Early look at Phillies' starting rotation

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Cliff Lee earned more than $24 million yet occasionally is said to need to "bounce back" from a disappointing campaign. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)

This is Part 1 of a weeklong series by David Murphy looking at the Phillies as they head into spring training. Today: The rotation.

MIDWAY THROUGH last season, a mildly contrarian school of thought began to emerge among those attempting to pinpoint the chief culprit behind the derailment of the Phillies' annual journey to the NL East crown.

While the lineup and the bullpen were the obvious candidates, the rotation shouldered plenty of criticism from folks looking to stay ahead of the analytical curve. So before we break down the unit's outlook for 2013, let's make sure we have a firm handle on the reality of its performance in 2012.

The most incongruous narrative that has developed over the past 5 or 6 months involves Cliff Lee, who more than earned his $24 million yet occasionally is said to need to "bounce back" from a disappointing campaign.

True, baseball's near-irrelevant formula for awarding victories to pitchers credited Lee with just six, and the Phillies went just 12-18 in his 30 starts. But consider this: Since baseball expanded to 18 teams in 1961, only two pitchers in the majors have won six or fewer games in a season in which they started at least 30 games with an ERA under 3.25 - the Padres' Joey Hamilton in 1995, and Lee last season. Lee finished 2012 with a 3.16 ERA that was the third-lowest of his career, and 0.23 better than the ERA he posted in 12 starts in 2009 in his first go-around with the club.

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As a unit, Phillies starters pitched at least seven innings while allowing three or fewer runs in 68 starts in 2012, the highest total in the majors. They also led the National League in innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. And while their combined ERA of 3.82 ranked just seventh out of 16 NL teams, that mark was not a whole lot different than the one posted by the Giants, who finished the season ranked fifth with a 3.73 ERA and then proceeded to win their second World Series in 3 years.

Long story short, the Phillies should not plan on a drastic improvement from their rotation, mostly because the rotation was still pretty darn good. That's not to say they won't get one, particularly if Roy Halladay can bounce back from the physical problems that sapped his velocity and movement for much of last season.

But Halladay turns 36 in May, and Lee turns 35 in August, so betting on 400 innings and 64 starts from the duo means betting against human physiology (last year, only four pitchers older than 33 logged 200 innings in the majors). The Phillies can expect more consistency out of the fifth spot in the rotation, where John Lannan replaces Joe Blanton, but it remains to be seen whether Kyle Kendrick can make it through an entire season in the rotation (he is coming off arguably the best season of his 6-year career, one in which he posted a 3.90 ERA with an average of 6.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings and 2.37 strikeouts-per-walk, both of them career highs and significantly better than his career averages).

The Phillies have plenty of depth in their system. If Lannan or Kendrick scuffles, or goes down with an injury, they could look to promising 22-year-old lefthander Adam Morgan, who has made a fast rise through the system over the past two seasons. A lot will depend on the impression pitchers like Morgan and 22-year-old righthander Jonathan Pettibone make during major league spring training. Those two are likely to be at the top of the minor league depth chart should a need arise, which means they are worth watching carefully during Grapefruit League play.

Of course, the Phillies will be hard-pressed to compensate if any of their Big Three starters land on the disabled list, which makes Halladay's health the most important story line of the spring.

 


Tomorrow: The lineup

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