Phillies' rotation murky behind three aces

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Vance Worley will be counted on to reproduce the success he had as a rookie. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - This is what life after Four Aces looks like: Vance Worley, sporting a new bushy hairdo, is the subject of ribbing from major-leaguers because he's one of them. Joe Blanton, freed from the purgatory of solitary rehabilitation, is step-for-step with his teammates. Kyle Kendrick, owner of a brand-new $7.5 million contract, is holding a makeshift news conference in the cafeteria.

There are more questions than a spring ago, when photo shoots and grandiose predictions dominated a pitching staff's time. A thin layer of uncertainty hovers over the back of the Phillies rotation.

At the top, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are unmatched. Pitching coach Rich Dubee dubbed Worley the fourth starter as camp officially opened Sunday. Every discussion about Blanton requires the word if. An elbow injury and persistent trade rumors will do that.

The Phillies signed Kendrick to a two-year deal worth $7.5 million on Sunday. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. cited "cost certainty" - in other words, the 27-year-old righthander will not earn a significant raise again in 2013 through arbitration.

But the contract shows increased faith in a pitcher whom the Phillies appear to value more by the day. When asked whether Kendrick could start 25 to 30 games for these Phillies, Dubee issued a strong vote of confidence.

"Very much so," Dubee said. "I think there probably would be a lot of teams comfortable with Kyle Kendrick as a starter."

Poll

After Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, in which starter do you have the most confidence?

Right now, he's the sixth in a rotation of five, but that could change depending on Blanton's status. It's the beginning of spring training, so there must be Blanton trade rumors.

"I wouldn't know what to do if they didn't come along," Blanton deadpanned Sunday morning. "I don't even pay attention anymore. It's a business. We all understand that. No one takes it personal."

The latest: The Phillies, according to numerous published reports, talked to the New York Yankees about A.J. Burnett, who ultimately was traded to Pittsburgh. To fit Burnett into the rotation and payroll, the Phillies would have been forced to deal Blanton to another team, perhaps in a three-way deal.

That's where the reality of any Blanton rumor comes to a screeching halt. No one will trade for Blanton, who pitched all of 411/3 innings in 2011, right now unless the Phillies eat all of his remaining $8.5 million salary. And the Phils want to trade Blanton to free up money, so that's not happening.

Does that preclude a Blanton trade from happening later this spring? No. By reportedly inquiring about Burnett, the Phillies showed their hand; they are seeking an upgrade.

Amaro was asked Sunday whether he is pursuing such a move.

"Right now, I think we're pretty comfortable with our rotation," Amaro said. "I like the way we set up. Vance had a very good year last year. Joe Blanton, if he's healthy, is going to be a good pitcher for us. That is still an 'if' because of the year he had."

Blanton first must prove he is healthy in spring training before the Phillies are able to explore any other options. The righthander battled a nebulous elbow ailment for most of 2011. He will begin spring training on the same throwing program as the rest of the pitching staff.

"I feel really good so far," Blanton said. "I didn't really stop throwing through the winter. I've had no problems."

The Phillies' decision-makers are more reserved when it comes to discussing Blanton.

"We don't know exactly where he's at until we get him some work," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We have six starters. He's definitely one of those guys."

Of course, Blanton's health is important regardless of where he pitches. If the Phillies see improvement, they could keep him. If another team likes what it sees in Blanton and is willing to assume a chunk of his salary, the Phillies could move him in the right deal and rely on Kendrick with Joel Pineiro et al. behind him.

Indeed, life after Four Aces is more complicated.

 


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.