When the Phillies took the field at home on July 27, they were in a familiar position: one game above .500 but only four out of first place. They were contenders in the meh National League East, but not really. Not as long as Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, and Spencer Howard made up three-fifths of the starting rotation.
It was a big deal, then, that the Phillies agreed earlier that Tuesday on a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for veteran left-hander Tyler Anderson. They even penciled him in to start two days later in Velasquez’s place.
And then, within a matter of hours, the trade fell through.
“It throws you a curve,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski recalled the other day, “because you thought you were done at that time as far as consummating a deal where you added that pitcher to start.”
This is relevant again now, two months later, not because the Pirates are at Citizens Bank Park this weekend and Anderson is not. The Phillies are chasing a division title thanks to the Atlanta Braves’ September water-treading. But if not for a swift pivot in the four days after the Pirates undid the trade over medical concerns related to one of the minor leaguers in the deal, there wouldn’t be a playoff race to speak of in Philadelphia.
“Without that, I just don’t know how we would have been able to stay in it,” Dombrowski said. “If it wasn’t that [Anderson] deal, it had to be some other type of deal in the sense that we needed more starting pitching.”
Like a plant needs water. Zach Eflin went on the injured list July 21 with patellar tendinitis in his right knee. In two turns through the rotation without him, Velasquez, Moore, Howard, and triple-A call-up Cristopher Sánchez combined for a 13.08 ERA and averaged three innings per start.
So after the Pirates re-routed Anderson to the Seattle Mariners in a subsequent trade, the Phillies kept searching. What they found, a few hours before the July 30 trade deadline, was a six-pitcher deal with the Texas Rangers that netted starter Kyle Gibson, reliever Ian Kennedy, and 23-year-old prospect Hans Crouse for enigmatic rookie Spencer Howard and minor leaguers Kevin Gowdy and Josh Gessner.
It wasn’t the biggest blockbuster among 221 trades in Dombrowski’s 33 years of leading the baseball operations for five teams. But it enabled the Phillies to move lefty Ranger Suárez from the bullpen to the rotation. And for a franchise that is seeking to end a nine-year playoff drought, those dual moves were a lifeline.
With a week left in the season, it’s worth looking back on how they came about.
Change of plans
The appeal of Anderson was simple. In 18 starts with the Pirates after signing a one-year, $2.5 million contract on the eve of spring training, he posted a 4.35 ERA in 103⅓ innings, providing back-of-the-rotation stability the Phillies never got from Moore or fellow free agent Chase Anderson.
When the Pirates reviewed 21-year-old right-hander Cristian Hernandez’s medical records and expressed concern about his arm, they gave the Phillies a list of players to replace him in the trade. It isn’t uncommon for teams to revise a deal after it’s agreed upon. Usually, the sides work it out.
Not this time.
“We thought they were a little bit high as far as the value was concerned,” Dombrowski said of the alternatives.
(It’s worth noting that Hernandez missed time this summer without an injury designation at low-A Clearwater, where the Phillies had a COVID-19 outbreak. He returned in September and finished with a 3.57 ERA in 75⅔ innings.)
Dombrowski claimed the ill-fated trade didn’t hurt the Phillies’ leverage in talks with other teams, even though it did reveal what they would give up for a mid-rotation starter with an expiring contract. The Phillies had been talking with several teams about starters and relievers. As Dombrowski tells it, they merely picked up those discussions.
“It didn’t affect us whatsoever,” he said. “There’s so many rumors that are taking place at that time, and people have a pulse of who’s available and who’s not available. It wasn’t like we didn’t have a bunch of people we were already talking to even then.”
But the trade market wasn’t flush with starting pitching. The buyers outnumbered the sellers.
Max Scherzer was the marquee name, but the Washington Nationals weren’t trading him to a division rival. The Minnesota Twins got a haul for right-hander José Berríos, who went to the Toronto Blue Jays for two top-100 prospects (infielder Austin Martin and pitcher Simeon Woods Richardson). The Phillies, lacking top-100 talent in their farm system, couldn’t have matched that offer if they tried.
Two years ago, under former general manager Matt Klentak’s stewardship, the Phillies pursued Gibson in free agency. He signed instead with the Rangers for three years and $28 million and was having a breakout season at age 33. But the Rangers, newly committed to rebuilding, traded slugger Joey Gallo to the New York Yankees. It made sense to move Gibson and Kennedy, a 36-year-old with 16 saves at the time and an expiring contract.
In Texas, the Phillies found a one-stop shop for their rotation and bullpen needs.
“We were not in a position where we were saying, let’s do it like that,” Dombrowski said. “If we felt the best way of doing it was getting a starter somewhere else and then a reliever in another place, we would’ve done that, too. It just so happened that it all worked out in that one place that we were able to make the total acquisition.”
The Phillies were willing to trade Howard, but only for a starter with more than two months of control. Gibson, under contract next year for $7.67 million, fit that description.
“We weren’t going to talk about [Howard] for just a person that would be a free agent at the end of the year,” Dombrowski said. “We also got Crouse back, so that made a difference, too. But when you can look towards next year, [Gibson] puts us in a position where it basically solidifies your starting rotation. It wasn’t the driving force that we had to have somebody [under control], but it was helpful.”
If the Phillies had acquired Anderson, Dombrowski conceded, they may not have pursued another starter before July 30, especially because the medical staff believed Eflin would return. It’s likely they would have acquired a reliever in a separate trade and still moved Suárez into the rotation.
But an internal debate centered on one question: Could Suárez, who hadn’t started even in triple A since early in the 2019 season and was closing games for the Phillies in July, make a midyear transition to starting?
“A lot of people felt that he was going to be a starting pitcher in his career and that he was capable of doing that,” Dombrowski said. “The biggest thing was, how would we do it? Because he hadn’t been stretched out. How would we work that into the equation?”
The build-up was gradual but swift. Suárez threw 33 pitches on Aug. 2 in Washington, 61 on Aug. 7 against the Mets, 82 on Aug. 12 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and 86 on Aug. 18 in Arizona. By his fifth start, Aug. 24 against the Tampa Bay Rays, he reached the seventh inning and 99 pitches.
And the results have been superb. Entering his scheduled start Saturday against the Pirates, Suarez has a 1.99 ERA in 49⅔ innings over 10 starts while holding opponents to a .227 average and one home run.
Gibson had a 4.16 ERA in nine starts for the Phillies entering Friday night against the Pirates, a notch below Anderson’s 3.38 mark in 10 starts for Seattle. But the Phillies won four of Gibson’s first five starts. And although a startling lack of pitching depth has left the Phillies to use the bullpen in lieu of a fifth starter down the stretch, Gibson and Suarez brought stability to the No. 3 and No. 4 spots.
“You have to make some quick decisions at the time,” Dombrowski said. “I really haven’t reflected much upon it other than we just thought, if we were going to compete to try to get into the postseason, we needed to go out there on a more consistent basis with our starters. That was the bottom line. We’re happy with the deal that we made.”