I want you all to take a few seconds on click on this link and read the following story, because it does a good job of accentuating the uniqueness of the situation that the Phillies find themselves in with regard to their search for a fifth starter. The article is taken from the Korea Times, and it breathlessly reports Chan Ho Park's latest spring start and his standing in the competition for the No. 5 spot. While it may seem bizarre that an entire nation of baseball fans on the other side of the world is following a position battle at Phillies spring training, it seems that is what is going on. The Korea Times is the oldest of three English-language daily newspapers in South Korea, and it is produced by the largest publishing company in the country. This recap of Park's latest start is linked, with a picture, on the front page of KoreaTimes.com with a headline that says "Start me up!"
How intensely are South Koreans following this battle? The article goes so far as to parse the words written by the Associated Press about yesterday's game against the Astros, attempting to find some indication as to the direction the Phillies are leaning.
Look at it this way: if you stopped a passerby on the streets of Seoul and asked him who J.A. Happ is, there is a good chance that passerby would answer correctly.
Kind of adds a new level of intrigue to the battle, doesn't it?
Chan Ho Park wants to start. He made that clear when he signed, he made that clear when he first arrived at spring training, and he made that clear yesterday when I asked him point blank if he would accept a role in the bullpen.
"Wait and see," was Park's reply.
It seems that this competition is not simply a matter of Park helping the Phillies repeat. It is about national pride. If Park loses the battle to Happ, there will be a story in the Korea Times that says this. And, judging by the way the battle has been framed thus far in media reports over there, it will be portrayed as a defeat.
If the Phillies decide to go with Happ, it will put them in a precarious position. Nobody knows exactly what was said between the two sides during contract negotiations. If Park really came away from the discussions thinking that all he had to do was pitch well to win the starting spot, then it will look like the Phillies are going back on their word if they do not give him the job. After all, he has struck out 25 batters and walked just two this spring. He has a 2.53 ERA. He showed yesterday that he can overcome a rocky start, something that is imperative as a starter.
But from an evaluation standpoint, the Phillies can make a strong case for Happ. Happ has performed well. He has a 3.15 ERA. He has allowed two fewer hits in 1 1/3 fewer innings, at least in Grapefruit League play (minor league appearances and simulated games are not factored into these statistics). And numbers aren't everything. Park faced a line-up yesterday that was devoid of Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. It is very hard to compare apples to apples in the spring. Looking further down the road, the Phillies have a greater vested interest in Happ's future. At some point in time, they need to find out if he is going to be rotation-material for them down the road. Joe Blanton will be a free agent after the 2010 season and Brett Myers is a free agents next season. If both have good seasons, it is hard to imagine the Phillies being able to have enough payroll flexibility to afford both. Furthermore, Jamie Moyer is 46. And there is no telling where the futures of Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Carrasco lie.
Add in the contributions Happ made last season, and the work he has put in this offseason, and the fact that he has done everything the Phillies have asked him to do, and it would seem to be equally difficult to tell Happ that he just wasn't good enough this spring. Pitching coach Rich Dubee has said all along that he will not forget what Happ did for the team last season.
"Fit" is a word Dubee and Charlie Manuel have used repeatedly when explaining how they will make their decision. Asked yesterday, Manuel didn't say that the winner would be whoever has pitched best this spring. He said the decision will come down to whatever "fits best." Park proved last season he could have success as a reliever. The Phillies, meanwhile, have said all along that they view Happ as a starter.
Maybe Park is the clear-cut choice as a starter. He has certainly looked good. If so, the decision is easy. If he isn't, though, a logical scenario would seem to have Happ begin the season as the starter and keep Park in the bullpen as a reliever/insurance policy. If Happ pitches well, it works out best for the team. If he doesn't, then they can put Park in the rotation and give him his shot.
The problem, of course, is the one we alluded to at the beginning of this blog post. There is no telling how Park would react if the Phillies told him that his sparkling spring just wasn't sparkling enough. At that point, even the most rational of professional athletes would wonder whether the Phillies had ever considered him a realistic option for the starting rotation. The situation, it seems, is more complicated than a simple matter of "fit."
If you told Manuel and Dubee and Ruben Amaro Jr. in February that both Happ and Park would pitch as well as they have, they would have responded by saying that too many quality pitchers is a good problem to have. They would have told you that spring has a way of working these things out.
Well, spring is almost over. Whether the Phillies' problem is a good one or a potentially divisive one will be fascinating to see.