Two days removed from knee surgery, J.T. Realmuto was in no shape for dodging or ducking. So, the All-Star catcher walked gingerly to the center of the clubhouse last Sunday, stood up tall, and offered direct answers to all manner of questions about the Phillies’ future after a disappointing 81-81 season, including this one:
What is the team’s biggest offseason need?
"I don't think it's any secret. Probably pitching," Realmuto said. "We can improve defensively as well. But we definitely need some pitching. We need starters. We need bullpen. You can never have too much pitching, so I think that's where we need to go."
Too much pitching? The Phillies didn’t have nearly enough. Even before they lost six of their eight best relievers to season-ending injuries, they lacked dependable starters behind Aaron Nola. In the 15-team National League, Phillies starters ranked 11th in ERA (4.64) and 14th in fielding independent pitching (4.91), and their relievers were eighth in ERA (4.38) and 12th in FIP (4.84).
This, though, was the greatest indictment of the pitching staff: The Phillies were the only NL team unable to sustain a five-game winning streak. Even the 105-loss Miami Marlins won six in a row at one point.
“Our starting pitching has to be better. There’s no question about that,” right-hander Jake Arrieta said. “I think our offense was good. Ups and downs, yeah, but every offense has that. We didn’t throw the ball well as a starting rotation.”
A few reasons for that: the foolish gamble on three inexperienced starters; a stunning lack of depth in triple A; pitching coach Chris Young’s inability to spur improvement from almost anyone on the staff; general manager Matt Klentak’s inertia in both the offseason and at the trade deadline.
Young was the first casualty, learning Friday that he won’t return as pitching coach, according to a source. Meanwhile, manager Gabe Kapler awaits a verdict on his future from indecisive owner John Middleton.
But this is the cold, hard reality: If the Phillies don't raze the pitching staff over the next three months and examine the overall organizational pitching philosophy, it won’t matter who manages the team.
Here, then, is a three-point plan to remake the staff.
1. Stop at nothing to sign Gerrit Cole, and then keep going
Middleton wouldn't be denied last winter in the pursuit of Bryce Harper. If it's possible, Cole is an even greater imperative.
It isn’t just that the 29-year-old right-hander has a 1.63 adjusted-ERA over the last two seasons, third best among all pitchers who have worked at least 300 innings, behind Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander. It’s also that the Phillies don’t have anyone in the organization ready to join Nola atop the rotation next season.
Cole, a Scott Boras client, will be looking to top Zack Greinke's $32.5 million average annual salary or David Price's overall $217 million contract, both records for pitchers. As much as any team, the Phillies should be willing to go there.
"Well, I mean, [Middleton] just gave Harper $330 million," Arrieta said. "He gave me a pretty good amount of money [$75 million] the season before. He's spending money. He's not scared to do that."
But signing Cole isn't even enough.
Arrieta, who had surgery in August to remove a bone chip from his right elbow, will be in the rotation by virtue of his $20 million salary. Zach Eflin likely showed enough over his first 14 starts and final seven starts (combined 2.83 ERA) to warrant a spot despite his midseason struggle.
But Nick Pivetta needs a change of scenery. Vince Velasquez is too unreliable. Jason Vargas didn’t pitch well after being acquired from the New York Mets in a July 29 trade. Drew Smyly is a free agent. Jerad Eickhoff is a non-tender candidate. Ranger Suarez might be most valuable in the bullpen.
And top prospect Spencer Howard hasn’t pitched above double A and won’t likely be ready for the big leagues until at least midseason.
The Phillies could try to pull off a trade for a mid-rotation starter. Or they could shop in the middle tier of the free-agent market by taking a look at Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi, or old friend Cole Hamels.
2. Add more swing-and-miss to the bullpen
After the Phillies spent $26.75 million to get a total of 30 innings from David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, and Pat Neshek this season, it will be understandable if they are wary of wading into the free-agent reliever pool again.
But they need help for a bullpen that was destroyed by injuries this season and is filled only with question marks for next year beyond closer Hector Neris.
Hunter and Neshek are free agents. Robertson will miss perhaps all of next season after Tommy John elbow surgery. Seranthony Dominguez finished the season on the injured list, and the Phillies won't know for sure that his ulnar collateral ligament is healed until he throws from a mound in spring training.
Other potential holdovers: lefties Suarez, Jose Alvarez, and Adam Morgan; Victor Arano, if healthy; Velasquez, if he isn’t in the rotation. Jared Hughes has a $3 million option, though it seems unlikely that the Phillies will pick it up.
One thing that the Phillies need for certain: more relievers who miss bats. Of the 195 relievers who worked at least 40 innings this season, Neris ranked 31st with 11.84 strikeouts per nine innings. Beyond that, though, injury fill-ins Blake Parker (86th, 9.54) and Nick Vincent (88th, 9.47) were the only other Phillies relievers in the top 100.
3. Reconsider the organizational pitching philosophy, and streamline the message
As a scout with the Houston Astros, Young developed a knack for culling data, breaking it down, and figuring out how it can be applied to maximize a pitcher’s effectiveness.
But communicating that data at field level and gaining pitchers’ confidence proved more difficult.
Rick Kranitz, a traditional pitching coach who was pushed aside after the 2018 season to allow for the elevation of Young from an assistant’s role, had established strong bonds with many of the pitchers. But he might not have been open to some of Young’s ideas in all cases. And clearly, Young’s emphasis on throwing four-seam fastballs up in the zone didn’t work for everyone. Eflin, in particular, was more effective when he located his sinking two-seamer.
The Phillies must develop a more functional arrangement. They’re expected to offer Young more of a front-office role, perhaps akin to Boston Red Sox vice president of pitching development Brian Bannister.
Regardless, the Phillies will look to hire a pitching coach who is open-minded to analytics but strong-willed enough to push back. It’s also important to be able to translate data and help pitchers apply it practically in bullpen sessions and in-game adjustments on the mound.
One name to watch: Former New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway, who got results as a pitching coach with the Cleveland Indians.