Phillies 2004 Preview: Starting Pitching

It's usually a lot uglier than this. For the first time in memory, the Phillies will enter spring training with their starting rotation set. The staff has the potential to be better that the 1993 squad, when Curt Schilling, Terry Mulholland, Tommy Greene, Danny Jackson and Ben Rivera all won 12 or more games.

Since the magical year of 1993, only Curt Schilling enjoyed even a modicum of success for the Phils (remember Russ Springer?  Ryan Nye?  Calvin Maduro?), and even he was often hurt.  Oh, occasionally you would get a decent season from a Robert Person here or a Paul Byrd there, but most of the time the Phils were counting on has-beens (Mark Portugal, Chad Ogea), never-weres (Mark Leiter, Sid Fernandez, Jim Deshaies), or highly-touted but injury-prone rookies (Mike Grace, Tyler Green, Michael Mimbs, Matt Beech, Carlton Loewer).  The team would go into spring training with only one or two starting slots filled.


But this year, hopes are high.  All five starters have shown they can be successful at this level.  Their average age is 26.  Kevin Millwood, 29, is the greybeard of the bunch.  Only Eric Milton is coming off an major injury, and even he pitched well since returning.  Any one of them can emerge as an ace.  What is perennially a major weakness is now a team strength.  All manager Larry Bowa has to decide this spring is in what order to set the rotation.  Must be nice to not have to pin your hopes on the Scott Ruffcorns and Joe Grahes of the world.


Today we take a look at what is arguably one of the top five rotations in baseball:



Kevin Millwood – RHP


Last year:  2003 was Millwood's first season as a staff ace.  Although he relished the role coming into the season and started 7-1, he struggled in that capacity and was 7-11 after May.  Whether he buckled under the weight of being the team's #1 or, as he has suggested, tired down the stretch due to his off-season conditioning, is open to speculation.


What could go right:  Millwood finally blossoms into the ace everybody hopes he will be, fulfilling the 20-win potential he showed in Atlanta.  He becomes the stopper of the staff, halting losing streaks and giving an overworked bullpen a rest.  Or another pitcher emerges as the ace, taking the pressure off Millwood and allowing him to pitch in a similar capacity as he did with the Braves, where he was a relatively anonymous innings-eater behind Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and twice won 18 games.


What could go wrong:  The pressure of being the ace (or, if nobody's saying that, the oldest and most successful starter on a team expected to win) gets to Millwood and he puts up mediocre numbers again. 


Outlook:  A 15- to 18-win season and 200+ innings are reasonable expectations for Millwood.  Although he is out of the comfort zone of pitching behind Maddux and Glavine, a year of experience as a #1 should benefit him.  If his new approach to winter workouts helps him the way it did Curt Schilling and with an improved bullpen to lighten the load, Millwood could be looking at his first 20-win season.



Randy Wolf – LHP


Last year:  Wolf led the team in wins with 16 and in strikeouts with 177.  Although he went through some rough patches where hitters seemed to figure him out and he got shellacked (leading to his relatively high 4.23 ERA), Wolf showed an uncanny knack for adjustment and often came back from a beating with a very strong game.  At 27, he is at the age where great left-handed starters begin to dominate.  However, 2003 saw his ERA jump over a run from 2002 and his giving up a career-high 27 home runs.


What could go right:    Wolf takes over as the ace of the staff, becoming the top southpaw in the NL.  He breaks the 20-win barrier for the first time, racks up 200 strikeouts and sports an ERA under 3. 


What could go wrong:  Hitters do figure out Wolf, and he struggles his way to a 9-14, 4.50 season. 


Outlook:  A finesse pitcher who, when he's on, changes speeds and location brilliantly, Wolf should continue to get better.  He is a fiery competitor but is open to coaching, and uses his head as well as his arm.  His primary flaw is lack of consistency.  However, that usually comes with experience, and Wolf was steadier last year than in his previous four.  Look for him to improve again, and win 17 to 20 games.



