Saturday, December 27, 2014

What will the Phillies rotation look like next year? It's a scary thought

Kyle Kendrick seems destined to depart. Roberto Hernandez and A.J. Burnett also seem unlikely to return. So who pitches?

What will the Phillies rotation look like next year? It's a scary thought

Kyle Kendrick. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Kyle Kendrick. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

Here's a fun game. Try to predict who will be in the Phillies rotation next season. We'll spot you Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, despite the potential that one of them is traded before Opening Day, 2015.

A.J. Burnett? A return would seem unlikely given his availability on the trade block, his contemplation of retirement last offseason, and the Phillies’ rebuilding status. 

Roberto Hernandez? He'll be a free agent. And while he has a 4.22 ERA, he hasn't looked like anything more than a spot starter.

That brings us to Kyle Kendrick. He pitched yesterday. As has been the case for more than a calendar year, he did not pitch well, allowing six runs in five innings before a 1:39 rain delay brought a merciful end to an outing that included two walks, two hit batsmen, a home run to Chris Johnson, and one strikeout. His ERA on the season rose to 4.87, which ranks 85th out of 92 major league starters.

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“It’s been a tough year for me,” Kendrick said. “I don’t know why, it just hasn’t been a good year. Guys have bad years and so far that’s how it’s been. Got to keep pitching.”

Kendrick, like Hernandez, will be a free agent at the end of the season, a prospect that a little more than a year ago seemed destined to reward him with a multi-year deal. On June 8 of last season, he had a 3.22 ERA while logging 86 2/3 innings over his first 13 starts. Since then, however, he has posted a 5.25 ERA in 38 starts, including yesterday's debacle. He has allowed at least four runs in eight of his last 12 outings, during which time his ERA is 5.47. Of the 89 pitchers who have at least 40 starts since the start of the 2013 season, Kendrick’s 4.77 ERA is the sixth highest, behind Joe Saunders, Juan Nicasio, Edwin Jackson, Edinson Volquez and C.C. Sabathia.

"He hasn't done himself any favors early in the game, particularly in the first inning, although today it was the second and third inning,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “Pitching to contact is one thing, pitching to defense and making quality pitches is another thing. He tends to pitch away from contact, then free passes happen and they result in runs on the board. Today's game, he just put us in a big hole early."

Given Sandberg's frustration with a problem that has plagued Kendrick all season, it seems increasingly likely that the Phillies will move on from a righthander whose eight-year career with the club started at the tender age of 22.

The question is, where, exactly, can they move?

Of the roughly 25 pitchers who are likely to reach free agency at the end of the season, Kendrick would rank somewhere in the middle third. The bottom of the barrel mostly includes players who have spent most of the season outside of a big league rotation: Carlos Villaueva, Joe Saunders, Jerome Williams, Ryan Dempster, Chris Capuano, Joe Blanton, and Colby Lewis.

In Kendrick’s category are names like Kevin Correia, Wandy Rodriguez, and Paul Maholm, although those last two are bounce-back candidates. The majority of the available pitchers are middle-to-bottom-of-the-rotation types: Jason Hammel, Brandon McCarthy, Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy, Jorge De La Rosa, Josh Beckett and Edinson Volquez.

There are four pitchers pitchers who could be No. 3 starters in a playoff rotation (Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, Justin Masterson and Francisco Liriano), and three who would slot as a No. 1 or No. 2 (Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields).

You can see why the Phillies will listen to offers on both Lee and Hamels, and why their ears will perk up if any of those offers include two young starters with middle-of-the-rotation potential. A pair of No. 1 starters does little good if they are followed by a trio of No. 5 or No. 6 starters. Are the Phillies a better team with Hamels and a No. 5-quality starter, or two No. 3-quality starters?

The biggest impediment to a return to competency for the Phillies is the organization's remarkable lack of depth, particularly when it comes to major league ready starting pitching. They would be thrilled if 2014 first round draft pick Aaron Nola can make his big league debut at some point in 2015, but he almost certainly will not break camp with the team. Rookie righthander David Buchanan will likely return to the major league roster before the end of the season. He posted a 4.40 ERA in 10 starts while filling in for the injured Lee. While he showed that he can hold his own as a No. 5 starter, he does not project as much more than that. Jesse Biddle, who entered the season as the organization's top pitching prospect, struggled in his second season at Double-A and is currently in Clearwater trying to gather himself.

All of which will likely send the Phillies to the offseason with, at most, three starting pitchers for a five-man rotation. That might not be much worse than the rotation has looked for much of the season. But it is hard to see it getting much better.

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