A pitching staff is a lot like a stack of Jenga blocks. Remove a piece, and often you can replace it without causing much disruption. Remove more pieces, and the stack becomes more unstable. Remove the wrong piece -- or fail to replace it properly -- and the entire game comes crashing down.
The metaphor is one the Phillies will consider carefully over the next few days, as front office and coaching staff attempt to fill the void left when Joe Blanton learned this morning that he could be sidelined until mid-May with an oblique strain. In a perfect world, Kyle Kendrick slides into Blanton's spot in the rotation and causes barely a ripple. The young righthander spent most of spring as one of the most impressive pitchers in camp, showing good command of his off-speed pitches while allowing just four earned runs in 21.2 innings. Were it not for the presence of veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, Kendrick might already have a spot in the rotation. In this aforementioned perfect world, Blanton returns from the disabled list at some point during the three-to-six week window that team doctor Michael Ciccotti has outlined, by which time Kendrick and Moyer will have enjoyed plenty of time to prove which one of them deserves to remain in the starting five.
But baseball, as any general manager can attest, is not a perfect world, particularly when it comes to strained muscles in a player's core. Last season, Phillies reliever Clay Condrey spent close to three months on the disabled list battling an oblique strain that never seemed to fully recover. He left the team in mid-June, returned in mid-July, and made just three appearances before heading back to the disabled list, where he remained until mid-September.
Ciccotti said yesterday that Blanton's oblique strain is less severe than the one Condrey suffered. But even if the normally-durable righthander, who has never before spent time on the disabled list, has a normal recovery, his absence highlights the perilous lack of pitching depth in the Phillies' organization. Were the Phillies to suffer another injury, it is unclear where they would turn. Lefthander Joe Savery and righthander Andrew Carpenter are likely the top options at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but they have started a combined one game in the majors. Righthander Ryan Vogelsong, a former starter with the Pirates, spent the last three years in Japan and struggled with his command at times in spring training. Righthander Josh Fogg, recently signed to a minor league deal, started 179 games and posted a 4.93 ERA for the Pirates and the Rockies from 2002-07, but spent most of last season as a reliever in Colorado.
It is hard to imagine the Phillies dealing for a starting pitcher, since they traded away Cliff Lee for prospects in the offseason, and the deal did not include a return policy.
Which leaves the Phillies exactly where they knew they would be: Playing with the players they've got. And, as long as they stay reasonably healthy, they have plenty. Problem is, injuries have a trickle-down effect. Losing Blanton from the rotation means losing Kendrick from the bullpen. Which leaves a hole and no obvious replacement. Young lefthander Sergio Escalona was called up six different times last season, but he struggled this spring and is scheduled to start the season at Double-A Reading. Righthanders B.J. Rosenberg and newly-converted-starter Mike Stutes have potential, and will make the trip north with the Phillies for their two exhibition games against the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park, but neither one is even on the 40-man roster.
Suddenly, the Phillies will enter the regular season with a disabled list that features two relievers and one starter worth a combined $24 million. Suddenly, getting some production out of Rule 5 pick David Herndon won't just be a luxury, but a necessity. Suddenly, a rotation that was supposed to pitch deep into games and take pressure off a thin bullpen will feature both Moyer and Kendrick. In a perfect world, both players will pitch as well as they did this spring. But remember what we said about baseball and utopia.
Losing Joe Blanton for a month or a month-and-a-half won't kill any title dreams, assuming the problem with the notoriously fickle muscle on the left side of his abodomen does not linger. But it will move them one injury, or set-back, closer to a real problem, whether it is in the bullpen or in the rotation or both.
The tower is still standing. But there is a hole.