Vicente Padilla – RHP


Last year:  Padilla went 14-12 in 2003, racking up over 200 innings for the second year in a row and leading the team with a 3.62 ERA.  When he was on, he was nearly unhittable.  However, there were times when his stubbornness and his refusal to throw off-speed pitches got him in trouble.  He also occasionally tipped his pitches and naturally got lit up.  Although his numbers were good, it felt as though he should be great.


What could go right:  Padilla finally puts it all together and becomes the dominant, top-of-the-rotation starter he could be. 


What could go wrong:  He doesn't.  His ability makes it difficult to pull him from the rotation, but his head forces Larry Bowa to have a quick hook when Padilla starts.


Outlook:  Padilla has the filthiest stuff on the team, often invoking comparisons to Pedro Martinez, but has always been his own worst enemy.  If he takes coaching to heart and mixes up his pitches (and stays away from that high-school sidearm junk), he could be the best pitcher on the staff, possibly the league.  But if he continues to butt heads with Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, he could quickly find himself in the doghouse.  Expect Padilla to put up numbers similar to those he posted in 2002 and 2003.



Brett Myers – RHP


Last year:  In Myers' first full year in the Show, he was everything the Phillies could have hoped for.  14 wins for a 23-year-old is terrific, and although Phillies fans were hoping for their own Mark Prior, Myers did just about everything he was asked.  However, he tired during the year and posted a 5.72 ERA after the All-Star break.  He had a tendency to overthrow in pressure situations and could let emotions get the better of him.


What could go right:  Myers builds on his solid rookie season and becomes an All-Star caliber pitcher.  A year of experience allows him to pitch deeper into games as well as the season.


What could go wrong:  Myers suffers the sophomore jinx and regresses to the point where he is demoted to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and replaced by a Ryan Madson of an Eric Junge.


Outlook:  Myers should continue to get better with experience.  All he needs to do is concentrate on his mechanics and keep his emotions in check to be a dominant starter.  Figure on Myers posting similar numbers to last year, with more innings and a lower ERA.



Eric Milton – LHP


Last year:  Milton spent most of the season recovering from career-threatening knee surgery, but returned to the Twins' staff in September and pitched well enough to be added to the postseason roster, allowing less than one baserunner by hit or walk per inning.  His mid-90's fastball lost a little velocity, however, either due to the inactivity or from losing 20 pounds off his 2002 weight. 


What could go right:  Milton comes back fully recovered from surgery and regains the form that won him 41 games from 2000-2002.  He wins 15 games and earns a multi-year, $10 million plus per year contract.


What could go wrong:  The knee keeps Milton from returning to form, and he spends much of the year either on the disabled list or giving up dingers, a problem to which he is prone.


Outlook:  Expecting Milton to return to his 2002 form and improve on his previous success is unrealistic.  At $9 million, Milton is easily the highest-paid fifth starter in the game, and, in a free-agent year, will need to show that he is at least fully recovered in order to command that kind of salary again.  Many are concerned with his 4.76 career ERA, but the Metrodome bandbox he pitched in is the American League version of Coors Field.  If he wins 10-12 games with an ERA around 4, the Phillies would be very happy.



The Rest


The starting rotation is set, but injuries are a part of the game.  Depth is essential to success, and the Phils are in good shape.  Ryan Madson is likely the first phone call, and has shown enough in the minors that he would already be a part of most teams' plans.  Amaury Telemaco has major-league experience and put forth a yeoman-like effort when added to the rotation last August, posting a deceptive 1-4 record and a 3.97 ERA.  Josh Hancock, acquired from Boston last winter for Jeremy Giambi, has the potential to be a solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter.  Eric Junge has shown he can pitch at this level, and if Bud Smith, who has a big-league no-hitter to his credit, fully recovers from arm problems, may pitch too well in either the bullpen or SWB to keep out of the rotation.  It is an embarrassment of riches for the team that a few years ago had Chad Ogea as its #2 starter.




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