When the Phillies failed to move veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson at the non-waiver trade deadline, some otherwise rational people suggested that was a mistake, whatever the deal might have been, because Hellickson's presence blocked the way for the overdue promotion of Jake Thompson from Lehigh Valley.
I say "otherwise rational people," but the truth is it was mostly fans communicating by posted comments and through email, the latter method often employing all capital letters. For instance: "GET HIM UP HERE NOW."
Whether those impatient for Thompson imagined a late pennant push or had simply identified the savior du jour and wanted to see the first round of miracles sooner than later is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, Thompson gave them reason to look forward to his arrival, even if painful past experience indicates there are no sure things when it comes to the jump from triple A to the major leagues, the sharpest wheat-from-chaff dividing line in sports.
Thompson, who was acquired in the trade for Cole Hamels last year, had gone 8-0 in his previous 11 starts with Lehigh Valley, compiling a 1.21 ERA during that period and holding opponents to a .202 batting average. His success demanded a promotion and, when Aaron Nola went on the disabled list with a sore elbow, Thompson got it. He became the hot prospect called up with anticipation high both within the organization and from the fans. In other words, he became this year's Aaron Nola. "STOP WAITING. HE'S READY."
Jake Thompson has major-league stuff, and there is no doubt he's going to have a major-league career. Those facts weren't changed on Saturday night when he made his debut against the Padres and gave up six earned runs in 41/3 innings, and four of them in a slow-motion first inning that included three hits, two walks, and a wild pitch.
It was one good reminder that the major leagues are a different beast, both physically and mentally, and that saviors don't just pop out of the minor leagues every year. The best reminder of that should have been that Thompson was called up to join the rotation because Nola, last year's Jake Thompson, couldn't pitch.
Nola's work in 2015 and 2016 makes up almost exactly a full baseball season, and we can apply some perspective now to the hype that greeted his arrival. In 33 career starts, Nola has pitched 1882/3 innings. He has a 12-11 record and a 4.29 ERA. That's not a savior, folks. That's Joe Blanton.
Now, it should be mentioned that Nola earned those numbers pitching for a dreadful baseball team. The won-lost record can't be strictly held against him (although he gave up four or more runs in seven of his nine losses this season), but the ERA is his to own. And now he's hurt. "WE WERE SURE HE'D BE GREAT."
Every organization tries to collect as many prospects as possible, particularly pitchers, because while each player has potential, he also has a career arc that is fragile, both figuratively and literally.
When the Phillies chose to keep Hellickson, a reliable consumer of innings, it wasn't because Matt Klentak didn't see the value of trading him but because the general manager also saw the value of protecting the young arms in the rotation. Nola is a cautionary tale in that way.
Between his time in Reading, Lehigh Valley, and the Phillies last season, Nola totaled 1862/3 innings, which is way beyond any amount he had ever thrown before. With a full workload this season (111 innings through July 28), he appeared to tire badly before going on the DL. Nola lasted an average of 61/2 innings in his April and May starts, and 41/3 innings in June and July. He allowed more than four earned runs in one start during the opening two months and in five starts thereafter.
Look around the young staff, and you wonder whether it will be wise to push through the rest of the season with just a five-man rotation, or with these five, anyway. Zach Eflin's previous career high was 1312/3 innings. He was at 1282/3 before Monday's game in Los Angeles. Vince Velasquez threw 1242/3 innings in 2013, but totaled just 632/3 and 882/3 in 2014 and 2015. He's at 1022/3 now. Jerad Eickhoff has thrown a lot of innings before, as has Hellickson, but even Thompson, who will make his second start on Saturday, might be in danger of being overworked. He threw 1292/3 innings in 2014, 1322/3 innings in 2015 and is at 134 innings now.
Getting them to the major leagues is one thing. Keeping them there is another, and keeping the supply behind them coming is yet another. If Thompson is this year's Nola, who is next year's Thompson? Ben Lively? Mark Appel? At the moment, there isn't an obvious candidate. "TRUST US. WE'LL FIND SOMEONE BY JULY."
That's why the rush to anoint Jake Thompson was understandable and familiar but did a disservice to just how hard it is to build a bad baseball team into a contender. It takes more than good numbers on the backs of giveaway cards at Free Haircut Night somewhere in the sticks. It takes patience and luck. Maybe it will work out for Thompson, this year's savior. For Nola, who wore that thorny crown just a year ago, the job description hasn't fit yet.
The truth is that there isn't any magic to it, no one guy who will change things. It will take a lot of guys, and it will take a lot of time. This is a hard game. At least, it certainly looked hard when Jake Thompson took his first step over the threshold on Saturday.