CLEARWATER, Fla. - Yesterday was it.
If you are like most people, a part of you wonders about this Phillies' team's upside, refuses to abandon all hope that this season will end in something other than a dumpster fire of losses. If X happens and Y happens and Z happens, couldn't they be all right?
Well, yesterday was it. The If. The X and the Y and the Z. The ceiling. David Buchanan pitched five scoreless innings, then turned things over to a bullpen that held the Twins to three hits and one walk over the final four frames. Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman and Ken Giles retired seven of the nine batters they faced. Cody Asche hit a two-run home run.
If the Phillies are going to win any amount of games after Cole Hamels' turn in the rotation, the formula is going to look something like yesterday's 3-0 win over the Twins in Grapefruit League play. Buchanan must pitch like a middle-of-the-rotation arm, and the bullpen must be lights out. Otherwise, given the current state of their rotation, it could get ugly in a hurry.
Aaron Harang is scheduled to pitch in a minor league game today. He averaged a little over six innings per start last year, but he will turn 37 in May and thus far this spring has had trouble getting his body to a point at which it can withstand pitching every 5 days. Jerome Williams averaged six innings per start in nine outings for the Phillies last season, posting a 2.83 ERA and solid rate stats after being released by both the Astros and the Rangers. But Williams had a rocky outing on Sunday and has always been more of a spot starter type, maxing out at 25 starts in 2013 for the Angels. Chad Billingsley is still a month behind the rest of the pitchers in camp. That's if you don't tack on 2 years for the ones that have transpired since his last big-league action.
That pretty much leaves us with Buchanan as the best chance to be a pleasant surprise, and there is at least some reason to hope the 25-year-old righthander will continue the ascension he began last spring training. Recent history has taught Phillies fans to beware of the sophomore slump, and that's mostly because of the huge regression Kyle Kendrick experienced in 2008 after coming from out of nowhere the season before.
But Buchanan is not Kendrick, and his ability to miss bats is the reason why (at least, relatively so). Look past the 3.75 ERA and 117 2/3 innings he logged as a rookie last year. Look at his rate stats: 5.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9.
By comparison, when Kendrick posted a 3.87 ERA in 121 innings over 20 starts in 2007, he averaged only 3.6 strikeouts per nine (to go with a walk rate of 1.9 per nine and a home run rate of 1.2 per nine). Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that combines those three rates and then weights it to resemble ERA, had Kendrick at 4.94 his rookie season. Last year, Buchanan's was a respectable 4.27. Long story short, while we should expect some regression from Buchanan, the numbers do not suggest he is headed for the drop-off Kendrick experienced in 2008, when he finished with a 5.49 ERA in 31 outings and was left off the Phillies' postseason roster. Kendrick's effectiveness increased, along with his ability to miss bats. In his last four seasons in town, he averaged 5.6 strikeouts per nine, compared with 4.0 per nine in his first four seasons.
Last year, Buchanan struck out 14.1 percent of the batters he faced. The changeup turned into an effective pitch for him. He threw it plenty yesterday against the Twins, striking out three in five innings. His eight strikeouts against 44 batters this spring represents an improvement of 4 percentage points.
The Phillies need that improvement to continue. "Desperate" is probably the wrong word to use for a team that entered the spring expecting to lose a lot of games, but yesterday's announcement that prospects Severino Gonzalez and Aaron Nola would get Grapefruit League starts this week was at least interesting. The Phillies have said all along that they will not be satisfied with getting embarrassed during the first official year of their rebuild, but with 2 weeks to go before Opening Day, their rotation leaves them facing that potential.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy