Prominent on Phillies general manager Sam Fuld’s calendar this week is an interdepartmental meeting involving, among others, manager Joe Girardi to essentially discuss whether the team has enough pitching to get through a 162-game season.
It’s a topic that comes up every year in all 30 major-league front offices. But it’s particularly consequential and increasingly complex this year, less than a month before spring training is scheduled to begin, as teams grapple with how to retrain pitchers for the rigors of a six-month season after a 60-game schedule in 2020 that represented the shortest season in baseball history.
The questions are manifold. If a pitcher threw 200 innings in 2019 and only 70 in game conditions in 2020, is it too much to expect 200 again in 2021? How far can a team reasonably stretch a young pitcher who has not yet handled a heavy workload in the majors and didn’t get the chance last year? And what about the minor leaguers who missed out entirely on a season and haven’t felt the intensity of a real game since 2019?
“It’s a really important topic, obviously,” Fuld said by phone. “I don’t think there’s enough science or evidence behind hard and fast rules. But I think you can’t spend enough time talking about it and planning for it.”
That’s why Fuld is gathering Girardi, rookie pitching coach Caleb Cotham, bullpen coach Dave Lundquist, athletic trainer Paul Buchheit, and other members of the Phillies’ medical staff for a virtual summit to share ideas and begin outlining an organizational strategy.
Everything is on the table, according to Fuld and Cotham, including the possibility of going to a six-man starting rotation for part of the season and having one starter follow another into games in a “piggyback” scenario. The Phillies also will keep lefties Ranger Suarez and Damon Jones, right-hander Ramon Rosso, and others stretched out as starters rather than looking at them for relief roles.
But the best way for the Phillies to assure that they’re able to cover the requisite innings is to acquire more pitching. While the focus is on re-signing catcher J.T. Realmuto and perhaps even shortstop Didi Gregorius, a strong argument can be made that rotation depth is an equal, if not a more pressing, need.
“Starting pitching depth is always going to be important, but I think this year more than ever. There’s no denying that,” Fuld said. “We’re going to anticipate needing some broader depth than we have in years past. That’s for sure.”
Teams talked openly last year about the greater need for pitching depth because of a rise in injuries, the risk of contracting COVID-19, and schedule disruptions that forced more doubleheaders. But as Fuld noted, each of those challenges existed within a two-month window.
Over 162 games, the math is daunting. Teams have to budget their pitchers for at least 1,458 innings, a majority of which come from the starters. From 2015 to 2019, Phillies starters averaged a total of 887⅔ innings, slightly less than the National League average (898).
The Phillies provided their pitchers with individualized throwing programs during the three-month hiatus between spring training and summer camp, but it was hardly a substitute for games. Not all pitchers are created equal, either. Cotham said it’s reasonable to expect a veteran with a track record of durability to readjust this year.
But only two Phillies pitchers (Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler) have topped 165 innings in a season. By comparison, the New York Mets have three (Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, with Noah Syndergaard coming back from elbow surgery), the Washington Nationals have four (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester), and the Atlanta Braves have five (Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Josh Tomlin).
Although the Phillies are bullish on Zach Eflin, their best pitcher through the first half of 2019 and the final few weeks of last season, his career high is 163⅓ innings in 2019. Vince Velasquez maxed out at 146⅔ innings in 2018, and has averaged 4.9 innings per start throughout his career.
The biggest questions involve Spencer Howard. The 24-year-old went from 112 innings in low-A ball in 2018 to 99⅓ at three minor-league levels and the Arizona Fall League in 2019. He made his major-league debut last August and worked 24 ⅓ innings before missing time for a second year in a row because of a cranky shoulder.
Even in pre-pandemic times, most teams built pitchers’ workloads gradually from one year to the next, often increasing the innings total by only about 20% to 30%. The Phillies were conservative with Howard in spring training and will take a similar approach this year, according to Fuld.
Other pitchers will be affected, too. Suarez, for example, spent most of last season at the Lehigh Valley alternate site, racking up only four innings in the majors. The Phillies used him as a reliever in 2019. Over the last two seasons, he has worked a total of 90⅔ innings.
“We’ve got to just start with spring training and make the buildup as good as we possibly can, use as many best practices, and really hammer in our recovery work,” Cotham said by phone. “Starting depth and having as many guys capable of taking the ball as we can, that all kind of goes into the bucket of us as a team being very prepared for this season.”
But the Phillies have perilously little depth beyond their projected five starters. Suarez, Jones, Cole Irvin, Rosso, and Adonis Medina have a total of 71 major-league appearances, including only eight starts.
Say what you want about Jake Arrieta, who underperformed compared to his three-year, $75 million Phillies contract. But the 352⅔ innings that he threw from 2018 to 2020 weren’t without value.
Two potential options came off the board this week, as Jose Quintana and J.A. Happ agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins, respectively. But nearly 40 free-agent starters are unsigned. The Phillies have been linked to Anibal Sanchez, who pitched for president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski in Detroit and held a showcase with fellow right-hander Julio Teheran on Tuesday in Miami. Rick Porcello also pitched for Dombrowski, in both Detroit and Boston.
If the Nationals’ one-year, $5 million deal with Lester this week is indicative of the market, the Phillies should find a few reasonably priced options.
“We’re keeping tabs on everybody out there who can provide that kind of depth, whether it’s in the form of a major-league deal or a minor-league free-agent signing with a [non-roster invite to spring training],” Fuld said. “We’re definitely staying focused on that group of players and recognizing there’s a lot of good arms out there. We’re going to need depth.”
It’s such a common refrain around baseball that Fuld suggested the “innings eater,” a pitcher capable of piling up innings despite posting a league-average or worse ERA, could come back into fashion this year. Such pitchers have been devalued in recent years with the advent of the “opener” and other ways to split up a start.
Regardless, budgeting for nearly 1,500 innings again after playing fewer than 550 last year will be the biggest challenge facing all teams.
“There’s not some one-to-one correlation with anything in pitching, and it’s a year like no other,” Cotham said. “It’s probably going to be something that’s constantly part of the conversation a lot this year, which is kind of a long-winded way of saying, ‘Not sure.’ But I don’t think you can know.
“I don’t have a great answer. It’s definitely on our mind. We’re trying to figure it out.”