April 16, 2019
In the first two weeks of a new baseball season, two undeniable truths have already emerged for the Phillies. First, they have an offense that can match any in the sport. And second, they are much better at hitting the ball than throwing it. Their pitching stinks.
Please understand: There is no panic button included in this column. Aaron Nola cannot possibly be this bad; the ace starter will soon figure out how to control his arsenal of impressive pitches. Jake Arrieta is still a quality pitcher; no one at age 33 loses his effectiveness this fast. (Do they?) And don’t forget Zach Eflin, the one bright spot in the rotation so far.
A far more worrisome problem is the bullpen, a place where wins have gone to die so far this season. Yes, the relief staff did perform brilliantly on Sunday in Miami, but they will need to prove it against better competition than the Triple A-level Marlins.
Facing a far better opponent last Tuesday night, manager Gabe Kapler handed the ball to Edubray Ramos to hold a one-run lead against division-rival Washington. Ramos, 26, entered the game with exactly one save in his previous 157 games in the big leagues. Somehow, Kapler convinced himself that Ramos would do just fine, a belief that sprouted wings and landed 400 feet away after colliding with the bat of rookie Victor Robles.
That Ramos blew the lead – and equally nondescript reliever Jose Ramirez the game one inning later – was a clear announcement that the bullpen is not deep enough or good enough to survive the demands of a 162-game season. Everyone with eyes and a brain saw this, with two notable exceptions – Kapler and GM Matt Klentak.
In a season when Kapler vowed to tell the truth about his players, the manager reverted to 2018 form with this head-scratcher: “I’ll say this about Ramos. He looked pretty effective up until that very last pitch.” Otherwise, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Klentak also stepped back in time to his more clueless persona when he added to the insult. The GM said: “I’m not blind. I know some of our key guys have had some tough outings so far in the first 10 days. I’ve watched it. I know it. But I like the depth that we have. . . . I trust in the track record of our group.”
Track record? The best arm among the relievers is Seranthony Dominguez, who has less than a year of experience and has struggled to match the success of his first month last season. Ramos has a mediocre 3.86 ERA over four years and that one miraculous save. David Robertson has been no sure thing so far. Pat Neshek is a journeyman. Hector Neris is an enigma. Tommy Hunter can’t stay healthy.
Other than Robertson, there is no one in that bullpen with a consistent record of success. However, there is one on the free-agent market right now — the ex-closer of the 2018 world-champion Red Sox, Craig Kimbrel. In my despair after Ramos blew that game last week, I tweeted about the “million-dollar lineup” and “10-cent bullpen” and then begged the Phillies to sign a proven closer.
Of course, they didn’t listen. They like the bullpen they have right now. Why spend $15 million more this season when you have so many wonderful options already sitting out there, ready to save the game and chart the course for a championship?
Check back with me in a month, OK? By then, it’s a safe bet the Phillies will wish they had someone like Craig Kimbrel to save not just games, but also their season.
• Money has a strange effect on players, as evidenced (maybe) by the recent struggles of Aaron Nola. The ace of the Phillies pitching staff is off to a brutal start this season, right after he signed a four-year, $45-million extension. Is there any connection between his cashing in and suddenly losing his effectiveness? Does financial security cause some players to lose their edge? Remember, a year ago Scott Kingery – the top prospect in the organization – signed a six-year, $24-million contract. Until the last couple of days, he has been an expensive after-thought on the revamped team. Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.
• Despite the money issues surrounding Aaron Nola and Scott Kingery, Eagles GM Howie Roseman seems determined to make a major investment in franchise quarterback Carson Wentz before the start of the next season. This would be a huge mistake. Roseman has been clearing cap space for a $100-million-plus investment in a player who has demonstrated no ability to stay healthy. Roseman should hold back on the new deal until Wentz proves he’s worth it with an injury-free, productive 2019 season.
• The good news is, the foot injury that cost Jalen Mills the second half of the 2018 season, appears to have healed very nicely. The bad news is, he got arrested over the weekend for getting into a fistfight with NBA player Devin Robinson outside a D.C nightclub. Apparently, Robinson questioned Mills’ presence in Washington, since the cornerback plays 150 miles away in Philadelphia. Well, at least there was a good, solid reason for the fight.
• It was my misfortune last week to be in Nashville when the regular NHL season ended and the playoffs began. Why is no one talking about the disgusting environment outside the Bridgestone Arena where the Predators play? The drunken depravity along the famous Broadway strip on game nights is worse than anything I have ever witnessed – and, remember, I hosted the Wing Bowl for 26 years. If anything like that happened in Philadelphia, we would be the target of every lazy sports critic in America. In Nashville, it’s just good old boys having fun. Why are our fans held to a higher standard than everyone else?