The Phillies have made no secret that they are looking to upgrade their rotation. The problem they face in doing so is two-fold: First, Roy Oswalt is the only top-shelf starter who is definitely available. Second, the Phillies will not part ways with Domonic Brown, their only major-league ready blue-chip prospect, making it difficult to acquire anything greater than a middle-of-the-rotation arm.
What they could really use is an addition that costs them nothing. Even better, an addition that costs them nothing and is 12-5 with a 2.91 ERA over his last 30 starts while averaging more than 6 innings per outing.
Enter J.A. Happ.
The 27-year-old lefty had his season derailed in mid-April when he developed tightness in his elbow that was officially diagnosed as a forearm starin. In his only two starts this season, he threw 10.1 scoreless innings against the Nationals and Astros. But he also walked eight and racked up high pitch counts, then admitted to some tightness in his elbow after his velocity dipped into the mid-80's against Washington.
After a two-month absence and six inconsistent rehab starts, the Phillies activated Happ from the disabled list and sent him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. At the same time, the Phillies increased their efforts to add a starter via trade.
In two starts since his demotion, Happ has allowed six runs on 11 hits in 10 innings. He has allowed two home runs and seven walks, and has struck out 14.
But general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the reports on Happ's latest start, when he allowed three runs in five innings with seven strikeouts and four walks against Louisville, were good.
"He started out a little tentative and then threw the (heck) out of it the last two innings," said Amaro, who added that his velocity sat between 92 and 95 MPH. "That was a good sign."
Is he a realistic option to bolster the rotation?
"Absolutely," Amaro said. "He's going to help us this year. I don't know when."
The two most positive signs out of Happ would seem to be the consistency of his velocity and his strikeout numbers in his two recent starts.
Last season, Happ went 10-4 wtih a 2.99 ERA in 23 starts after taking Chan Ho Park's spot in the rotation in mid-May. He averaged 6.1 innings per start and tossed three complete games. In his 21 starts from May 29 to September 29, the Phillies went 13-8. He pitched at least seven innings and held opponents under three runs eight times during that stretch.
"When he gets right, he's going to help us here," said Amaro, who added that the team "absolutely" is looking at Happ as a starter, and not a reliever.
Placido Polanco went 3-for-3 with a double and 2 RBI for the Gulf Coast League Phillies early Friday afternoon. There is still a possibility that he joins the team in Chicago, although Amaro said before the game there were no definite plans.
"We'll find out how he feels after today and go from there," he said.