MIAMI -- If all goes well, meaning Zach Eflin makes a complete recovery from knee surgery and nobody else experiences a twinge or a pain between now and opening day, the Phillies would go into next season with a fully stocked and mostly solid starting rotation.
And it won’t be enough.
Five starters rarely are.
Consider these final two games, then, Saturday night and Sunday here against the Miami Marlins, to be an audition of sorts. The outcomes matter little, so Phillies manager Joe Girardi and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski can get a longer glimpse at the organization’s pitching depth at the triple-A level.
Hans Crouse and lefty Cristopher Sánchez took center stage in the second-to-last game of the season, a 3-1 loss that left the Phillies’ record at 82-79. In all likelihood, it will be lefty Bailey Falter and Adonis Medina, in that order, on the mound in Sunday’s 2021 swan song.
“I think you definitely take a look, and that’s kind of what we’re doing here a little bit,” Girardi said. “We’re evaluating, obviously, and you want to see how they respond to their surroundings and some adversity and their ability to throw strikes and quality pitches.”
In deciding Friday that 213 1/3 innings were enough for ace Zack Wheeler this season, Girardi joked that he was looking for “volunteers” to start. But it was another reminder of the perilously thin ranks behind Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson, lefty revelation Ranger Suárez, and Eflin. It’s so dire, in fact, that the Phillies pieced together games with the bullpen in lieu of a No. 5 starter for the final month of the season, a predicament that shouldn’t befall a team with a payroll in excess of $200 million.
Dombrowski anticipated the problem last winter and dropped a total of $7 million on veteran free agents Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. They combined to make only 22 starts and post a 6.70 ERA. Moore was lost to a late-season back injury, while Anderson got designated for assignment and released. Longtime holdover Vince Velasquez met the same fate a few weeks ago.
Surely, then, Dombrowski will go back to scouring the free-agent market for depth starters. But the Phillies also must get more from the upper levels of their minor leagues.
Dombrowski is excited about Crouse, part of the return with Gibson and closer Ian Kennedy in the July 30 trade that sent erstwhile top prospect Spencer Howard to the Texas Rangers. Crouse made an unexpected major-league debut last Sunday, gave up a homer on his first pitch, and grappled with control issues to navigate a three-inning, one-run effort in a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that proved costly to the Phillies’ playoff chances.
With less on the line against the Marlins, Girardi stuck with Crouse for four innings. The 23-year-old right-hander threw primarily a sinker and slider and held the Marlins to two hits.
But he walked Marlins pitcher Jesús Luzardo -- “A no-no, obviously,” Girardi said -- and got beat with his third-best pitch, a hanging changeup that Jazz Chisholm Jr. hit into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the third inning.
“I just pulled it,” Crouse said, “and he made me pay for it.”
Crouse said the changeup “has come a long ways” over the last few seasons. Girardi said it’s a pitch he will need if he’s going to succeed as a starter at the major-league level, and he figures to have time to develop it next season in triple A.
But Crouse still didn’t throw enough strikes (43 out of 72 pitches) with a herky-jerky delivery that borders on improvisational. Two late-season starts in the majors, and rubbing elbows with veteran teammates, figure to be invaluable for a pitcher who has made only one career start above the double-A level.
“For Philly to think this highly of me, to give me an opportunity at the end of the season to make these two starts, it’s a great learning experience,” Crouse said. “Just being around all these guys, getting to talk to [catchers Andrew] Knapp [and J.T.] Realmuto, getting to talk to [Aaron] Nola, Wheeler, seeing how they go about their bullpens. I’ve just tried to be a sponge up here and pick and choose the right time to ask certain guys questions.”
Sánchez followed Crouse and gave up two hits in three innings, his best outing in the big leagues since a July 11 game at Fenway Park in which he held the Boston Red Sox to one run in three innings.
But there was too much inconsistency in between for Girardi to use him as a No. 5 starter down the stretch. Girardi likes Sánchez’s changeup and the sink on his fastball, but with a 4.68 ERA in triple A this season, it’s clear that he remains unrefined.
“He’s an interesting guy,” Girardi said. “Because he has the ability to get ground balls and get some swings and misses.”
Eventually, though, the Phillies must decide if they can count on their young pitchers next season. This weekend is as good a time as any to begin getting some answers.