The Detroit Tigers staved off elimination by bringing top gun Max Scherzer in for a rare relief appearance this week. The Atlanta Braves were eliminated in the first round in part because they did not have a difference-maker atop their rotation.
The Phillies had the seventh-worst record in baseball this season, but they also had two arms at the front of their rotation that can hold their own with any one-two punch in the game: Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.
Take away the first four times they took the mound in 2013 - Lee's first two starts were great, Hamels' first two were not - and the lefty duo had a 3.12 ERA with 403 strikeouts and 77 walks in the final 415 1/3 innings they pitched.
Hamels and Lee remain the foundation of the team Ruben Amaro Jr. built in the wake of the 2008 World Series championship. He has routinely stacked his rotation, and with Hamels and Lee both under contract together for at least 2 more years, Amaro's best chance of rebooting the Phils from pretender to contender rests on his pair of $100 million left arms.
"Having those two guys as durable as they are, effective, as consistent as both of those guys have been this year," manager Ryne Sandberg said, "it's definitely a good place to start."
While a pair of aces gives a team very good odds of succeeding in a short series, there are, of course, 162 games that precede the postseason that need to be dealt with, too. Even if you place Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax atop a rotation, they represent just two-fifths of that rotation; if the other three-fifths are unreliable veterans or untested rookies, your odds of succeeding over the 6-month regular season are not so good.
Case in point: Hamels and Lee had a combined 2.93 ERA after the All-Star break, but the Phillies were 16 games under .500 after the break because the remainder of the rotation had a ridiculous 7.59 ERA (154 earned runs in 182 2/3 innings) in 41 starts.
For the first time in a half-decade, the Phillies' starting pitching needs serious upgrading.
Roy Halladay, who turns 37 in May, is a free agent coming off shoulder surgery. Arbitration-eligible Kyle Kendrick had a brilliant first half and a disastrous second half. Rookie Jonathan Pettibone hardly has enough experience to be anything more than a No. 5 and Cuban import Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is a complete unknown.
"Starting pitching is a priority," Sandberg said. "Pettibone showed some good stuff. Gonzalez could be in the mix. We'll see what Kendrick does. But starting pitching is very much a priority - and depth in starting pitching."
Halladay's return is uncertain, and shouldn't be factored into this conversation anyway because the priority is to find someone both durable and reliable behind Hamels and Lee.
Ironically, durability and reliability are the two words that had defined Halladay's career prior to 2012. If Halladay returns, the Phils would only be doing so in an effort to provide more depth and options; he is not the solution.
Among the free agents who would appear to be better fits: Ervin Santana, Tim Lincecum, Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Hideki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa are also interesting names, but the Indians and Rockies will almost certainly pick up team options to keep them off the open market.
No, none of those names is of the caliber of Zach Greinke, Yu Darvish or Cliff Lee, arguably the top free agents pitchers in each of the last three offseasons. But, as noted, the Phils already have two of those types atop their rotation and are more apt to seek a No. 3 starter who isn't looking for a mega contract anyway.
Although the Giants are likely to retain him, would you take a chance on Lincecum for a year or two? Would you give Garza or Nolasco 4 years? Would you outbid the field for Santana?
The Phils also could seek veteran starting pitching through trades, although that route is much tougher to navigate. Frankly, there are no easy or obvious answers.
Hamels and Lee will report to Clearwater in 4 months and Kendrick, who Amaro said will be offered a contract, likely will be slotted with Gonzalez in the bottom of the rotation. Gonzalez, who was awarded $12 million for 3 years 2 months ago, began working out in Clearwater last month and is set to join the rotation in February.
But there's a sizable hole in the middle of that rotation and the Phillies appear to be aware of it, too. In the final week of the 2013 regular season, Sandberg sent just two regular starters (Hamels and Lee) to the mound in seven games through Miami and Atlanta.
The Phillies lost five of those seven games.
"That's a tough go," Sandberg said. "That stresses the importance in more pitching depth and stabilizing and making decisions on the staff for next year."
Tomorrow: Bullpen and bench