Trailing by a half-dozen runs but with a runner in scoring position and one out in the fifth inning Thursday night, the Phillies sent pitcher Matt Moore to the plate to hit for himself.
Cue the boos.
“If there were two guys on,” manager Joe Girardi explained later, after a 7-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, “[Brad] Miller was hitting.”
OK, and then what?
Feel free to scream about Girardi’s strategy in the opener of a pivotal four-game series eight nights before the trade deadline. He had neither Andrew McCutchen nor J.T. Realmuto in the lineup, citing the Phillies’ 3 a.m. arrival at home after a long Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. And with a chance to cut into the Braves’ big lead midway through a game, he called for the equivalent of a punt.
But the 95th game of the season wasn’t about Girardi’s level of urgency in late July with his team in the midst of 20 games without a day off. It was more a referendum on the weakness that threatens to extend the Phillies’ postseason absence to 10 years: They don’t have enough pitching. Not in the rotation or the bullpen. Not in the big leagues or triple A.
The lack of depth is amplified with Zach Eflin and reliever Sam Coonrod on the injured list and three others (Bailey Falter, J.D. Hammer, and Chase Anderson) on the COVID-19 restricted list. Of the 21 pitchers on the 40-man roster, only triple-A reliever Damon Jones and starter Adonis Medina and 21-year-old A-ball prospect Francisco Morales are healthy and not in the big leagues.
None of this is news to Dave Dombrowski. The Phillies’ arms shortage caught his attention shortly after he took over as president of baseball operations in December. He tried to address it by throwing $3 million at Moore and $4 million at Anderson, free agents who were brought in to compete for rotation spots in spring training and add to the overall depth.
It’s clear now that Dombrowski went 0-for-2.
In 16 combined starts, Moore and Anderson have allowed 76 hits, including 15 homers, in 67 innings and posted a 6.58 ERA. Their struggles forced Vince Velasquez back into the rotation, and, after initial success, he has a 4.88 ERA in 15 starts. Prized prospect Spencer Howard continues to be an enigma.
The Phillies don’t expect Eflin’s balky right knee to keep him out for long. But even if he misses only another start or two, three-fifths of a competent rotation and a bullpen that has more blown saves (23) than has saves (22) probably isn’t enough to win even a weaker-than-expected NL East.
It will take longer than the week that remains until the July 30 trade deadline for Dombrowski to turn the Phillies pitching staff into a championship-caliber group. But a move or two could keep Girardi from having to weigh the least-appealing option of sticking with Moore in the fifth inning of a six-run game or further exhausting a bullpen that’s often a nightly adventure when it’s well-rested.
Dombrowski recently lamented the price for free-agent pitching last winter, saying that “unfortunately $3 or $4 million gets you fifth starters.” The cost in trades will be steep, too, with two-thirds of the league looking for pitching. Demand figures to exceed supply. And the Phillies’ farm system — labeled by Bryce Harper as “kind of depleted” — isn’t exactly held in high esteem around baseball.
There are plenty of relievers on the market, including Pittsburgh’s Richard Rodríguez and Texas’ Ian Kennedy. The Cubs will likely trade Craig Kimbrel, who saved 108 games over three seasons for Dombrowski with the Boston Red Sox. But the asking price for one of the best closers of the last decade is expected to be high.
Chicago may also move right-hander Zach Davies, who would fit as a back-end starter. Ditto for Colorado righty Jon Gray. Two years ago, under former general manager Matt Klentak, the Phillies pursued signing starter Kyle Gibson. With the Rangers willing to listen to offers for the All-Star right-hander, the Phillies could circle back, although it’s unclear if Dombrowski’s front office is as high on him. Unlike Davies and Gray, free agents after the season, Gibson is under contract through next year.
The Phillies were among the teams that attended Cole Hamels’ showcase last Friday in Texas. According to two National League scouts, he looked like a 37-year-old free agent who has made one start since the end of the 2019 season. But the Phillies would need their former ace to be only an upgrade over Moore and Anderson.
Given his choice, would Girardi prefer to see Dombrowski land a starter or a reliever?
“I never discuss that publicly. It doesn’t make sense,” Girardi said. “Because it always takes two teams if you’re going to make a trade. Everyone says, ‘Go get this guy!’ Well, it’s not always that easy. My focus is always the guys in the clubhouse and believing that we can get it done with the guys in the clubhouse.”
Ninety-five games into the season, with their record back below .500 (47-48), nobody believes the Phillies can. But with the division still not out of reach, Dombrowski has seven days to find the pitching depth that eluded him last winter.