ATLANTA - Ryne Sandberg adjusted his hat. He glanced at a scribbled lineup card that displayed a pitching nightmare late Thursday night in the simplest of forms. "That was a big lift," he said of Mauricio Robles, an anonymous waiver claim from Seattle last winter and the 27th pitcher used by the 2013 Phillies.
Robles walked five more hitters than he struck out in 34 games at triple-A Lehigh Valley. He should not be here, nor should the Phillies have needed him to throw 66 pitches in the season's 159th game to avoid a bullpen calamity. For weeks, Sandberg has preached pitching depth as this franchise's top priority.
The final week serves as painful proof. Sandberg grimaced when asked about the current situation.
"Depth, even starting pitching depth," he said. The manager again lifted his red cap. "To have backups at triple A, let alone the starting rotation. Long guys, swing men, depth in the bullpen and depth in the triple-A level are a need. That is very evident right now."
The Phillies could require an overhaul of the pitching staff, which went from first to nearly worst in the National League over the span of two seasons. The guarantees for 2014 - Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon - can be counted on one hand. Ruben Amaro Jr. assembled Four Aces and said he could never possess enough pitching. Now? A team built on arms is stunningly lacking options.
Remember why Tyler Cloyd made his 11th start Thursday: There was no one else. He allowed 17 runs in his previous three starts (13 innings). He should have been removed from the rotation. He was not.
Cloyd replaced Ethan Martin, who could not last more than five innings as a starter. Martin entered the rotation in July when fellow rookie Jonathan Pettibone succumbed to shoulder soreness. Pettibone, 23, arrived in April because John Lannan - signed for $2.5 million to serve as the fifth starter - suffered a knee injury that rendered him useless. When Lannan made a brief return, Pettibone stuck because Roy Halladay opted for shoulder surgery. Zach Miner, an afterthought in spring training, will start three games this season because Kyle Kendrick's shoulder prevented him from finishing 2013.
Here is the sobering fact: The Phillies have used 10 starters this season. That is the major-league average. The Phillies lacked the depth to cope with an average amount of uncertainty in their rotation.
That is an organizational failure that extends beyond Cloyd, a man who should have never started Thursday's 7-1 loss to the Braves. The rotation's second-half ERA was worst in the majors. It was not equipped to handle the rigors of a 162-game season.
When spring training ended, the Phillies elected to stock their triple-A rotation with young arms in Pettibone, Martin, Cloyd, and Adam Morgan. They released Aaron Cook and Rodrigo Lopez, two veterans brought to camp. The rest of baseball deemed them inadequate - even as depth. Lopez spent his season pitching in the Mexican League. Cook posted an 8.15 ERA for Colorado's triple-A affiliate and disappeared in July. This was Amaro's idea of depth.
"I think we feel pretty good about the depth we have," assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said upon Cook's release in March. "Is it experienced? Probably not as experienced as you'd like, but they've got to get experience somehow."
Oh, they experienced it. Morgan never arrived in the majors because of a lingering shoulder injury. Pettibone was competent but not overwhelming. Martin's future is in the bullpen. Cloyd could anchor an IronPigs rotation.
Amaro has no choice but to spend more money on pitching this winter. The market is saturated with possible third starters - Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Tim Lincecum, Jason Vargas, Scott Feldman, Paul Maholm, to name a few - and you can be sure the Phillies will pay for one. They believe Cuban import Miguel Gonzalez slots somewhere in the rotation, but his first American professional game situation will not come until February. Kyle Kendrick could make $7 million through arbitration, but is he more than a fourth or fifth starter? Amaro harbors some hope for a new pact with Halladay, an idea that makes less sense by the day.
The bullpen would improve with a fixed rotation. That should be Amaro's priority as this last dreadful week exposed every flaw.