There is only one answer a baseball general manager should give to the spring training question, “Do you have enough pitching?”
The answer is this: “Of course not, but neither does anyone else.”
Failing that, which is the only real answer, this response is acceptable for political purposes: “We think so, but it’s early and it is a long season. If everything goes as we hope, we should be fine.”
Write this down and underline it. There is never enough pitching on a baseball team. The game has changed in a hundred ways since its inception, but that large truth has remained constant. There is never enough pitching. Never.
So, it was disconcerting to hear the answer given by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak on Thursday as he fielded that question with stone hands.
“Absolutely,” Klentak said.
It’s difficult to tell if he believes the answer, or merely wants to believe the answer, or simply gave the answer because that was the easiest response to make at the moment. In any case, he’s wrong. He was wrong last season when making the same pronouncement, and he’s wrong this season, too.
As much as we are enamored by offense in baseball, and there’s a lot to like about the Phils’ position players, the game is still controlled by what happens on that rise in the middle of the infield.
That’s why it would have been better to hear Klentak show some respect for the most difficult need to fill, and some modesty regarding the team’s recent failings, than to hear him once again tell us that Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez are going to be just fine in the starting rotation.
The backs of their baseball cards — are there still such things? — suggest otherwise. That is true even though the popular narrative is that the since-replaced pitching coach, an analytics wonk, didn’t relate well to them. I have no idea about that, but the former coach didn’t seem to bother Aaron Nola. Maybe if you are an effective major-league pitcher it doesn’t matter the identity of the pitching coach.
Zack Wheeler was added in the offseason, joining Nola at the top of the rotation, and that was a solid move, but the rest of the starting pitching doesn’t inspire confidence.
Jake Arrieta says he feels great after surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. We’ll see if that translates, and Klentak insists that if something or somethings go awry there are still Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez in the wings — the only lefthanders in the mix – and the prospect of young Spencer Howard on the not-too-distant horizon.
It sounds fine, as far as it goes, but it also sounded fine a year ago, when the sugar rush of landing Bryce Harper obscured what became a starting rotation meltdown during the season and an 81-81 finish that was exactly the measure of a half-made team.
We’ll leave aside the bullpen for the moment, and there are plenty of questions there as well. Tommy Hunter, who has been on the disabled list for four straight seasons, and five of the last six, is back to try for the record. I wouldn’t bet against him.
The starters are the real issue and, once again, the Phillies appear to be substituting hope for reality.
“I believe we can put together a back of a rotation with guys we have or players we could potentially acquire later if we need to," Klentak said Thursday.
Let’s break that down. If the guys we have aren’t good enough, we’ll go looking for some other guys. That isn’t a plan. That’s a directional guide to the fallout shelter.
Among the 71 players in the spring training clubhouse, which is a record, apparently, there are 40 pitchers. Perhaps that is what Klentak means when he says the Phillies have enough pitchers, or merely enough men who list “professional baseball pitcher” on their 1040s.
That doesn’t mean, however, they have enough competent pitchers to compete in the National League East, or enough to contend for anything other than another .500 record.
Baseball is a hard game, and pitching is the hardest part of it. You can blame the most recent failures on a manager who seemed to specialize in tarot cards and patchouli, if you like, but John McGraw wouldn’t have won with Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta.
The problem here isn’t that Matt Klentak and the Phillies are making basic mistakes of judgment. The problem, and this will be the general manager’s ultimate undoing, is that they are repeating mistakes that should have better informed the organization.
A falsehood once told is venial. More than that and you’re drifting way beyond forgiveness.