Oswalt's likely departure changes dynamic of Phillies rotation

Vance Worley, last season's surprise success story, will face more pressure as the likely No. 4 starter.
Vance Worley, last season's surprise success story, will face more pressure as the likely No. 4 starter. (TONY TRIBBLE / Associated Press)
Posted: November 27, 2011

If we could rewind the clock just one year, we'd be 16 days away from perhaps the most shocking news in Phillies hot stove history:

Cliff Lee is coming back to Philadelphia.

Twelve days before Christmas, the Four Aces were born, and a celebration that stopped just short of a parade down Broad Street ensued. We now know, of course, that the actual parade was canceled because of a National League division series loss to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

And now it appears as if the Four Aces, like so many of the world's greatest rock-and-roll bands, have broken up after a one-and-done adventure that fell short of the desired destination.

We've learned from the Lee signing never to say never about anything concerning the Phillies and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., but Roy Oswalt's return is the longest of long shots after the team declined to offer him salary arbitration last week.

Oswalt was the only "elite" Type A free agent not offered salary arbitration by the Phillies. The team decided it was not worth risking the veteran righthander's accepting arbitration and being awarded a raise over his $16 million salary from last season, in the hopes of getting a first-round draft pick if he declined and signed elsewhere.

The Phillies probably have made some sort of offer to Oswalt, but as a starting pitcher with 159 career victories and a .631 winning percentage, the small-town Mississippian is drawing a lot of interest in a free-agent market short on quality rotation arms.

You can't blame the Phillies for being leery about re-signing a 34-year-old pitcher whose history of back problems surfaced right in front of their eyes last season, limiting Oswalt to 23 starts. Even though he looked considerably better after returning from the disabled list in early August, Oswalt still did not recapture the form he had flashed after coming to the Phillies at the trade deadline in 2010.

Given the chance to close out the Cardinals in Game 4 of the division series, he surrendered five runs on six hits in six squirrelly innings and was tagged with the defeat that punched St. Louis' return ticket to Philadelphia. Don't be surprised if Oswalt takes the "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" approach and signs with the Cardinals, who would then have an impressive rotation as they attempt to defend their title.

The Phillies, of course, will still have a formidable rotation even if it no longer has a catchy nickname - R1 C2 just doesn't work - that requires a spring-training news conference before any meaningful pitches are thrown. The Who could still bring it for a while after Keith Moon's demise, and there is every reason to believe the trio of Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels will continue to rock the National League in 2012.

The rotation dynamic, however, has changed, with the biggest difference being depth. The most beautiful thing about having four aces (nobody ever really bought into the idea that Joe Blanton was a fifth ace, did they?) was that if one of them got hurt, there would still be three remaining. That's more than enough to win a lot of regular-season baseball games and even most postseason series.

Should one of the top three go down in 2012, the rotation is not nearly as intimidating, and, unless the offense improves, it could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. When Blanton first joined the Phillies in 2008, the offense had enough firepower to overcome his plus-four ERA. The Phillies went 43-29 in his starts from 2008 through 2010 even though he had a 4.35 ERA.

By comparison, the Phillies were only 11-12 in Oswalt's starts last season despite the righthander's having a respectable 3.69 ERA. The team was 7-8 in Kyle Kendrick's 15 starts even though the underappreciated righthander had an impressive 3.14 ERA in those games.

Rookie Vance Worley, of course, was the true fourth ace last season while Oswalt dealt with his back issues. But it's one thing to produce when nobody was expecting much and a very different thing to do so when you are being counted upon.

Worley went into last season at No. 7 on the rotation depth chart. Unless something changes, he'll likely arrive in Clearwater, Fla., this February as the fourth starter. There's some serious pressure involved in rotation elevation, and everybody knows that hitters make adjustments the more they see a pitcher.

We may have seen some of that in the final two months last season, when Worley posted a 3.98 ERA and allowed more hits than innings pitched. Worley logged a career-high 1821/3 innings last season, so if he wants to be considered a true ace, he has work to do in that department, too. J.A. Happ is recent proof that a great rookie year does not necessarily translate into a great career.

All indications after the postseason and his brief stint in the Florida Instructional League were that Blanton is recovered from the elbow injury that cost him most of the 2011 season, but the true test will not come until he is pitching every fifth day. It will be even more important in 2012 that he resembles something closer to a fifth ace than some guy who did not belong at all those spring-training photo shoots with the other four guys.

Kendrick, meanwhile, is going to be more important than ever as the swing man of the staff.

Less than a year after celebrating the advent of Four Aces, the Phillies are down a man, and that means a lot of things have changed.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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