Decision on Happ looms large

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ is looking to regain his spot in the Phillies' crowded pitching rotation. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

What we have here is an interesting situation. The Phillies think they need pitching help. They are willing to trade for it. And they have the ability to add a guy who went 10-4 with a 2.99 ERA and averaged more than six innings in 23 starts last season. Furthermore, that guy is chomping at the bit to return.

And yet, the decision they'll be faced with over the next few days is a difficult one.

Last night, the aforementioned starter, lefthander J.A. Happ, made his sixth rehab appearance since going on the disabled list with a strained forearm after his second start of the season.

He looked sharp in his first three innings, not-so-sharp in his fourth, and somewhere in between in his final one-and-a-third.

At worst, he looked like a guy who was capable of filling an opening in a big league rotation.

Problem is, the Phillies have no obvious opening, despite their belief that they need to upgrade their rotation to improve their chances at placing themselves back among on the sport's elite teams.

Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer are not going anywhere -- nor should they -- and Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton have both given manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee enough reason to keep believing in them.

So what will the Phillies do?

It depends on three variables: 1) How they evaluate Happ, 2) How they evaluate the bottom of their rotation, 3) How they evaluate the next couple weeks on the schedule

1) Happ

As J.A. Happ stood in a corridor that snakes through the bowels of Coca Cola Park, an Iron Pigs staffer approached him and patted him on the shoulder.

"Hopefully we've seen the last of you at Triple-A," the well-wisher said as post-game fireworks began to pop outside.

Truth is, Happ doesn't have much of a say in the matter. According to major league rules, the rehab assignment that he began in early June will expire on Wednesday. The Phillies could file for an extension, but to do so, they would have to claim that Happ's strained left forearm requires more time to rehabiliatate. That does not appear to be the case. Happ has said since his fifth rehab start that he feels healthy enough to pitch at the big league level, and the Phillies have not publicly disagreed with that sentiment.

Last night, he looked healthy. According to the scoreboard radar gun, his fastball sat between 88-91 and touched 92 three times. In a 30-pitch fourth inning in which he allowed two hits and two walks, it sat at the lower end of that range. But seven of the last eight fastballs he threw in the fifth and sixth clocked at 90 or 91. It is tough to say how accurate the scoreboard is, but it looked pretty accurate (the pitcher who followed him, Mike Stutes, was throwing 91-93, which from what I understand is consistent with the book on him). More important than velocity, the swings of the opposing hitters made it look like they were having difficulty timing him. Happ said afterward his arm strength and arm speed felt good. The hardest hit ball he allowed was a line-out to the warning track in the second inning. He allowed nine ground balls and 11 fly balls, with two of the fly balls staying on the infield.

Of the six hits he allowed, two went for extra bases.

But Happ also walked four batters. An unfriendly strike zone contributed a little. But he definitely struggled with his command in the fourth inning.

"I don't like to use it as an excuse," Happ said, "but I maybe tried to do a little too much."

2) Kendrick and Blanton

For most of the season, conventional wisdom suggested that Kyle Kendrick was only occupying a spot in the rotation until Happ was ready to return. But Kendrick tossed the first complete game of his career in a 12-4 win over the Pirates on Saturday. Since his first two starts of the season, an ugly pair of outings in which he allowed 11 runs to the Nationals, Kendrick is 5-3 with a 3.90 ERA. During that same timespan, Hamels is 4-7 with a 3.95 ERA.

Joe Blanton, meanwhile, pitched six strong innings yesterday before allowing three in the seventh. He entered that start having thrown three straight quality starts.

Although the Phillies used Blanton and Happ out of the bullpen during last year's postseason, it's hard to envision them viewing either one in that light this year. If the Phillies are to contend during the second half, they need Blanton pitching like he has for most of his previous four starts. And subjecting Happ's elbow to the uncertain schedule of a reliever probably isn't the ideal situation.

3) The rotation

This doesn't help matters. Happ's next turn to pitch comes on Friday against the Reds, when Blanton is scheduled to pitch on normal rest. Kendrick is scheduled to pitch on Thursday on normal rest. The only way to get Happ a start before the All-Star break would be to bump Blanton, or bump Cole Hamels from starting the first half finale against the Reds on Sunday (Roy Hallady is scheduled to pitch Saturday).

Mon vs. Braves - Halladay
Tue vs. Braves - Hamels
Wed vs. Braves - Moyer
Thu vs. Reds - Kendrick
Fri vs. Reds - Blanton/Happ
Sat vs. Reds - Halladay
Sun vs. Reds - Hamels
Mon - OFF
Tue - OFF
Wed - OFF
Thu - at Cubs
Fri - at Cubs
Sat - at Cubs
Sun - at Cubs

4) So. . .

Because the Phillies don't have much flexibility when it comes to scheduling their rotation, the only way to get Happ a start before the All-Star Break would seem to be to bump Blanton. He can't start in place of Kendrick, because that would require him starting on short rest.

But there is another option, albeit one that would probably frustrate Happ. The Phillies could activate him from the disabled list, and then option him to Lehigh Valley, where he could start on Friday in Syracuse or on Saturday in Scranton. Of course, that would require the Phillies to part with one of their Triple-A players, since Happ would count toward that team's roster limit.

Asked about that situation yesterday, Happ replied, "We'll just see what happens. I don't think that's necessary."

The Phillies could also make the aforementioned move of applying for an extension to his rehab stint.

The biggest factor in the situation is how the Phillies feel about Happ's readiness to retire big league hitters. He only struck out one yesterday, and he walked four. But results are secondary to how the Phillies feel about his pitchability (Blanton allowed five runs and two home runs while striking out two in five innings of his final rehab appearance before he was activated in late-April).

You'd think, though, that the Phillies need to see Happ back in the rotation at some point soon so they have a better idea of their needs at the trade deadline.