Can they accomplish this feat? Of course they can, as the current World Champion Chicago White Sox would well attest. Still, a rotation with only three proven starters, and all right-handed at that, is hardly reason enough to put the champagne on ice in preparation for a title clinching celebration come October. If this worst case scenario truly should come to pass, who is likely to occupy the remaining two spots in the starting rotation and what will be bullpen look like come April and on into the summer months?
At present, the three returning starting pitchers guaranteed spots in the rotation are Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle. Of the three, Myers is most likely to assume the role of "ace" of the staff and at 25 years of age, he seems ready for the challenge. Lieber is likely to be next in line, with Lidle following him. It certainly seems imperative that all three remain relatively healthy and able to give the Phils at least 30-32 starts each.
In many ways, Brett Myers has become a victim of his own success. Clearly, Myers took a major step forward in 2005 with not only an outstanding 13-8 record but an underappreciated 208 strikeouts in 215 innings pitched. One of the criticisms of Myers early in his career was that his fastball hit too many bats. In other words, Myers wasn't making enough hitters miss his pitches. This is no longer true and it seems probable that 2006 will be the year that Brett Myers has his "coming out party" as a top of the rotation starting pitcher capable of winning any time he pitches.
The Phillies hope that Jon Lieber merely repeats his solid performance of 2005. During the past campaign, Lieber was 17-13 and pitched well for all but about six weeks during the middle of the season. Even more important, he remained healthy and pain free and if this should be the case in '06 the team can reasonably expect a similar performance. Lieber is invaluable as a veteran presence in the rotation, as well as a hurler with playoff tested talent.
Cory Lidle's greatest strength is his ability to pitch deep into a game, no small feat in this day and age. In 31 starts last season, he pitched 215 innings, a very impressive 7 innings per start. The Phils also value his ability to induce ground balls at hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park and a repeat of his 13 wins this year is quite important if the team is to contend in the tough NL East race.
The next two spots in the five man rotation are question marks as of today but not due to a shortage of qualified candidates. If the Phils fail to bring in another starting pitcher, then newly acquired Ryan Franklin, Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd, Robinson Tejeda, Eude Brito and possibly the recently acquired Ricardo Rodriguez will vie for the final two places with the others competing for bullpen duty. Truth be told, each comes with equal parts reason for optimism and reason for pessimism.
Just signed free agent Ryan Franklin seems an ill-fit for what currently ails the Phillie rotation. A flyball pitcher at Citizens Bank Park appears a recipe for disaster, but Gillick is quite familiar with Franklin from his Seattle days and it can only be hoped that he can recapture the form that allowed him to pitch well in 2002 and 2003. His last two years have seen him go a combined 12-31 with a very high ERA. Even more alarming is his low strikeout rate. Still, he is similar to Lidle in that he tends to pitch deep into ball games and perhaps the Phils will strike "lightning in a bottle."
Clearly, Ryan Madson has had the most major league success of the aforementioned hurlers, though Floyd probably still possesses the most upside. A key component of the Phils' bullpen for the past two seasons, Madson yearns to be a starting pitcher and with good reason. In the minors, he was always a starting pitcher and was even selected as the Phillies minor league pitcher of the year one season. The Phils seem more than open to the possibility of making Madson a starting pitcher and he probably will be given every opportunity to start this spring.
Madson is a fascinating case and one well worth watching. He is the only Phillie represented by hard line agent, Scott Boras, and it seems inconceivable that Boras hasn't been whispering in Gillick's ear about his clients desire to start. In fact, this may be one of the reasons the Phils seem so open to the idea. Clearly, they recognize Madson's value to the team and given Boras' penchant for demanding top dollar for his clients, it behooves the Phils to attempt to establish some semblance of good relations with the acrimonious Boras, something former GM Ed Wade was unable to do.
Fortunately for the Phightins, Gillick and Boras have a respectable if not completely harmonious relationship, something that will be needed in the coming years as Madson's status rises. Unless the Phils acquire another starting pitcher soon, expect Madson to win one of the rotation spots this spring. While this may strengthen the rotation, it will undoubtedly weaken the bullpen. Still, it seems a starter capable of going 6-7 innings successfully is more important to the team than a reliever brought in to bridge an eighth inning lead from starter to closer, Tom Gordon.
