Everybody knows the definition of insanity. It’s heading into a season with three No. 5 starters in your rotation. The fact that the Phillies are doing it for a second consecutive season in which they hope to compete for a division title? That requires a different sort of vocabulary word. Absurdity? Delirium? The loving embrace of sweet, sweet nihilism? When I look at the Phillies pitching staff, I see Steve Buscemi perched on top of a nuclear warhead toward the end of Armageddon. When faced with existential annihilation, sometimes all you can really do is lean in.
Vegas says 85 wins for the Phillies, a much-fairer number than the books had them pegged for last year. That’s four wins lower than the number from last winter, which isn’t a referendum on any talent differential between the two rosters as it is a reflection of the recalibration of expectations that has occurred in the 11 months that have passed since John Middleton made his final flight to Las Vegas with a rod and a pair of hip waders and a fly tied with the thread of 330 million United States dollars. There’s something about the offseason that makes it easy to forget that, no matter how much you pay a hitter, he will never finish a season with more than 11.1 percent of a team’s plate appearances and, except for rare exceptions, zero percent of its innings pitched. And then the games start, and it becomes much easier to conceptualize the ramifications of a nine-man lineup and five-man rotation. Namely, that each one of those 14 players has the same impact on a team’s win total, for better or for worse. A team gets 27 outs, and, on most nights, someone other than a lineup’s best hitter has to avoid making 22 of them. Less convenient still is that a team must coax the opposition into 27 outs of its own. Last season, that was particularly bad news for the Phillies.
Viewed through that framework, it’s difficult to see how general manager Matt Klentak and his new manager can hope for anything other than a season in which every foreseeable variable breaks right in their favor, in addition to some unforeseen ones. In hindsight, that probably should have been the case at this time last year, though it’s possible to excuse the dearth of skepticism by noting that the Phillies finished the season with an unpredictable amount of red ink in the column that said, “What could go wrong.”
The Phillies might have entered 2019 needing Odubel Herrera to be something better than a league-average bat in center field, but you can forgive them for not anticipating that they’d be designating him for assignment in the winter. Andrew McCutchen might have exceeded expectations in the games that he played, but the front office was certainly on sound footing with their belief that he would play more than 59 of them. Likewise, there was reason to wonder whether David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter would all make it to the end of the season with bones and muscles connective tissues intact. Still, it was reasonable to think that at least one of them would. Given all that went wrong, as well as the fact that it was not offset by the value that a rational mind could have hoped would be added by Rhys Hoskins or Scott Kingery or even Cesar Hernandez, and it is possible to think that 85-90 wins was not the pipe dream that it now seems it should have been.
Alas, there is one facet of the team that did not fit this construct, and, at the dawn of 2020, it remains the one that complicates any attempt to identify a path to contention this time around. You look at the starting pitchers that the Phillies will carry into spring training in a couple of weeks, and it still says Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin.
The most important part of that last sentence is the conjunctions. Were it an either-or proposition, the Phillies would have good reason to think that the addition of Zack Wheeler would be enough to lift this pitching staff to an acceptable level. Granted, when Klentak said at the winter meetings that Wheeler and Aaron Nola would give the Phillies “as good as any twosome as you’ll find in the league,” he sounded like a man who was using his left hand to drink the Kool-Aid that his right hand was mixing. The Nationals will enter the season with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. The Mets will feature Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Either team could make the case that Nola-Wheeler aren’t even the best twosome in their own division. That said, in relative terms, when you consider that Klentak will no longer be going to battle with Drew Smyly or Jason Vargas, you can understand his exuberance.
However you rate Nola and Wheeler, the most consequential observation about the Phillies rotation is that three out of every five games will be started by somebody else. And when you look at teams that have historically competed at a 90+ win pace, you’ll more often than not find that two of those three spots need to be something better than the options at Joe Girardi’s disposal.
Is there reason to hope? Sure. There always is at this time of year. During his tenure with the Yankees, Girardi was nothing less than a wizard with the way he handled a Yankees rotation that, at times, did not look much different from the Phillies. But he also had the sorts of arms in his bullpen that allowed him to grind his way through opposing lineups, batter by batter. It is here that the Phillies provide the biggest reason to doubt.
The big takeaway from the Phillies offseason is nothing new. There are 150 rotation spots that big league teams need to fill. Which means everybody can use more pitching. Which means the prices for that pitching will prohibit surviving on free agents alone. Which means the Phillies will struggle to return to contention until they can draft and develop their own. Until then, the outlook will look as it does now.
That’s the other thing about insanity: it isn’t a choice.