Phillies' rotation doesn't match up

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee, today's starter in Texas, had a steady spring.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cliff Lee, today's starter in Texas, had a steady spring.
Posted: April 01, 2014

WHEN WE'RE talking about the health of a rotation, the perfect season goes something like this: 33-33-32-32-32. That's 162 starts split among five players. It hasn't happened in the history of the National League. Last season, no team in the NL had more than three starters finish with 32 starts. Pitchers get hurt. That's what they do, because the body wasn't designed for throwing overhand.

I'm guessing you see where this is going, so let's skip the pleasantries. The Phillies are one significant pitching injury away from disaster. Right now, you might look at the way they set up against the Rangers and talk yourself into believing they have the kind of rotation that can offset many of the ills that you've spent spring training reading about.

Cliff Lee against Tanner Scheppers? A.J. Burnett against Martin Perez? Kyle Kendrick against Robbie Ross?

But let's look a little closer at two of those matchups. Ross and Scheppers entered the spring as the Rangers' answers to Jeff Manship and David Buchanan. Both spent last season as relievers. Neither was expected to be in the rotation. But then Derek Holland and Yu Darvish went down, and the Rangers were forced to reach into their depth.

Ross is a soon-to-be 25-year-old with phenomenal minor league numbers and 2 years of big-league bullpen experience in which he has a 2.62 ERA and excellent peripherals: 7.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9. Scheppers boasts similar credentials - he's 27 instead of 25 - and is coming off a spring in which he struck out 14 while walking just four in 14 2/3 innings. Scheppers throws in the mid-90s. Ross is a lefty whose fastball averaged 92-93 last year. And while we're on the topic, both profile as the type of pitcher who has a track record of shutting down the Phillies' lineup.

The good news is that the Braves are already well into their depth, with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy out for the season and Mike Minor on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. The bad news is that the Nationals have Ross Detwiler, who probably would enter the season as the Phillies' No. 3 starter, in their bullpen. Washington also has 25-year-old Taylor Jordan (20 strikeouts, two walks in 20 2/3 spring innings) at Triple A. That's what depth looks like.

The Phillies will enter the season hoping that Cole Hamels is able to rejoin them in early May, but that leaves a long April between them and full health. Buchanan, a 25-year-old righthander who started 34 games at Reading between 2012 and 2013, was a pleasant surprise this spring. He could rejoin the team on April 13 when they need a fifth starter for the first time. Behind Buchanan are Manship and Sean O'Sullivan, a couple of veterans who had solid springs, but who probably shouldn't be counted on to be anything much different from what they have been thus far in their major league careers.

Top pitching prospect Jesse Biddle will need to put together several months of consistent fastball command before the Phillies even allow the thought of promoting him to cross their minds. By that point, their fate already could be written.

Any rotation that features Lee can't be all doom and gloom. He has looked like his usual steady self this spring, and there is little reason to expect that he'll be anything but now that the season has started. Burnett still deserves the benefit of the doubt after a couple of excellent seasons in Pittsburgh, but the infamously erratic righty was wild throughout Grapefruit League play. Of the 74 batters he faced, he walked eight, hit six with pitches, and struck out six. So there's that.

It is reasonable to expect some improvement out of Kendrick, who battled shoulder soreness during his awful second half last season. Roberto Hernandez has some upside, especially now that he is in the National League. But neither has looked like a pitcher who would crack the rotations of contenders like the Nationals or Cardinals. The good news is that both have a history of durability, Kendrick's last couple months of 2013 notwithstanding. The bad news is that an additional pitching injury almost certainly will come from somewhere. And right now, it's hard to envision the Phillies being able to withstand it.

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