Lean Phillies rotation could take quite a while to fix

Jerome Williams started Tuesday for the Phillies, who acquired him off waivers. On Aug. 1, he allowed 10 runs in four innings while pitching for Texas. CHRIS CARLSON / AP
Jerome Williams started Tuesday for the Phillies, who acquired him off waivers. On Aug. 1, he allowed 10 runs in four innings while pitching for Texas. CHRIS CARLSON / AP
Posted: August 14, 2014

ANAHEIM, Calif. - The ninth pitcher to start a game for the Phillies this season lounged on a bench Tuesday in the visitors' dugout at Angels Stadium.

Jerome Williams approached Ryne Sandberg, his new manager, to introduce himself a few hours before the Angels' 7-2 victory over the Phillies.

"What's up?" Sandberg said.

"Last time I saw you was in Chicago," Williams said. "You signed a ball for me."

Sandberg did not remember the long-ago meeting. He smiled and the two men exchanged more pleasantries. That is how Williams' indeterminate time as the Phillies' fifth starter commenced.

The Phillies - Sandberg, in specific terms - have spoken for more than a year about the crucial need for better pitching depth. Tyler Cloyd, Ethan Martin, Zach Miner, and Raul Valdes combined for 23 starts in 2013, many of them in September as the Phillies slogged to an unceremonious conclusion.

The situation has not improved.

Hence, Williams, a waiver-wire addition who allowed 10 runs in four innings for Texas against Cleveland on Aug. 1. He replaced Sean O'Sullivan, a veteran who made two spot starts for the Phillies only to be designated for assignment after each one. Williams' presence is temporary; the Phillies jettisoned Roberto Hernandez, a pitcher they did not plan to re-sign, for low-level Dodgers minor-leaguers.

Williams pitched well Tuesday, allowing five hits and two runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Entering the game, the rotation's 4.02 ERA ranked 12th in the National League, ahead of Miami, Arizona, and Colorado. Phillies starters logged a 4.41 mark in 2013; only Colorado was worse. The game is pitching-dominated, and every club will look to bolster its rotation this winter.

The Phillies will enter 2015 without assurances from Cliff Lee, who will make $37.5 million (including a 2016 buyout) next season, because of a strained left elbow. Kyle Kendrick, who has posted one of the highest ERAs among starters since 2013, will be a free agent at the end of 2014. A.J. Burnett's player option for 2015 could be worth as much as $12.75 million, although he could retire.

That leaves Cole Hamels - an asset the Phillies could dangle this winter during their search for young, major-league-ready talent - and David Buchanan, who was unprotected in last winter's Rule 5 draft.

Sandberg, when asked about the lack of starting depth, placed the onus on the developmental side.

"We need some of the guys to filter up from the lower levels, to catch up with those guys coming up through the ranks," Sandberg said. "That's where it starts with that. It starts with your minor leagues and your homegrown. Once that can catch up a little bit . . . in the meantime you have to have some guys on hand."

Are there any minor-league pitchers able to make the jump?

"For next year?" Sandberg said. "Um, Jesse Biddle, for one, um . . ." He paused. Aaron Nola, the seventh-overall pick in June's draft, was suggested as one option. "Yeah, yeah," Sandberg said. Biddle, who was demoted to single-A Clearwater after a "mental break," could be delayed. Beyond those two, there are few healthy arms close to the majors.

"Right," Sandberg said. "It has to catch up with the homegrown guys filtering up through the system. Start there, then add pieces if necessary."

Those pieces, free-agent pitchers, could fill the middle of the rotation in 2015. The Phillies are not viewed as suitors for top commodities such as Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, or James Shields, since they already have invested $125 million in nine players.

Mid-tier pitchers such as Jason Hammel, Ryan Vogelsong, Jorge De La Rosa, Colby Lewis, Kevin Correia, and Edinson Volquez could come with short-term agreements to augment depth. Better options are Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Justin Masterson, and Jake Peavy, who may command larger commitments.

How the Phillies attack the free-agent pool depends on what plan - and immediate expectations - the front office adopts. If, as Ruben Amaro Jr. has alluded, the Phillies deem contention not realistic for 2015 or 2016, they could seek more palatable contracts with the hope of uncovering value that entices a contending team to execute a July trade.

For now, they turn to the Jerome Williamses of the baseball world.

mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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