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November 11, 2021

Should Phillies spend money on starting pitching? Do they have a choice?

The Phillies have had some really, really bad luck at developing even serviceable starting pitching in the years since their last run of success from 2007-2011. 

Aaron Nola — who has taken a pretty big step backward in recent seasons after his near Cy Young performance in 2018 — is really the only bonafide bright spot among homegrown rotation arms, and that's not saying much.

Which is why it sort of makes sense to see reports suggesting that the Phillies plan to focus on starting pitching this offseason. Zack Wheeler and Nola are sure to be on the staff, with Ranger Suarez, Kyle Gibson and Zach Eflin (who is currently injured) the other leaders to round out the top five. It's a rotation no one is really excited about, even with Wheeler poised to potentially win a Cy Young award next week.

The tweet above from Heyman is puzzling for a couple reasons — keeping in mind that yes, the Phillies do need to improve their starting pitching. The first is that there are probably bigger needs elsewhere and better solutions available in free agency. There may have never been a better shortstop free agent class available, with position players offering the better value and upside right now on the open market.

But, in addition, starting pitchers signed via free agency have't really faired well for the Phillies either.

Whether they try and develop them or bring them in as mercenaries, Philadelphia has stunk at evaluating and harnessing starting pitching (aside from a singular success in Wheeler). Here's a look at the starting pitchers signed by the Phillies in free agency over the last 10 offseasons and how they fared:

Record, ERA
John Lannon2013 ($2.5m)
 3-6, 5.33
Roberto Hernandez2014 ($4.5m)6-8, 3.87
A.J. Burnett2014 ($15m)8-18, 4.59
Jerome Williams2015 ($2.5m)8-14, 4.84
Aaron Harang2015 ($5m)6-15, 4.86
Jake Arrieta2018 ($75m)22-23, 4.36
Drew Smyly2019 (~$7m)3-2, 4.45
Zack Wheeler 2020 ($44m)18-12, 2.82
Matt Moore2021 ($3m)2-4, 6.29
Chase Anderson2021 ($4m)2-4, 6.75 

We should mention that the report from Heyman does not necessarily state that the team would indeed sign a free agent starter — they could explore the trade market — but Jeremy Hellickson, Jason Vargas and the other veterans the Phils have made trades for since their success in trading for Cliff Lee have worked just about as well as their free agent signings have.

However, the homegrown route, as we mentioned, might even be worse. Here's a look at their homegrown starters since the end of their last competitive stint. We're only including players drafted by the Phillies who made their debuts following the 2011 season and who started at least 20 games. 

PitcherYearsRecord, ERA
Jonathan Pettibone2013-145-5, 4.45
David Buchanan2014-158-17, 5.01
Adam Morgan2015-20207-18, 5.43*
Aaron Nola2015-67-49, 3.68
*Stats as a starter

That's it. Four pitchers drafted by the team have made at least 20 starts since 2012. 

Not even Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, Jerad Eickhoff or Nick Pivetta were drafted by the Phillies — they were technically acquired via trade. Ben Lively and Nate Thompson too, got a bunch of starts and pitched frustratingly mundane. But those were young players who too were victim of the Phils' inability to develop young successful starters. 

One budding bright spot is Ranger Suarez, who is 4-3 with a 2.32 ERA in his 15 starts so far with the organization. Spencer Howard, once the Phillies top pitching prospect (who they gave up on and traded away last year) had a 5.81 ERA in 13 starts in Philly. 

So the Phillies have no choice but to go the free agent/trade route — because they have drafted poorly. And the prior regimes have had an atrocious track record getting pitching by any other method. The team is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it's the biggest reason why they've been mired in mediocrity for a full decade.

Will they break the bank and try and bring in a Marcus Stroman, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Max Scherzer or one of the other talented available SP? Can they field a true contending team entirely built by players brought in from elsewhere?

It will be interesting to see where the Phillies choose to allocate their resources heading into 2022, and if they'll go homegrown anywhere — perhaps calling up Bryson Stott to start in the infield or Hans Crouse (a top pitching prospect acquired via trade) to take a spot in the rotation.

One thing is certain, Dave Dombrowski and the current regime need to buck these recent trends, or they'll completely waste the primes of Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto and Zach Wheeler — and the time and patience of Phillies fans who haven't seen a playoff game played in their city since Barrack Obama's first term.

Follow Evan on Twitter: @evan_macy

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