Starting pitching questions mute 2014 Phillies optimism

Cole Hamels in action during a baseball game against the New York Mets, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

It’s official, but something that has been coming for quite some time. The Phillies for the first time since 2002 will have a losing season.

That was ‘clinched’ during Friday’s 6-4 loss to the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies are now 71-82.

Really this is a two-year cycle, since the Phillies were 81-81 last year.

Everybody around the team expresses optimism that the Phillies can bounce back, but who really knows?

“Sometimes it takes a losing season to build and start the process and with that said, a lot of these guys have gotten to play and get experience and that is where you start the rebuilding process,” interim manager Ryne Sandberg said. “A lot of good things have gone on the last four weeks.”

There is no denying that. The Phillies are 18-15 under Sandberg and have seemingly showed more fight and heart.

Yet despite all the young players performing well, none of them have shown that they can contribute consistently in what is suddenly the Phillies biggest need – starting pitching.

 Everybody keeps saying that the Phillies have to find two starters behind Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Miguel Gonzalez.

Nothing against Gonzalez, who turns 27 next week, but the righthander hasn’t pitched much in the last two years, and then there were concerns over his elbow.

Inquirer Phillies beat writer Matt Gelb reported earlier that the team says he’s healthy, but somebody coming to a new country, who hasn’t pitched much recently, may not just walk in and be the team’s No. 3 starter. Or the No. 4 or 5 starter for that matter.

 And then the news Friday that the Phillies were shutting down Kyle Kendrick for the rest of the season, after receiving a second doctor’s opinion, is another blow to the rotation.

A recent MRI revealed Kendrick had rotator cuff tendinitis and some slight fraying.

Kendrick, who is eligible for arbitration, may not be a sure thing. In fact even if he weren’t injured, with his 6.91 ERA since the all-star break, one wonders if the Phillies can depend on him.

Beyond that, Jonathan Pettibone (right shoulder strain) will have to prove he can come back from injury.

And good luck in predicting whether Roy Halladay could be effective next season. Or even if the Phillies want him back, or he would like to return.

No doubt that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will be looking for starting pitchers, but trying to get patch-work players such as John Lannan for the back end of the rotation hasn’t worked out very well.

So it is good that the likes of Cody Asche, Cesar Hernandez, Darin Ruf, B.J. Rosenberg, Ethan Martin, Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman, have all received valuable experience.

 Of these young players, none is a starting pitcher. Martin began his stint with the Phillies as a starter but has been moved to the bullpen, where he profiles better.

The Phillies have left the door open for him to return as a starter, but it’s one they should close.

So for all the experience the young players have received, the Phillies haven’t gotten a starting pitcher who can be a definite keeper.

Not to dull the enthusiasm, but until some of these questions are answered about the starting rotation, it would be wise to hold off on any optimistic views for 2014.