Phils Need Help at Top and Bottom of Rotation

By the end of July, at the trading deadline, the Phillies will have to make a decision. Do they really have a shot at making the playoffs? Or should they sell off some of their expensive assets and try to re-tool for 2006? Many questions loom over the Phillies as they stumble into the All-Star break, but none bigger than this; can the Phillies improve their starting pitching in time to save 2005?

Say what you like about the Phillies, but one thing has become crystal clear: the current starting rotation cannot lead them into the playoffs. This is not to say that the Phillies are bereft of good arms. Far from it. Even with the loss of Randy Wolf, the middle of the rotation is rock solid. Brett Myers and Cory Lidle have been excellent. Rookie Robinson Tejeda has been a pleasant surprise. Despite his penchant for wildness, Tejeda shows grit and determination on the mound. The middle of the rotation is fine; it's at the top and the bottom that things get dodgy.

To have a shot at a post-season run, the Phillies need an ace.

Jon Lieber has been an excellent addition despite his recent struggles, but he is simply overmatched when going up against most other aces in the league. He consistently gives his best effort and maintains his focus on the mound, but his stuff just isn't as nasty as the other aces in the National League. Among the aces in their own division, Lieber clearly ranks last. The fact is, Lieber is best suited as a number two starter.

In every way but name only, All-Star hopeful Brett Myers has been the Phillies ace. Myers was spectacular in his last start against the Braves, retiring 20 in a row at one point. Despite his emergence, the Phillies are reluctant to hand him the title of "ace" because he hasn't shown he can put it all together for a full season. More to the point, the maverick Myers has not demonstrated the consummate professionalism and maturity that Lieber is known for. While Myers is on the brink of becoming a legitimate ace for years to come, it isn't entirely clear that he is ready to handle that role this year. Still, if the Phillies do not manage to sign a top-flight pitcher to lead the staff, Myers should be named ace and matched up against the best arms the opposition has to offer.

The Phillies also need a solid fifth starter.

All indications are that Vicente Padilla is one bad start away from losing his spot in the starting rotation. Expect Padilla to join the bullpen by the end of July, but don't expect him to be happy or particularly effective. Wherever they send Padilla, the Phillies cannot keep running him out to the mound in search of a miracle. It's bad for team morale, not to mention wins and losses.

With the loss of Randy Wolf, the Phillies also need a left-handed starter. If Ed Wade could somehow manage to land lefty ace Barry Zito, the Phillies could kill two birds with one stone. Zito would look great in Phillies pinstripes, but few baseball insiders give the Phillies much chance of coaxing Oakland GM Billy Beane to part with him. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which the Phillies can pick up an ace without losing future star Ryan Howard.

So what will the Phillies do? Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels are simply not ready for the majors yet. That the Phillies are even discussing them seriously as options for this season's pennant race is a concern. It suggests that they have not come to grips with the depths of their problem. Ryan Madson should be named a starter right away, but Madson is a right-hander and though he will do well, he is probably not the ace that the Phillies ultimately need. Madson has the potential to be a strong number two starter, but he's more likely a solid number three.

If Myers' future as ace is now and if Madson joins the starting rotation, the Phillies will have a shot of making the playoffs this year without dealing Howard. They would have an all right-handed rotation, which is awkward, though it still might work. But if the Phillies can get Zito for Howard, they would have to make the deal. Then they would have a big three of Zito, Myers and Lieber, followed by Lidle and Madson or Tejeda. Losing Howard would be a blow, but with Thome entrenched at first base, it would be a deal worth making.

At the end of the day, in any deal involving Howard, the Phillies will have to nab a legitimate ace. Too many questions have arisen about Thome's future to blithely dismiss Howard for anything less. With the slumping Thome on the DL, Howard is poised to become a top-flight major league bat. He'll strike out a lot as he adjusts to the "Show", but in the long run he might even hit for average to go along with his awesome power. A 40 home run season appears well within his reach by 2007 and not out of the question for 2006. Perhaps if the Phillies slide deeper out of contention, they would be best served holding on to Howard and looking to deal Thome for that elusive ace.

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