For all the moves that the Phillies made to buy their way out of a rebuild, it’s the one that they didn’t that has them paying a steep price right now.
Coming out of the All-Star break Friday night, the Phillies will open a critical three-game series against the Washington Nationals in which they will face Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer. They will counter with Aaron Nola in the middle game and … well, what else?
Crossed fingers that Nick Pivetta will finally realize his potential.
Held breath that Jake Arrieta can pitch with a bone spur in his right elbow.
Sheesh. That’s a tough way to stay in playoff contention.
“We have a lot of work to do, and we’ve got to get better on the mound,” All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto said this week. “There’s no doubt about that.”
But it isn't as simple as making a few moves before the trade deadline, now less than three weeks away.
The Phillies begin the season’s second half trailing the division-leading Atlanta Braves by 6 1/2 games. Unless they are able to at least halve that deficit before July 31 and move into position for more than just a shot at a wild-card berth, it isn’t prudent for general manager Matt Klentak to trade a future asset — triple-A outfielder Adam Haseley or 18-year-old shortstop Luis Garcia, to name two — for Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler or another rent-a-starter bound for free agency.
There will be other pitchers under contract beyond this season who will be available over the next few weeks, and some might even interest the Phillies. But prying Matthew Boyd from the Detroit Tigers, or Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays, or Robbie Ray from the Arizona Diamondbacks will take a combination of big-league talent and top-shelf prospects that the Phillies don’t have to spare.
One way around that: Agree to absorb most of the nearly $93 million left on Zack Greinke’s contract with the Diamondbacks through 2021, thereby mitigating some the prospect sacrifice. But that would require gambling that he will continue to perform to an elite level at ages 36 and 37. The Phillies are also on Greinke’s 15-team no-trade list, though that’s usually negotiable.
So how, exactly, can they improve a starting rotation that ranks 10th in the NL in earned-run average (4.56) and last in fielding independent pitching (5.06)?
Welcome to the box that the Phillies presently occupy. It’s large enough to hold Klentak, pitching coach Chris Young and anyone else who believed last winter that the status quo wasn’t a bad look for a rotation that faltered down the stretch last season and has lacked a left-hander since 2016.
Phillies owner John Middleton endorsed $403 million in checks to free-agent outfielders Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson and took on $30 million in the trade that netted shortstop Jean Segura from the Seattle Mariners. Those moves were all worthwhile and necessary, just like the decision to send top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to the Miami Marlins in the February trade for Realmuto.
But when it came to addressing the rotation, the Phillies were outbid by the Nationals for Corbin before making a tepid bid for fellow free agent J.A. Happ and discussing a trade for Texas Rangers lefty Mike Minor. Beyond that, they balked at most other options, insisting none was enough of an upgrade over Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and Jerad Eickhoff to justify the acquisition cost.
Talk about a misjudgment.
Since taking over as team president in 2015, Andy MacPhail has talked about “growing the arms and buying the bats.” But over the last five drafts, the Phillies haven’t used a first-round pick on a pitcher. Since Nola debuted four years ago, the only pitchers drafted by the Phillies who have reached the majors are reliever Austin Davis and fellow lefty Cole Irvin, who has a 7.82 ERA in six games (three starts) this season.
Long-term, the Phillies maintain high hopes for 22-year-olds Spencer Howard and Adonis Medina. Howard returned this week to high-A Clearwater after missing two months with a shoulder injury. And although Medina has a 2.77 ERA in his last eight starts at double-A Reading, the Phillies have said they aren’t ready to rush him up to the big leagues.
That doesn’t help in a season in which even a wild-card berth would be significant for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011. And after spending nearly half a billion dollars in the offseason, Middleton would be justified in demanding that the Phillies get there.
So, Klentak must either spend the prospect capital to acquire help at the trade deadline or kick the can into the offseason and wager that what the Phillies have will be enough to sneak into October and take their chances.
Either way, failing to address the rotation in the offseason is proving even costlier now.