Phillies pitching staff filled with wild cards

Posted: March 29, 2013

The Phillies went into the season two years ago with four aces and a sense that something special was about to happen.

And they were right.

The special wasn't quite as special as they had hoped, and they had no idea that Vance Worley, not Roy Oswalt, would be the fourth ace. Worley didn't even get to pose as one of the five aces when it was inexplicably decided that Joe Blanton should be the ace of something, too.

Two years later, the Phillies have half as many aces and twice as many questions about their starting rotation. The monster one being: What can they expect from Roy Halladay in 2013?

There's no sense that there will be anything special about this group of starters, although most teams in baseball would still love to have Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee at the top of their rotation and would probably be willing to roll the dice with Halladay, too.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee declined an invitation to compare this year's staff to the one he said exceeded its high expectations in 2011.

"That would be unfair to everybody," Dubee said late in spring training.

He was willing to talk about his feelings and expectations for the 2013 rotation.

"I'm comfortable with our staff," he said.

So comfortable that he believes that this starting rotation will be considerably better than expected.

"I think it will be in the end," he said. "I think we're going to throw a ton of strikes, we're going to work fast, and we're going to set the tempo of the game. That's what you're looking for."

More pressure

Expectations and reality do not always line up in baseball, especially when you're talking about pitching. As good as the Phillies' rotation was in 2011, not everything went according to plan. The starters posted a ridiculously low 2.86 ERA, the best in baseball since the 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers (2.71) and the 1985 New York Mets (2.84). It was the 10th best in baseball since 1969.

But it was Worley's 3.01 ERA in 21 starts that contributed more to the Phillies' impressive numbers than Oswalt's 3.69 ERA in 25 starts.

Worley, of course, is gone, having been traded to Minnesota for centerfielder Ben Revere in the offseason. Oswalt, at 35, is out of baseball, the victim of a bad back and a bad half season with Texas last year.

Halladay, who is 3½ months older than Oswalt, revealed at the start of spring training that he dealt with a back issue of his own from the start of spring training last year. Throughout his turbulent spring training, Halladay insisted that he was physically fine.

Nothing anybody saw last season or in Grapefruit League games would lead you to believe Halladay can regain the form he flashed during his first two seasons in Philadelphia when he was 40-16 with a 2.40 ERA.

There is reason to believe that Hamels and Lee are still among the game's premier pitchers, but there is definitely more pressure on them because of Halladay's situation. Neither pitcher seemed fazed by that pressure last season when Halladay struggled.

The biggest wild cards in the rotation are righthander Kyle Kendrick and lefthander John Lannan.

Kendrick, 28, is opening the season in the rotation for just the second time in his career and for the first time since 2008. Thanks to a refined change-up, Kendrick went 9-4 with a 2.64 ERA and opponents hit .215 against him from July 1 through the end of the season.

On a staff with aces, he was arguably their best pitcher after the all-star break.

If Kendrick can be a third ace to Hamels and Lee the way Worley was a fourth ace in 2011, the Phillies will have one of the best starting rotations in baseball even if Halladay cannot recapture his past form.

"I know what some people might think about me," Kendrick said. "I'm very confident with how I ended last year and how I am as a pitcher right now."

Lannan, 28, should benefit from not pitching against the Phillies for the first time in his career. He is 3-13 with a 5.53 ERA against his new team and 39-39 with a 3.80 ERA against every other team in baseball. The latter numbers would work well for the guy who is supposed to be the team's fifth starter.

"I like our staff, that's for sure, but we have to go out and stay healthy and we'll put up good numbers," Kendrick said.

Who knows?

Based on last year's numbers and Halladay's unpredictable status, it's impossible to forecast what to expect from the Phillies' 2013 rotation.

Two seasons ago, in the year of the Four Aces, the Phillies starters led the National League in innings pitched, ERA, and strikeouts. They allowed the second fewest home runs and the fewest walks. Their dominance was across the board.

Last season, some of the same traits were still there. They again led the league in innings pitched, allowed the fewest walks, and struck out the most hitters. But they also allowed more home runs than any team in the league and opponents batted .259 against them, which was 18 points higher than the year before.

Two years ago, the Phillies left camp with four aces. The anticipation was great and the expectations were through the roof.

Now, you've got a box of chocolates.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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