SAN DIEGO - A hint of nervousness creeps into Ryne Sandberg's voice whenever he talks about his team's starting pitching.
That's because, at the moment, the Phillies do not have much in the way of it. As good as Cole Hamels has been over the last 5 years, 80 percent of the team's starts will need to be made by someone other than him.
And that's assuming he isn't traded. The reports on Cliff Lee's balky left elbow have been optimistic, but reports are always optimistic this time of year. Fact is, 36-year-old pitchers rarely return to full health once they start dealing with things like flexor tendon issues.
Beyond Lee and Hamels, the Phillies' rotation currently projects to feature a borderline No. 5 starter in David Buchanan and a journeyman swingman type in Jerome Williams.
If you want to know why the Phillies currently face 100-to-1 World Series odds, well, let's just say it isn't because of their offense. Granted, the Phillies have already acknowledged that a World Series is no longer their endgame. But they also can't be satisfied with being a Sixers-level embarrassment, especially because they have four times as many seats to sell (twice as many home games, twice the capacity). And right now, that's what they have behind Hamels. In fact, the current rotation might be more likely to beat the Sixers at basketball than any major league team at baseball.
Whatever players end up composing the Phillies' 2015 rotation, chances are at least two or three of them are not currently employed by the organization. The minor leagues are devoid of options: The only young pitcher on the horizon is 2014 No. 7 overall draft pick Aaron Nola, but the fact that Sandberg struggled with the pronunciation of his name should serve as further proof that the Phillies aren't expecting him to contribute next year. When asked if he was aware of any prospect options who spent last year in the minor league system, Nola was the only name he could even attempt to offer.
"There is a need for us to get some starting pitching through outside the organization," Sandberg said. "There is a need there."
And how that need is filled could depend on the eventual conclusion of the "dialogue" that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. alluded to yesterday with regard to trade interest in some of the veterans at his disposal. FoxSports.com reported that Amaro met with representatives from the Orioles to discuss rightfielder Marlon Byrd, who seems likely to be moved at some point this offseason.
While it is hard to imagine the Orioles giving up either Dylan Bundy or Hunter Harvey, drafted in the first rounds of 2011 and 2013 respectively, the Orioles do have a couple of lower-ceiling starting pitching prospects in lefty Tim Berry and righty Mike Wright who are currently projected to start the year at Triple A.
It's worth noting that the Orioles could also be a fit for closer Jonathan Papelbon. Although Baltimore lefty Zach Britton saved 37 games with a 1.65 ERA in 2014, the addition of a closer would allow Britton to slide into a lefty/righty setup tandem with Darren O'Day.
"The interest in our players has picked up," Amaro said. "It's evident with some of the dialogue that we've had, the meetings we've had with other clubs."
The free-agent market doesn't offer much for the Phillies to consider. Only two types of pitchers make sense for them: high-risk, high-reward players who could be flipped for prospects at the trade deadline if they have a bounce-back season, and bottom-of-the-barrel veterans who have few other options. Potential targets on the first front include 26-year-old Brett Anderson, a talented but injury-plagued former top prospect who spent last season with the Rockies, 29-year-old Justin Masterson, who struggled at Cleveland and St. Louis last season after a strong 2013 with the Indians, and 30-year-old Brandon Morrow, a talented but oft-injured former Blue Jay.
On the second front, the Phillies will be fishing from a shallow free-agent pool that is essentially limited to Kevin Correia, Ryan Vogelsong, Aaron Harang, Joe Saunders, Chris Young, and former members of last year's rotation Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez.
Top-of-the-rotation options Max Scherzer, James Shields, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano make no sense for the Phillies. Same goes for a middle tier of starters that includes Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy and Edinson Volquez. All seem likely to end up with teams that haven't already conceded 2015.
Of course, the biggest pitching-related plotline involves Hamels, whom the Phillies say they will only trade for a return that elicits, in Sandberg's words, "a wow factor." With free-agent lefty Jon Lester reportedly nearing a decision on a contract that has been rumored to be worth about $150 million, the potential suitors for Hamels could soon come into clearer focus. The identity of the pitchers who could join or replace him in the Phillies' rotation could take much longer.