Gavin Floyd remains a top prospect in the organization and recently completed a successful winter league season. He is certainly capable of winning a spot in the rotation, a place few recall that he had last year on opening day. Called on to replace an injured Vicente Padilla, Floyd threw a 2 hit gem against St. Louis in his first start but seemed victimized thereafter by poor command, spotty control and some mishandling on the part of Manager Charlie Manuel.
An impatient Phillie fanbase often times forgets that Floyd is a mere 23 years old, and could blossom at any time. This writer still believes that Floyd has the greatest potential of any hurler in the Phils pharm system and trade rumors involving Floyd would be ill-conceived and short sighted. Still, if Floyd isn't traded, and doesn't earn a rotation spot this spring, he would best be served by gaining another valuable year of experience at Scranton. His time will certainly come soon enough.
There are more than a few scouts in the organization that feel Robinson Tejeda has the ability to be an outstanding closer with the team. In fact, some have even compared him to a young Mariano Rivera. These comparisons will have to wait as Tejeda must first convince the Phillie brass that his success last summer was more than just a mirage. His 4-3 record in 13 starts last summer probably saved the Phillie season but Gillick seems less than convinced.
Pat Gillick is a man who places great value in his trusted employees and when asked about Tejeda recently he pointedly remarked that " many in the organization think he was lucky last year." This was not meant as a slight necessarily but rather an acknowledgement that Tejeda seemed forever able to pitch out of the very difficulty that he had put himself in. He will need to improve his control if he hopes to win favor with the brain-trust this spring.
Southpaw hurlers are an endangered species in the Philadelphia rotation and this is precisely why lefty Eude Brito is a favored hurler at this point. Not only did he turn his career around at Scranton once he was moved into the starting rotation but he had more than a bit of success late last season during the Phils unsuccessful run at a National League wild card. In five starts, Brito pitched effectively as his 3.68 ERA suggests and his 1-2 record belies the talent he showed.
Traditionally lefties develop later than right-handers, and the Phils hope that the 27 year old Brito is ready to blossom after years as a struggling reliever. Certainly he will be given every chance to make the club as the team's sole lefty starter, but if he fails to win the job his chances of making the club seem slim as both Rheal Cormier and Aaron Fultz comprise two lefties out of the Phillie bullpen.
A dark horse candidate to win a starting rotation spot is 27 year old Ricardo Rodriguez, the recently acquired righty from Texas. Critics will point to Rodriguez' poor 2005 campaign and think he was a poor return for the talented but inconsistent Padilla. Proponents will mention his strong 2004 finish in the rotation with the Rangers and his 7-3 record in Triple A last year. They will also recall his former status as the top pitching prospect in the pitcher rich Los Angeles Dodgers farm system. Admittedly, that was several years ago, but if the Phils can somehow harness his former stuff they may have found a "diamond in the rough."
While there does seem a fair amount of trepidation about the makeup of the Phillie rotation, most Phil phanatics seem quite pleased with the way Gillick is putting together his bullpen. Gone are the high salaried, low production types like Tim Worrell, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook and Mike Williams. In their place is a deep, yet low cost collection of solid arms and replaceable parts. It seems likely that Manager Charlie Manuel will have at his disposal a versatile and talented crew of relievers.
The Phils seem to favor a 12 man staff to begin the year, which leaves seven potential relievers to be selected. Guaranteed spots include the two lefties, Cormier and Fultz along with the closer, Tom Gordon. Cormier is still a candidate to be traded, especially to a team looking for a left-handed relief specialist. Yet, his experience and the fact that Fultz must show that his outstanding '05 season can be repeated seems to insure Cormier a spot with the team. Fultz was a pleasant surprise, with a 4-0 record and a 2.24 ERA. Even more impressive was the fact that he allowed only 47 hits in 72 innings of work.
