The last-minute roster decisions are made. The aches and pains of spring training are mostly gone. Opening day isn’t until Thursday, so Dave Dombrowski should finally be able to get a few good nights’ sleep.
Oh, but have you seen the Phillies’ starting pitching depth?
Dombrowski believes he has assembled a roster that can contend -- and not merely for a wild-card berth -- in the loaded National League East. After nearly four months on the job, he likes the look of the lineup. He’s confident the bullpen will be better than it was last season for reasons that go beyond simply that it can’t be worse. He’s bullish on the rotation, too, especially the top three starters.
“I read articles all the time, and Zach Eflin, it’s like he doesn’t even exist in national publications,” Dombrowski said Tuesday before the Phillies worked out at Citizens Bank Park. “We really like him a whole bundle. It’s not just, for us, [Aaron] Nola and [Zack] Wheeler. Eflin’s very good, and as fours and fives, [Matt] Moore and [Chase] Anderson have a good chance to help us.”
Then came the part that will keep Dombrowski awake at night.
“Hopefully,” he said, “we just won’t be burdened by a bunch of injuries at one time.”
Every team executive surely shares that concern on the eve of opening day. A spate of poor health can darken even the rosiest outlook. Rosters are built to withstand only so much attrition, and nobody knows how pitchers will respond this season as they attempt to return to a normal workload after a 60-game major league schedule and no minor leagues last year. Injuries may spike.
It’s impossible, then, to ignore who lies beyond the Phillies’ first five starters. There’s Vince Velasquez, the long man in the bullpen whose 4.76 ERA since 2016 ranks 71st among 75 pitchers who have made at least 90 starts. And then?
“Sometimes he may start, but if he starts, it’ll be a two- to three-inning type of appearance,” Dombrowski said of the Phillies’ top pitching prospect, who will open the season at the Lehigh Valley alternate site. “We’re really going to watch his innings closely.”
That leaves Ramón Rosso, Adonis Medina, maybe lefty Damon Jones or nonroster veteran Bryan Mitchell. Left-hander Ranger Suárez might be able to help, but he pitched only four innings in games last season because of COVID-19 and not at all in spring training after visa issues delayed his arrival into camp.
“A lot of people like him a great deal,” Dombrowski said. “I can’t [say] that. We never saw him in spring.”
Spring-training results tend not to reveal much. But some numbers are difficult to ignore. These, in particular, stood out for the Phillies:
Pitchers who aren’t on the opening-day roster combined for a 7.61 ERA and allowed 109 hits and 61 walks in 86 1/3 innings. Over the last four spring-training games, some of them gave up 24 runs in eight innings. And although none broke camp with the big-league team, they essentially represent the organization’s pitching depth.
“It was not pretty,” Dombrowski said before offering an explanation.
Dombrowski has long believed that players should stay in minor league camp once they get optioned in spring training. So, rather than bringing back Rosso, Medina, Jones, and others to throw the late innings of the final week or two of spring-training games, the Phillies used pitchers from their minicamp.
“I like the depth close to the big-league level,” Dombrowski said. “Now, if you get too deep, I get concerned about it.”
Howard could have made matters a little easier, but the 24-year-old’s workload has been an issue for a couple of years.
In 2019, Howard dealt with shoulder soreness in the minors and threw a total of 99 1/3 innings, including the playoffs and the Arizona Fall League. He pitched 24 1/3 innings after making his major-league debut last year and endured more shoulder issues late in the season. A bout with back spasms limited him to only three innings in two Grapefruit League games.
It was an easy decision to option Howard to the alternate site. But considering the Phillies expect him to be a full-time member of the rotation next season, they must build his arm strength gradually this year.
“The problem is, if you start him off starting right away, stretching him out to five or six innings, you burn through those innings before you can blink,” Dombrowski said. “What we’re going to try to do is use him out of the ‘pen. If he’s throwing the way that he’s capable, if we ever had to move Velasquez into the rotation, he’d be a real good guy to step into that [long-relief] type of role.
“We think he’s going to be a starting pitcher in the future.”
But that doesn’t help the Phillies now. So, they’ll keep a close watch on Rosso and Medina, Jones, and Suarez, and cross their fingers for good health among their five starters.
It’s the one area where an injury or two could derail the season.
“I think overall we’re OK,” Dombrowski said. “We’re not great, but we’re OK. It’s something we’ll continue to pursue if we can find more.”