Phillies prepared to enter spring with gaping hole in roster…again (and what it portends)

Phillies fans hold up a sign reading "It's Ruben's fault" during a game at Citizens Bank Park in August 2013. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

We are 17 days away from the first official workout for pitchers and catchers down in Clearwater, so now would seem to be an appropriate time to start the process of debriefing the offseason in an attempt to figure out what it all means (within the context of the sport of baseball...beyond that, you are on your own). 

One initial observation. . .

I still find it hard to believe that the Phillies are going to enter into the season with this rotation if they really do think that they should be taken seriously in the National League playoff conversation.

On the one hand, it won't be hard for Roberto Hernandez to give the Phillies more production than Roy Halladay gave them over the last two years. On the other hand, he's Roberto Hernandez. Right now, the Phillies rotation looks a lot like it did for the majority of 2012, with two No. 1 starters (Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee), followed by a No. 4 starter in Kyle Kendrick (3.90 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9 that season) and three No. 5 starters in Roy Halladay (4.49 ERA, 90 ERA+), Joe Blanton (4.59 ERA, 88 ERA+) and Vance Worley (4.20 ERA, 96 ERA+). 

  1. Cliff Lee: 2.87 ERA, 133 ERA+ in 2013
  2. Cole Hamels: 3.60 ERA, 106 ERA+
  3. Kyle Kendrick: 4.70 ERA, 81 ERA+
  4. Roberto Hernandez: 4.89 ERA, 78 ERA+
  5. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez: Did Not Pitch
  6. Jonathan Pettibone: 4.04 ERA, 95 ERA+

The question isn't whether the offense will be better. It actually has the potential to be quite a bit better. The question is whether the offense can score five or more runs three out of every five days, which is a reasonable expectation of what it could take to win those games with Kendrick, Hernandez and Gonzalez/Pettibone on the mound. Gonzalez, obviously, is a huge wild card. The Phillies are hoping he proves to be a No. 3 starter that can bump Kendrick down to No. 4 and Hernandez down to No. 5. But how realistic is that hope? There is a reason the Phillies were able to sign him for three years and $12 million. We live in a world where Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton and Phil Hughes sign for more money than that. The fact that the Phillies were able to sign Gonzalez for what is essentially the going rate for a seventh or eighth inning reliever would seem to indicate that 29 other teams did not believe Gonzalez was likely to become a No. 3 starter, or even a No. 4 or No. 5 starter (or else the Phillies would have had to pay more, out-bidding the other team), and that the market valued him more as a reliever/swingman type. Hey, markets are wrong all the time. Nobody valued Francisco Liriano appropriately last year. Lately, though, the Phillies have not often found themselves on the right side of that value.

Even if Gonzalez does prove to be an improvement over Kendrick/Hernandez, giving the Phillies production similar to that which Kendrick provided in his career year of 2012 (again, 3.90 ERA, etc.), the production that the Phillies received from Halladay/Blanton that year is pretty much the upper bound for Hernandez's potential, and the production that they saw from Worley (4.20 ERA, 96 ERA+, 7.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9) is about the upper bound for what they can hope for out of Kendrick (which would essentailly be a repeat of his 2012).

In other words, the Phillies are currently looking at a BEST CASE SCENARIO in which their rotation is equivalent to what it was in 2012, when they finished 81-81. Which would mean the lineup and bullpen would have to make up the remaining five wins needed to get them into the playoff conversation, and the eight wins needed to give them a better-than-even shot at qualifying.

Now, let's forget for a moment whether the lineup/bullpen is up to that task. If you squint, it could be. But the point is, the Phillies are already in a position where they must hope for just about EVERYTHING to break in their favor, and they haven't even arrived at Clearwater yet. Injuries don't just stop happening. Maybe Cliff Lee will make it through a five-year deal without a significant injury to his pitching arm. Maybe Cole Hamels will log 215 innings per season for the rest of his career. But along with hoping that everybody who was already injured or underproducing returns to states of health and production, the Phillies need to hope that nobody else gets injured or underproduces.

All of this is a long-winded way of expressing some reasonable doubt as to whether a rotation that already looks this tenuous will make it through a 162-game season performing at a level necessary to consider oneself a legitimate contender. And this is what I simply do not understand about the Phillies philosophy over the last few years. Every season since 2011 they have arrived at spring training with at least one glaring hole that they refused to address in the offseason. In 2011, it was a right-handed bat to replace Jayson Werth and play right field. In 2012 it was a left fielder to provide more production than the three-headed monster of Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. and, most importantly, help replace whatever production they would lose from the lineup with Ryan Howard recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. And in 2013 it was a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation type (i.e., someone other than John Lannan) to provide some insurance for what appeared to be the sad but inevitable fall of Harry Leroy Halladay. All of these omissions compounded to result in last year's dreadful campaign. Sign the right-handed bat in 2011 and you don't have to trade for Hunter Pence, and you still have Jonathan Singleton, Domingo Santana and Jarred Cosart to parlay into Justin Upton or Gio Gonzalez, etc., and so on.

The puzzling thing about each of these omissions is that the Phillies appeared to have been pot committed, to the point where it wasn't worth risking a $160+ million payroll missing the playoffs in order to save $7 million to $15 million.

And here we are again. If the Phillies are honest in their belief that what they have assembled is a roster that has a chance at making the playoffs, why wouldn't they fill the one glaring need that still exists on the roster, one that has the potential, even the likelihood, of submarining any championship aspirations warranted by the performances of the rest of the squad? Hey, the pitching market sucks. Matt Garza is not The Guy. Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez both bring huge risks. But at some point, you gotta play within the boundaries that are laid.

In the past, I'd say that the Phillies are living in a fantasy world of denial and and observational bias, overestimating their talent and underestimating their risk factors. This year, though, I'm inclined to conclude that they view any further investment as throwing good money after bad, and that Ruben Amaro Jr. and Co. are just going to have to hope for good luck while dancing with the ones they brought, lest blowup time arrive. 

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