The Phillies have little choice but to give prospect Griff McGarry a spot in the bullpen
With the playoffs looming and the Phillies losing, it might be time for Rob Thomson to make a big move.
Is Griff McGarry ready for the big leagues? That’s a question that the Phillies might not have the luxury of asking. Right now, there is only one question that Dave Dombrowski should be asking himself as he considers the wisdom of promoting the eldest of his three prized pitching prospects.
Is there a chance that he can help?
It shouldn’t take too many brain cells to think that one through. The answer was obvious well before Ranger Suarez lasted only four innings in a 5-3 loss to the Giants on Sunday afternoon that left the Phillies with their sixth defeat in seven games. At this point, there’s a chance anybody can help. You, me, the guy in the kayak in San Francisco Bay. The Phillies need arms and they need them fast. Which means any concerns about McGarry’s development need to take a backseat.
Necessity is the mother of promotion. The Phillies are coming off a weekend in which their bullpen logged 13 innings in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Giants. That doesn’t count the inning that backup catcher Garrett Stubbs logged. Only once in the last seven games has a Phillies starter made it through six full innings. Their ace is on the injured list and has yet to take a step toward his return from the soreness in his forearm. Their closer is getting closer, but his first big step will not come until Tuesday, when he is expected to face hitters for the first time since going on the shelf.
In short, the Phillies still have a lot of innings to eat between now and the earliest possible date that the cavalry begins to return. The current options are what they are: good enough in spurts. We’re in the midst of one of the other spurts. They entered Sunday having allowed at least five runs in 10 of their previous 16 games. Their ERA during that stretch was a cool 5.27. The only reason they still have a multiple-game cushion in the wild-card standings is the Reds and the Pirates.
The schedule and the standings remain in their favor. Despite losing three of four to the Diamondbacks and their first two against the Giants, the Phillies entered Sunday with a 2½- game cushion over the Brewers for the final wild card spot in the National League. But their margin has thinned considerably. They have nine straight games against the Marlins and Nationals, two teams whom they’ve combined to beat in 18 of 25 games this season. After that, though, they have nine straight against the Braves and the Blue Jays, both of whom entered Sunday in playoff position in their respective leagues.
Anything less than seven wins will be an opportunity wasted, and could well be a disaster. Factor in a three-game series to end the season against the AL Central-leading Astros, and 12 of the Phillies’ last 20 will come against legitimate World Series contenders. Survival mode is not good enough. The Phillies need to be on the offensive.
Enter McGarry. A fifth-round pick out of the University of Virginia in 2021, the 23-year-old right-hander has yet to complete his first full season in the minors but has shown plenty of potential in his 103⅔ innings. He began the year by striking out 82 batters in 46⅔ innings while posting a 3.86 ERA at high-A Lakewood. In eight appearances at double-A Reading, batters are hitting just .123 against him. He’s allowed just one home run with 39 strikeouts and 20 walks in 32⅔ innings. Earlier this week, they moved him into the bullpen with the thought that he might be able to help the big league club in that role. He responded by striking out four of the seven batters he faced.
There is plenty of risk with McGarry. He is walking an average of 5.0 batters per nine innings. He has a 60% fly-ball rate. All but one of his appearances this season have come with at least five days of rest. He probably isn’t a guy who is going to be pitching the eighth inning on back-to-back nights.
But he has strikeout stuff, and that makes him a commodity that the Phillies desperately need. The ideal scenario might see him penciled in for one trip through the order every four or five days. Pair him with Suarez or Noah Syndergaard and pitch him on one of those nights each time through the rotation.
Dombrowski has shown a willingness to be aggressive with his young pitching talent. Thus far, that approach has been rewarded. On Sunday, 2020 first-round pick Mick Abel pitched five scoreless innings at double-A Reading, striking out eight and allowing just four baserunners. Top prospect Andrew Painter has been nothing short of dominant, striking out 23 and walking one in 19⅓ innings at Reading.
Sources with knowledge of the Phillies’ internal deliberations say that Dombrowski has not ruled out the possibility that Painter joins the big league club at some point during the first half of next season. A spot on the Opening Day roster would be borderline unprecedented. When the MLB season begins next March 30, he will still be 10 days shy of his 20th birthday, making him the youngest player to start an MLB game since Julio Urias did it on May 27, 2016 at 19 years and 289 days old. The only other player in the last decade to start a game in his teens was the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy, who was 19 years and 313 days old when he made his MLB debut for Baltimore in September of 2012.
A better situational comp might be Jose Fernandez, the late Marlins prodigy who debuted at the age of 20 years and 250 days and went on to finish third in the NL Cy Young voting, posting a 2.19 ERA in 172⅔ innings over 28 starts. Fernandez joined the big league rotation less than two years after the Marlins drafted him at No. 14 overall and with just 138⅓ innings in the minors. (Painter has logged just north of 100 heading into what figures to be his final start of the season for Reading.)
At this point, Painter is a dilemma for next season. McGarry is a decision for now. The only argument against promoting him is the increased injury exposure for a player who has been carefully managed since college. But is that going to be any less of a concern a year from now? The most important stage of development is finding out whether a player can actually get the job done. We’ll find out if McGarry is ready for the big leagues. What matters most is that the big leagues are ready for him.