far enough into the future to make a nine-figure investment worthwhile is an uncomfortable gamble for most owners and executives.
Grow the arms and buy the bats, right? That's a far less risky philosophy.
But what if you can't grow the arms?
Since 2009, the only pitchers drafted and developed by the Phillies who have been worth more than one win above replacement (as measured by Baseball-Reference.com) are Aaron Nola, Ken Giles, and Adam Morgan. That’s it.
Otherwise, the Phillies’ list of draftees from the last decade is filled with pitchers who have scarcely sipped the big leagues: Cole Irvin, Austin Davis, Mark Leiter Jr., Hoby Milner, Drew Anderson, Yacksel Rios, Colton Murray, Jesen Therrien, David Buchanan, Mario Hollands, Perci Garner, and Jesse Biddle.
Most evaluators agree that the success or failure of a draft class can’t be assessed for at least five years because of the time that it takes players to develop in the minor leagues. It would be premature, then, to decry any of the four drafts overseen by MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak.
If anything, there’s still hope that Spencer Howard (2017 second round), lefty Damon Jones (2017 18th round), and a few others will pan out. The Phillies also think highly of several international signings, notably right-hander Adonis Medina.
But the cupboard was left so bare by the previous regime that the Phillies are in the tricky position of being farther along in their rebuilding process than their top pitching prospects are in their development.
And because Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and Jerad Eickhoff — acquired in trades for Jonathan Papelbon, Giles, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels, respectively, for the purpose of adding young pitching to the organization — have either regressed or plateaued in their development at the big-league level, the Phillies’ grow-the-arms plan has hit more than a snag. It has crashed into a brick wall.
“We still have some interesting arms in the system that I think are going to contribute down the road,” MacPhail said. “How soon that is and how long it takes for them to make the adjustment to be consistent at this level, we're going to find out. The only way you find that out is getting them out on the mound.”
That doesn’t do the Phillies any good this year and maybe not even next. So with less than two weeks until the trade deadline, the biggest question facing MacPhail and Klentak is how best to address a pitching staff that entered the weekend having allowed 169 home runs, most in the league, and a starting rotation that ranked 18th in the majors in earned-run average (4.62) and last in the National League in fielding independent pitching (5.12).
The Phillies’ most realistic path to the postseason is a wild-card spot, which would guarantee them only one playoff game. Given that reality, it’s difficult to argue with MacPhail’s opinion that the Phillies should “be a little judicious and careful about what talent’s walking out the door,” especially for a rent-a-starter such as Madison Bumgarner.
But with none of their top pitching prospects knocking on the door to Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies must also set their sights on controllable pitchers who can help them immediately. The problem is, trading for someone like Detroit’s Matthew Boyd, a 28-year-old lefty with a 3.95 ERA and 12 strikeouts per nine innings this season who is under club control through the 2022 season, will require giving up precious assets in the farm system.
MacPhail invoked the Chicago Cubs’ trade of prized prospect Gleyber Torres for closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016 as the kind of go-for-broke deal that the Phillies aren’t inclined to make before July 31. It’s worth looking more closely at the Cubs as an example of how to overcome not being able to grow the pitching internally.
Under Theo Epstein, the Cubs focused their rebuilding on drafting and developing most of their position-player core. And when they got closer to contending again, they pulled off a brilliant trade to get Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles and dropped $155 million in free agency on Jon Lester.
In Nola, the Phillies already have their ace. But Arrieta is no longer a top-of-the-rotation wingman, especially with surgery awaiting at some point to remove the bone spur that is floating in his elbow. Pivetta, a breakout candidate when the season began, hasn’t emerged as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter either.
The Phillies made a low-risk move Friday by signing lefty Drew Smyly, who became available when he opted out of his minor-league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Smyly is two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, and the Phillies are hoping that he can get back to what once made him an up-and-coming starter for the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s doubtful that Smyly will be enough. The Phillies could also elect to stand pat before July 31, just as they did last winter, when they didn’t add to the rotation. But that would only kick the can down the road into the offseason, when they will have the same problem about how much to spend or give away for the pitching help that they need.
At this point, paying a high price might be inevitable.