The 38 year old Gordon will be counted on to replace the recently departed Billy Wagner as the Phils' closer, no small feat. Gordon had a standout season with the Yankees as a middle inning reliever but has had ample experience as a closer in the past. He will be expected to save between 35-40 games and if he fails to do this, there really is no clear replacement for him.
Perhaps the pitcher creating the most "buzz" as spring training nears is Chris Booker, a pitcher acquired in the December Rule 5 draft. Apparently Booker has recently perfected a split-finger fastball, which has not only increased his velocity but improved his command. His numbers in Triple A were quite impressive...an 8-4 record and 20 saves with an eye-popping 91 strikeouts in a mere 59 innings pitched. The Phils are hoping Booker can take over the sixth and seventh inning chores this season.
Another righty to watch is Julio Santana, a free agent signee from Milwaukee. In 41 games last year, Santana struck out 49 batters in 42 innings of work. Clearly, Gillick seems to favor hard throwing relievers and in Booker, Santana and Gordon he seems to have located three of them. Still, Satana nor Booker are guaranteed to make the team and will compete with veteran Geoff Geary, as well as possibly Tejeda, Rodriguez and rookie Yoel Hernandez for the right-handed roles out of the bullpen.
There may be good news coming should the current staff get to mid-summer with the team in playoff contention. Veteran southpaw Randy Wolf is on schedule to return to active duty by August, and if the past is any indication, he may be better suited to start than relieve. Not only is he a talented starting pitcher but a pitcher returning from elbow surgery like Wolf cannot be expected to pitch on consecutive days. While Wolf is far from a sure bet to regain his former skills, the prognosis is positive.
A good friend of mine, and a fellow Phillie phanatic, thinks it might just behoove the Phils to think about restructuring Wolf's contract. He is not only scheduled to make nine million dollars this season but is a free agent at year's end. The Phils, and Wolf, might just be best served to add a year to his deal in return for more back loaded salary. This would protect the Phil's interests as well as keep Wolf from returning to action before he is completely healthy.
Equally exciting is the possibility that lefty phenom, Cole Hamels could join the rotation this summer. Hamels certainly has the talent, if not the health to do the job. He will need to show he can stay injury free to be considered for a future spot with the team, but if he has expected success at Reading this year, watch for his arrival at Citizens Bank Park sometime in August.
Rumors continue to swirl around the Phillie offices of an impending deal for a top of the rotation starting pitcher. Names like Jose Contreras, Brad Lidge, Erik Bedard, and yes, even Barry Zito continue to circulate with varying amounts of credibility. The name Bobby Abreu continues to be mentioned in almost every Phillie trade rumor and it still seems a long shot that he will remain in Philadelphia much longer. It does seem that the signing of Franklin could be a precursor to another deal, as on it's own merits this new addition to the staff seems questionable at best.
Yet a case can be made, albeit reluctantly, that Pat Gillick may just have to bide his time until the trading deadline before acquiring that much sought after starting pitcher that could put the Phils over the top. He continues to talk of "financial flexibility" and refuses to overpay for a hurler. He seems uninclined to pursue hurlers like Jeff Weaver and was uninterested in recent free agents like Josh Fogg, Tony Armas or Dewon Brazelton.
Still, there seems a purpose to Gillick's stride and he is unlikely to open the 2006 season without acquiring at least one more starting pitcher. And while it seems premature to pencil a Zito or Contreras into the rotation he must continue the quest. He has approximately one month to get it done, and the expectation is that it will soon happen.
If not? Then spring training will be a fascinating yet worrisome time of attempting to place the remaining puzzle pieces in place. This could lead to a Phillie phan base left with the unhappy prospect of hoping for the best while preparing for something much less, truly in their eyes, if not Gillick's...a worst case scenario.
Update: Thank you for your kind and continued support of Jeff Lamana, a fellow Phillie phan, who this week began his radiation treatments in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I wrote about Jeff in my last column and know that he would want me to thank you for your wonderful and blessed response in his time of need. Of course, Jeff needs your continued prayers in this time of difficulty for both he and his family.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast