PITTSBURGH – The Phillies were not yet a winning team, but they still found themselves Friday afternoon within striking distance of first place. They have been underwhelming for the first four months of the season yet they have a shot to return to the postseason for the first time in a decade.
And that led Dave Dombrowski – in his first season overseeing the team’s baseball operations – to execute a trade Friday that seemed to prioritize the season’s final nine weeks.
The Phillies traded Spencer Howard, one of their best pitching prospects in nearly 20 years, to Texas for starting pitcher Kyle Gibson and closer Ian Kennedy. The Phillies also sent Texas Kevin Gowdy, a 23-year-old right-hander who they drafted in 2016′s second round, and Josh Gessner, a 21-year-old Australian right-hander.
The Rangers added Hans Crouse, a 22-year-old right-hander, and $4 million to help offset the pitchers’ remaining salaries for 2021 and keep the Phillies from exceeding the competitive-balance tax.
It was a significant move for the franchise that is desperate to return to October. Gibson, a first-time All Star, had a 2.87 ERA in 19 starts with the Rangers. The 33-year-old right-hander is under contract for next season.
Kennedy, a 36-year-old who moved to the bullpen in 2019, has converted 16 of his 17 save chances this season. Over the last three seasons, he has a 3.86 ERA and has struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings. He’s a free-agent after the season.
“We’re very happy with what we accomplished,” Dombrowski said. “We think we made ourselves better now and we’re also in a position for next year that we have another starting pitcher in our rotation which is helpful.”
Gibson’s success is built on inducing weak contact. He is striking out just 7.5 batters per nine innings while inducing the seventh-best ground-ball rate (50.8%) among starters and the 11th-lowest home run to fly ball ratio. Those two things — his reliance on ground outs and ability to keep fly balls in the park — could be tested in Philadelphia.
He’ll pitch in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park instead of Texas’ cavernous ballpark and will be forced to rely on his new team’s less-than-reliable infield defense. The Phillies have the second-lowest defensive runs saved in the majors, and their third baseman (Alec Bohm) and shortstop (Didi Gregorius) are among baseball’s worst-graded defenders.
“I’m still going to take my chances,” Girardi said. “Because I think we’re going to play better as an infield. I do. And No. 2, I don’t necessarily think you want to be a fly-ball pitcher in Philadelphia. You can get a double-play anytime. I just believe we’re going to play better.”
Gibson is expected to start Sunday for the Phillies at PNC Park but Kennedy’s role is not yet defined. Girardi said the reliever will pitch in the late innings, but did not commit to him being the closer.
The Phillies elevated Ranger Suarez this month to the closer role and the left-hander could return to pitching the seventh or eighth innings if Kennedy is closing. Or perhaps Suarez, a starter in the minors, could slide into the rotation and give the Phillies a deeper starting five.
“Those are things we need to sort out,” Girardi said. “Those are all the things we are considering at this point.”
For now, the Phillies rotation is Gibson, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Matt Moore, and Vince Velasquez. Zach Eflin made progress on Thursday by throwing long-toss in Philadelphia, but there is not yet a schedule for him to throw off the mound. Dombrowski said he could return in two to three weeks. Until then, the Phillies will rely on Moore and Velasquez.
“Guys still need to step up for us,” Girardi said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. One of the guys [Velasquez] is pitching tonight and he’s capable of doing it. We’ve seen it.”
The move aims to give the Phillies stability in both their rotation and bullpen. But it came with a cost of parting with Howard, just four years after drafting him in the second round and months after his promise deemed him untouchable in trades. Howard’s prospect shine has faded this season as he struggled to keep his stamina during his time in the big-league rotation.
“A very difficult decision,” Dombrowski said. “We really like Spencer and I think he has the chance to have a really nice big-league career. There were a couple factors. He’s not established and really for us, this year, if you were telling me that we were going to get four to five innings from him the rest of the year on a consistent basis in his starts I’d be thrilled. For us to try and win, I don’t think that’s really enough right now from that spot.”
Howard was shuffled this season between the majors and the minors and the rotation and the bullpen. But his potential was still evident. He posted a 1.83 ERA in the first three innings and held hitters to a .138 batting average. Then his numbers cratered. Howard struggled this summer to be more than a three-inning pitcher. The Phillies believed they needed more in August and September to reach October, so they made a move with the next two months at the forefront.
“Baseball-wise, it’s just kind of crazy,” Howard said. “It could have gone a million different ways, but I’m at peace with how it went. I’m excited to turn a new page and see what there is in store for me in Texas.”