Cook making pitch to become Phillies' sixth starter

Phillies' Aaron Cook pitches during the 1st inning against the Pirates. Phillies win 2-1 over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Clearwater, Fl. on March 14, 2013. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Phillies' Aaron Cook pitches during the 1st inning against the Pirates. Phillies win 2-1 over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Clearwater, Fl. on March 14, 2013. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Posted: March 15, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - On Thursday afternoon, the Phillies sent a starter to the mound who had a 5.54 ERA in 59 major league games over the previous three seasons.

While that alone isn't unique during spring training, the fact that they went out of their way to get a look at righthander Aaron Cook against a quality lineup was a fitting commentary on the perilous state of the club's pitching depth. What once was the undisputed strength of the Phillies roster is now something of a question mark, one that only grew larger after Roy Halladay's ominous outing Tuesday against the Tigers.

In each of the last four seasons, the Phillies arrived at Opening Day with a clearly defined sixth starter who was charged with being on call in case of injury. In each of those seasons, that starter had at least one major league season of 20-plus starts to his credit. From 2010 through 2012, that pitcher was Kyle Kendrick, who Thursday started a minor league game so that Cook could take the mound against the Pirates.

During those three seasons, the righthander started 71 games as the Phillies' chief long-term sub. Now, he is the No. 4 starter, one spot ahead of lefty John Lannan, who spent most of last season as Washington's sixth starter.

Behind Lannan, the picture is murky. The Phillies knew they were sacrificing depth when they traded Vance Worley to Minnesota in the deal that landed them Ben Revere. But seeing Halladay struggle against the Tigers underscored just how tenuous the situation is. If the Phillies could count on sending an ace-level pitcher to the mound 3 out of every 5 days, you could forgive them a lack of concern. But if Halladay ends up being closer to the pitcher he was last season than the one who dominated opponents during his first two seasons in Philadelphia, then a significant injury to Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee would be a season-wrecker.

While the Phillies have a couple of talented young starters in the upper-levels of the minors in righthander Jonathan Pettibone and lefthander Adam Morgan, asking either one to jump to the majors before the All-Star Break would be asking a lot. Morgan, 23, was impressive during a short stint in big-league spring training, but he has made just six starts above Class A. Pettibone will be 22 in July and has 26 starts above Class A, but only seven in Triple A.

Which is why Cook's start against the Pirates looked to be a little more than a just veteran nonroster invitee getting his work in. The 34-year-old Kentucky native had some solid seasons for the Rockies from 2006-09, and you saw flashes of that pitcher on Thursday. In three scoreless innings, he allowed one hit and one walk with one wild pitch. One of his outs came on a strikeout, another on a flyout, and the rest on groundouts.

It may not have been an audition in the strictest sense of the word, but Cook looked at it like one.

"Definitely, it is," said Cook, who posted a 5.65 ERA in 18 starts for the Red Sox last season. "Last year with the Red Sox I felt like it was the same way. It's not the first time I've done it. I'm comfortable taking the ball and going out there and competing."

Cook started 58 games over the last three seasons, although numbers during that span are not pretty: 5.54 ERA, 3.7 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9 and a 1.572 WHIP. Still, he and fellow nonroster invitee Rodrigo Lopez are the only pitchers in camp with significant big-league starting experience who are not already part of the rotation.

The Phillies could look to add another experienced arm before Opening Day (much like they did in 2010 with Nelson Figueroa), but there is a reason we do not see many useful parts change zip codes this time of year.

Surplus players generally bring more value as depth than as trade chips (see Lannan with the Nationals last year), so a general manager might have to overpay to make it worth his counterpart's while to sacrifice the security that depth provides. Among the starters who might not have a clearly defined big-league role on Opening Day are former Phillie and current Blue Jay J.A. Happ, Detroit's Rick Porcello and one of a trio of Dodgers: Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Ted Lilly. Each of those pitchers is slated to earn at least $3.7 million, which makes them expensive minor leaguers or long-men.

All of that means it is quite possible that the Phillies enter the season with Cook as their pitcher on call. Earlier this week, pitching coach Rich Dubee said that a spot in the bullpen as a long-man was possible but not likely. While Cook can request his release on March 26 if he is not on the active roster, he gets a $100,000 retention bonus if he stays and agrees to open the season in the minor leagues. He can then opt out of his contract in June if he has not been promoted to the big-league roster.

Cook declined to answer whether he would be willing to pitch in the minors, saying, "I'm not even thinking about that." Last season, he started six games at Triple A before the Red Sox promoted him.

Halladay continues to express confidence in his stuff, and even if he does not reclaim the velocity he is lacking on his fastball and cutter, he still deserves the benefit of the doubt that he can pitch well enough to at least be a solid No. 3 starter. Regardless, the last nine seasons have seen the Phillies finish with at least six pitchers who made at least 10 starts. Injuries happen. This year, Cook might be the guy to get the call when they do.


On Twitter: @HighCheese

Blog: philly.com/HighCheese

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