Fifth Starter Killing The Phillies

You're only as good as your starting pitching. It's been a truism since the beginning of baseball. Pennants are won behind five starters who night-in and night-out keep their teams within striking distance into the late innings. If the Phillies hope to contend in the NL East, all five members of the starting rotation must consistently deliver quality starts.

The Atlanta Braves have made no secret of their obsession with starting pitching, winning 13 straight titles behind their top five hurlers. Once again, the NL East is pitching rich, with some of baseball's sharpest aces and deepest rotations.

The Marlins and Braves get quality starts down to the fifth starting man. The Phillies, on the other hand, do not.

In an annual tradition, the Phillies fifth starter job is up in the air. Déjà vu, anyone?

Last year, the Phillies unending search for a fifth starter led them down a dark path which included giving the nod to Paul Abbott ten times, a strategy which can only be described as grabbing at straws. Hopefully, they've learned from their mistakes. The Phillies simply can't afford to grab at straws this season if they expect to make the post season. Someone has to step up and solidify the final spot in the rotation or the Phillies will have to seek an immediate trade for a starting pitcher.

The Phillies starting rotation is strong at one, surprising at two, solid at three, adequate at four, and disastrous at five.

Number one is free agent pick-up John Lieber (4-0, 2.93 ERA, 9K, 1.08 WHIP). So far, Lieber has dealt aces every time, a giant positive for the Phillies. He'll have to keep it up all season long for the team to have a chance. He's up against some of the best aces in baseball: Tim Hudson of the Braves (2-0, 0.96 ERA, 19K, 1.04 WHIP), Marlins Josh Beckett (3-1, 1.00 ERA, 30K, .093 WHIP) Mets Pedro Martinez (2-0, 2.17 ERA, 38K, .052 WHIP) and Nationals Livan Hernandez (2-2, 5.34 ERA, 16K, 1.44 WHIP).

Brett Myers so far has been a nasty number two, logging an ERA of 1.71 and a WHIP of .099 in 26 1/3 innings. Even at 1-1, Myers looks sure to win 15 games. If he avoids a slump, he could possibly even win 20. Realistically, Myers will struggle at times this season and might better be suited as a number three, considering his troubles over the last several years. Maybe he has turned the corner, maybe he hasn't. After only four starts, it's still too soon to tell.

Number three Cory Lidle is a solid veteran who found his groove in the second half last season. Though winless so far this year at 0-2, he owns a respectable 3.86 ERA and a WHIP of 1.53. The Phillies have to feel good about their chances on nights that Lidle takes the mound, but he matches up more like a number four than a number three.

Number four is Randy Wolf, who battled tendonitis throughout most of 2004. Wolf has struggled early this season and is cause for some concern. He is a smart and gutsy pitcher who performed splendidly for long stretches in his career, but since 2003 Wolf has been barely better than a .500 pitcher, at 22-20. There is no talk of removing Wolf from the rotation. Barring a meltdown, Wolf should stay competitive and keep at least a .500 record, which might be enough if he were the fifth starter.

But the Phillies fifth starter is a black hole.

The Fightin's fifth starters are 1-4 so far this season, including three blowouts in which the Phillies never had a chance.

In two starts this year as the fifth starter, Gavin Floyd was bi-polar. His first start was an encouraging gem against the St. Louis Cardinals, when he went into a zone and showed complete command as he retired 19 straight Cardinals. His next start was a demoralizing stinker against the Braves, when he looked shaken and lost on the mound.

In his first appearance out of the bullpen Floyd served up a feast of runs to the Mets in three innings of work, looking shell-shocked as he left the game. Much the same occurred against the Braves in relief of pounded starter Randy Wolf on Saturday.

On Saturday evening, the Phillies sent Gavin Floyd back to AAA to keep a starters routine and stay "stretched out". It was the right decision at the right time. The Phillies gave him a fair chance to stick with the club and he blew it. Floyd's failing confidence is as plain as the nose on his face.

The Phillies can't afford to lavish countless innings on the education of Gavin Floyd if they hope to remain in the race. How soon can he bounce back? Will he snap out of it and settle down or will he battle with inconsistency? They have to hope that young Floyd finds himself in AAA, away from the heat of a major league pennant race. He could still serve as the Phillies fifth starter later in the season, but for now it looks more like he won't be ready until 2006.

Currently, Vicente Padilla has the fifth starters job, recently taking over from Floyd after rehabbing from tendinitis. In his first start, Padilla gave up a torrent of runs to the Mets and simply could not stop the bleeding. Three innings and eight runs later, Padilla mercifully got the hook.

In his second start on Sunday against the Braves, a chance to stop a series sweep against the arch-rival Braves and make a statement about his place with the team, Padilla laid the following egg: 3IP 4H 4R 4ER 4BB 3K, lowering his season ERA to a meaty 18.00. By the time he left, the Phillies trailed 4-0 and the Braves never looked back, handing Padilla his second loss in two awful starts.

Now the Phillies are faced with a difficult decision.

Should Padilla continue to start games at less than 100%? It's clear he has not regained the menacing stuff that helped him reach the All Star game in 2002. Will it be back in time for his next start? Do you throw him out there anyway to see if he can gut out a win? A veteran like Padilla should be able to compete without his best stuff. But if he can't, the Phillies are going to have to plug the fifth starter hole sooner rather than later.

If not Padilla, who should be the Phillies fifth starting pitcher?

Based on his performance last season, the Phillies should throw "Mad Dog" Ryan Madson the fifth starter bone and see if he won't let go. Mad Dog has always thought of himself as a starter and is on record as wanting the job. The longer Madson holds on to the job, the better for the Phillies. Mad Dog just might solidify a rotation that is so far barely four deep.

A starter throughout his minor league career, Madson was a surprise sensation last year in the bullpen, posting a 9-3 record with a 2.34 ERA. This year has not gone so well - Madson is 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in ten innings out of the pen. But he looked great in relief of Padilla on Sunday, shutting the door by yielding only one base runner in three strong innings against the Braves.

The Phillies pitching staff needs a shakeup and maybe Madson will flourish by returning to his roots as a starter. A challenge like that might do him some good. If he nails down the job, it will be easier for the Phillies to acquire a quality relief pitcher than it would to get a quality starter.

Whatever it takes, the Phillies pitching must improve. Many still believe that over the course of a season, Lieber is a natural number Two and that the Phillies really need an ace.

The Phillies probably do need a number two, but at the very least a number three, bumping the others down a notch where they belong. It was hoped that Padilla would regain his form and become a number two, but as it stands, he's not ready and the Phillies have to face facts and make a serious move to fill a giant void. Maybe starting Ryan Madson will do the trick.

In a move that doesn't solve any problems, the Phillies called up Geoff Geary from AAA to replace Gavin Floyd in the bullpen. While Geary pitches with guts, his stuff doesn't scare anyone. I would rather have seen the Phillies call up Rob Tejeda, a younger guy with better stuff and great numbers in AAA.. Even in Spring Training Tejeda looked ready and able to help stabilize the bullpen.

It's time to face facts: the Phillies are at a crossroads. They cannot afford a 95 million dollar payroll with gaping holes in the pitching staff. If they hope to contend, it's already time to make a major move to shore up the pitching.

Otherwise, it's wait till next year again, in which case the Phillies should cut payroll and bring along the top prospects.

It's one or the other, Wade. You make the call.

Next week: a chance to climb out of the cellar against Washington and Florida.

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