Waiting for White Smoke to Rise

If J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez or Jamie Moyer were waiting to be named Pope, fans would be gathered around Citizens Bank Park looking for a white plume of smoke to signify that a decision had been made. Instead, reporters simply keep asking Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr. about how the pitching situation is going to shake out.

Wednesday night, with both Pedro Martinez and J.A. Happ appearing at different venues for somewhat of an audition, both presented their case very well.

Happ was a monster. Throwing 127 pitches, he gave the bullpen a night off with a complete game shutout of the Colorado Rockies, while striking out a career-high ten hitters. In case you're playing along at home, that outing gives Happ two complete game shutouts this season and he is one of just two Phillies pitchers to throw such a gem this season, with the other being Cole Hamels, who has done it once. (Cliff Lee contributed with a complete game in his first start as a Phillie, but it wasn't a shutout.) Happ was still firing in the low-90s in the ninth inning, including a 94 mph fastball to end the game with his tenth strikeout. While Happ has been quiet on the record, his pitching shows that he is enjoying his time in the rotation and doesn't want to take a seat beyond the outfield fence. With a mark of 8-2 and an ERA of 2.74 - 2.80 as a starter - taking the young left-hander out of the rotation now would be a mistake.

Martinez, pitching for Double-A Reading, struck out 11 in six innings of work, but allowed three earned runs over six innings. He came out firing and struck out nine of the first 12 batters that he faced, with his only mistake being a 91 mile per hour fastball that hung tantalizingly over the plate for Trenton's Eduardo Nunez, who deposited it at the foot of the scoreboard in left-centerfield. In all fairness, errors by Tim Kennelly and Dominic Brown in the sixth inning hurt Pedro's line, resulting in one unearned run, but also extending the amount of pitches he had to throw and arguably allowing another run that might not have scored if not for the errors. Of Pedro's 82 pitches, 60 were for strikes.

Martinez has now made three "rehab" starts, but  only two were true starts, thanks to rain that shortened his first start in Clearwater. In those two starts, Martinez has thrown 11 innings, giving up seven earned runs on eight hits and three walks, while striking out 15. His combined ERA stands at 5.73 and he's 1-1 in those starts. If you add in the 1 1/3 innings for Clearwater, his ERA drops to 5.11 in the minors.

So, the first question; Is Pedro Martinez ready to pitch in the majors?  There is no denying that he has looked good - very good - at times in his starts with Reading and Lehigh Valley. The starting rotation that opened the season for the Phillies averaged just under 20 innings per pitcher in spring training, although Hamels threw just 7 2/3 innings. Keep in mind that Pedro was throwing on his own in the Dominican prior to signing with the Phillies, so he may not need quite as many innings as some pitchers need in the spring to get ready.

For his part, Martinez has gone from an "I'll do or go wherever they want me to" approach to a much less patient sort of stance after Wednesday's outing for Reading. When asked if he thought he was done pitching in the minors - basically the same question he was asked last Friday in Lehigh Valley - Pedro replied, "I hope so."

In all honesty, Martinez likely isn't going to get much stronger or more prepared than he is now. You could argue for another start (which would most likely come next Monday night at Lehigh Valley), but whether or not it's absolutely necessary is another question. If the Phillies absolutely needed another starter, Martinez could be brought up now, but with their rotation in decent shape, there isn't a huge concern about getting him to the majors ASAP.

The second question is; What do the Phillies do with their rotation when Pedro arrives? Martinez has said that he signed to be a starter, but that he would be willing to do whatever the Phillies wanted him to do, including pitching out of the bullpen. In fact, his contract has reliever-like incentives included in the language, just in case. It's likely though that Martinez would be a little bit fragile at this point and using him out of the bullpen could be a bit of a concern. Happ has pitched out of the bullpen and has pitched effectively as a reliever, but considering his explosion as a starter and how deep he tends to pitch into games, can the Phillies really afford to take him out of the rotation? The other option would be Jamie Moyer, although he's not accustomed to pitching in relief and might not be able to make the adjustment, considering that at age 46, he's a little fragile as well.

The Phillies are internally kicking around a six-man rotation, but with the club having a number of off-days on their schedule, that would really stretch out the time between outings for each starter, which isn't always a good thing. Another plan is making a Martinez/Moyer tandem in the rotation. Either one would start, with the other coming in as a reliever four or five innings into the game, since neither is likely to pitch deep into games at this point in their careers. That would remove some of the fragility issues, since both would know exactly when they were going to pitch, but one would have to retool their pre-game routine to accommodate coming into the game as a reliever.

Having too many pitchers is a problem that very few teams have to deal with during the season. It's one of those good problems, but it could turn out badly if the shifting of players results in one of them struggling badly. The Phillies have some definite decisions to make and they're not all easy. One thing is for sure, fans are watching for that white smoke to rise over the City of Brotherly Love.



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