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October 26, 2021

What can the Phillies do to improve their rotation?

If you look at the Phillies starting pitching numbers in totality, you are painted a misleading picture. The starters — all 18 who started a game in 2021 — combined for the seventh best SP WAR in baseball, nestled right in between the Giants and Braves, two NL contenders. But then when you consider that nearly all of that WAR stems from Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler, whose number of 7.6 is nearly an entire win above replacement better than the next highest total (LA's Walker Buehler), it's clear the rotation is top heavy.

The Phillies need improvement in a lot of places if they hope to actually contend next season. We've already given some thought as to how they can bolster their outfield and upgrade shortstop.

Having some depth in the starting rotation and creating a smaller drop off from the top of the rotation to the bottom could be a real help next season.

What is their path toward creating a starting five to be reckoned with? Do they have any internal candidates that can help? Will they be likely to trade, or sign free agents to give them a better rotation?

Here's a look at what they can do to improve before next year, as the clock continues to tick with highly paid stars like Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto in their primes.

The problem

For the purposes of this deep dive, we are going to set aside Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Yes, Nola's performance was frustrating this past season. We've all seen what he can do and many thought he would be the ace of this rotation for years to come. But he was okay in 2021. A repeat performance, or even a slight improvement in his final year of guaranteed money (he has a team option in 2023) will be perfectly fine.

Here's a look at Wheeler and Nola from the past season, as each started 32 games:


We'll spare you the advance metrics as this is not a look at these two pitchers, just suffice it to say they pitched like an ace and a 4th starter respectively.

The next tier isn't that bad either. It's assumed that Zach Eflin will have the third starter spot next season after missing 14 starts to injury down the stretch in 2021. He had a 4.17 ERA, had terrible run support and had excellent control, striking out 6.19 batter for every one he walked — the best of any Phils hurler, starter or reliever.

There also is Ranger Suarez, the 25-year-old lefty who — though in a small sample size — went 3-2 with a 1.51 ERA in his 12 starts to finish the year (that was paired with some good relief pithing earlier in the year).

He should have the inside track at the No. 4 spot, and will offer the Phillies a nice southpaw look they've lacked in recent years. It's a big leap to assume he'll have a sub-2 ERA in a full season as a starter, but he'll certainly get the opportunity next spring.

So Wheeler, Nola, Eflin and Suarez will be the top quartet. What happens after that foursome is what defines "the problem."

Setting aside opening pitchers from bullpen games, of which there were far far too many as Joe Girardi was often stuck with few options, here's how the 5th starters and injury replacements did:

PitcherIP (starts)ERAWHIP
Vince Velasquez76.1 innings (17)5.901.441
Matt Moore65.1 (13)6.551.704
Kyle Gibson64.2 (11)4.591.222
Chase Anderson36.1 (9)6.941.541
Spencer Howard22.1 (7)4.841.299

It bears mentioning that despite wins and losses being a bit of an overrated stat, Phillies starters only had 40 winning decisions in 162 games (and 52 losing ones). Starters got an average of 3.7 runs of support, the second worst total in all of baseball. 

The five pitchers above combined to start 57 games and as you can see, the results were not good. Velasquez is a Padre now, Moore and Anderson will likely not be returning and Howard was traded to the Rangers for Hans Crouse. Gibson, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal, is owed $7 million in 2022 and will likely compete for a job in the rotation, but will the Phillies really trot out the same five next year?

They surely can do better...

In-house options

The Phillies really had high hopes that Howard would be the longterm answer as a homegrown starter. But they cut bait on him last summer and by some miracle of wheeling and dealing by Dave Dombrowski, netted Crouse, who is 23 and probably one of the the three best pitchers in the Phillies farm system.

In 20 starts in the minors last season, Crouse posted a 3.39 ERA allowing just nine homers in 85 innings pitched. He made two brief appearances in the majors down the stretch in 2020 but didn't impress in seven innings.

That might be it for big league ready pitching prospects. Francisco Morales, a top 10 prospect, had a 6.28 ERA last year at age 21 and likely needs some more tuning. First rounder Mick Abel is only 20 and is another year away at best. Andrew Painter, their recent top pick, is just 18. 

And then you have the middling Adonis Medina, Ramon Rosso, Maurico Llovera and Kyle Dohy, all of whom tried to make an impact in the majors in 2021 and all of whom failed to impress. This last crop of arms could wind up being effective bullpen pieces, but as fifth starters or as an injury replacement to get real innings, they're not desirable options.

As we discussed when we looked into the Phillies outfield issues, a lack of success drafting pitchers has put them in a spot where they have to either spend a ton of money to bring in pitching talent or rely on what they have, which is pretty lackluster.

Free agents

There are some interesting, expensive and pretty old options for the Phillies to consider in free agency this winter. The question, really, is whether they'll be wanting to spend big bucks on bringing in a fifth starter (who could pitch as high as the No. 2 on this team) with so many glaring free agency needs also demanding attention.

Since there are so many of them out there, we've grouped the potential starting pitching targets into a few categories:

The old superstars

Zack Greinke (38), Justin Verlander (39), Max Scherzer (37), Corey Kluber (35), J.A. Happ (39), Johnny Cueto (35)

Give the Phillies any of these guys five years ago and they'd take them in a heartbeat. It's certainly possible the Phils can bring in one of these guys on an affordable one-year deal, but the reality is they're more likely to head to a contender, like each of them has done with their most recent contract

In their prime and expensive

Clayton Kershaw (33), Marcus Stroman (30), Kevin Gausman (31), Noah Syndergaard (29), Robbie Ray (30), Carlos Rondon (28), Eduardo Rodriguez (29), Anthony DeSclafani (32), Jon Grey (30)

Yeah, that's a lot of names. And a lot of hurlers who would be perfect fits for the Phillies rotation. The problems here are many. First the cost, which we've mentioned. A lot of these guys will go in the $20 million-plus range. They also will be seeking a longterm commitment that will pair them with their new employer well into their mid to late 30s. And finally, with almost all of these guys eligible for a qualifying offer, the Phillies might be facing a draft pick surrendered should they sign one of them.

That being said, if the Phillies want to compete — and soon — inking one of these pitchers could be the simplest way to up the ante.

Bargain hunting

Alex Cobb (34), Michael Pineta (32), James Paxton (34), Jose Quintana (33), Chris Archer (33), Julio Teheran (30), Jose Urena (30), Michael Wacha (30)

As you can see, there are a lot of pitchers available this year. And the Phillies could use that to their advantage. If they wait for the market to develop and try and find some players who are willing to take a little less than market value, or who are trying to rebound in 2022 on a prove-it deal, they could add depth or a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. They tried this with Moore and Anderson last year and it didn't exactly pan out. We could have added another 15 pitchers to this list but you get the idea...

Trade market

The Phillies could explore this avenue, as they have some movable pieces themselves in Rhys Hoskins, Didi Gregorius, Jean Segura and others. Would Dombrowski be open to flipping an infielder, or a prospect for a starting pitcher?

Here are a handful of names that could potentially be available for the right price:

• Josh Hader, Brewers

• Sonny Grey, Reds

• Michael Fulmer, Tigers

• Chad Kuhl, Pirates

If the Phillies get creative, they could unearth more pitchers who may be available as well. With pitching depth one of their Achilles heels last season, it will certainly be worth watching to see how much time and how many resources the put into improving the starting rotation heading into 2022.

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