Same Vince Velasquez. Same bullpen. Same reason to wonder how the Phillies ever thought they had enough pitching to last 162 games.
That is what you missed at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday afternoon. Maybe you caught it on TV. Hopefully you found something better to do. One day after Zack Wheeler showed everybody why the Phillies signed him to a 5-year, $118 million contract in December, Velasquez and Cole Irvin and Nick Pivetta participated in a powerful demonstration of all of the reasons that their bosses’ offseason efforts did not go nearly far enough.
Sixteen baserunners. 11 runs. Four home runs. Against a Marlins lineup that included three guys you maybe would have recognized. This probably sounds like the sort of thing that should be atypical for an alleged playoff contender. And it is. Which leaves us with one of two possibilities: either the Phillies’ 11-6 loss to Miami on Sunday afternoon will prove to be a rare occurrence in this 60-game sprint to the postseason, or they are a playoff contender in allegation alone.
The more you look at this pitching staff, the more you wonder how anyone ever talked themselves into thinking that 2020 would be the year that the Phillies finally crossed back over from the rebuilding wilderness.
Wheeler surely played a role in the delusion, and for good reason. With a high 90′s fastball and an easy, repeatable delivery that looks like it has plenty of staying power, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if he ends up being the undisputed value of the 2019 free-agent class. That might sound like a bold claim given that he’s never thrown 200 innings in a season and who entered free agency with an unremarkable 3.65 ERA in his two previous seasons. But while Wheeler might not have the elite arsenal of pitches of a guy like Stephen Strasburg, he is a year younger and has started at least 29 games in the same number of seasons as the talented but oft-injured Nationals ace. Hey, maybe Strasburg will log twice as many seasons of 190+ innings between the ages of 31-37 as he did between the ages of 21-30. At this point, he has two of them to go with the seven-year, $245 million deal he signed with Washington this offseason.
In holding the Marlins to one run in seven innings on Saturday afternoon, the 30-year-old right-hander was every bit the legit No. 2 top-of-the-rotation starter the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him away from the Mets. He is infinitely more deserving of slotting behind Aaron Nola than any of the options from last season. In theory, that should make the Phillies a better team.
And they probably will be a better team. Or, at least, they probably would have been had the season gone on as scheduled. Who knows how it expresses itself in this 60-game version of things. One thing that was clear on Sunday afternoon — the Phillies don’t have enough behind Nola and Wheeler to make it through a season of any length.
Even if we pretend that Jake Arrieta is going to be a substantially better pitcher at the age of 34 than he was at the ages of 32 or 33, and even if we pretend that Zach Eflin will be the pitcher he was in his first 16 appearances (3.34 ERA, 80 strikeouts, 24 walks, 97 innings) rather than the one he was in his last 12 (5.29 ERA, 49 strikeouts, 29 walks, 66 1/3 innings), and even if we pretend that two such pitchers would give the Phillies a No. 3 and No. 4 starter who are at least adequate, we’re still left with the fact that guys like Velasquez and Irvin and Pivetta are going to need to pitch meaningful innings in order for the bullpen to be anything other than a deal breaker. Let’s not even examine the rest of the gang. Besides Adam Morgan and Hector Neris, it only gets more depressing.
The good news is, this season doesn’t really matter. In five days, the Phillies have a road game scheduled against a team that does not have a home. So the series with the Toronto Blue Jays will be moved to Citizens Bank Park. On Sunday, the Phillies showed up to the ballpark expecting to face veteran right-hander Jose Urena. Instead, they got Robert Dugger, he of seven career starts and a 5.77 ERA. Among the other Marlins who did not participate, reportedly because of COVID-19 protocols: first baseman Garrett Cooper, outfielder Harold Ramirez, and catcher Jorge Alfaro. Other than that, Miami was fully intact.
All of this makes for an airtight case with regard to the Phillies’ next move. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that, while Velasquez was allowing four runs in three innings against the makeshift Marlins, top pitching prospect Spencer Howard was starting a game in Lehigh Valley, which is currently serving as the staging area for players who are not on the active roster. Howard allowed two runs on four hits with two walks and four strikeouts while recording nine outs, for whatever that is worth. If the Phillies think they are a legitimate contender this season, and that whatever they are contending for matters, Howard should be here when the Phillies and Blue Jays are playing on Friday, when it will again be Velasquez’s turn in the rotation.
After Sunday’s loss, manager Joe Girardi said that Velasquez will make his next start, although he did not rule out the possibility of a Howard promotion.
“That’s not something I am aware of as of right now,” Girardi said. “My plan is Vince will make his next start and go from there.”
Perhaps he is waiting for the front office to alter that plan. If so, it should. Even if it doesn’t make sense for the Phillies to go for broke this season, Howard should still be up with the major-league club. A consensus top 40 prospect, he is already a year older than Cole Hamels was when Hamels made his Phillies debut. Last year was his third full minor league season since the Phillies drafted him in the second round out of Cal Poly. Is he really going to make any meaningful strides in his development pitching in an empty stadium against a bunch of late-innings Grapefruit League hitters? Might the current big league situation actually be an optimal development opportunity, with the chance to face big-league hitters without the pressure of a packed stadium?