The nightmare ended last September in Atlanta, and just Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee survived. The lefthanders — two of the game’s finest — combined for 64 starts in 2013. They withstood the rigors of a 162-game schedule while every other Phillies starter crumbled.
The unceremonious conclusion spawned a revolting mishmash of arms. The Phillies employed 10 starting pitchers. The last rotation included Tyler Cloyd, Zach Miner, and Ethan Martin. Ryne Sandberg, the new manager, bemoaned the distressing lack of pitching depth. He wanted help for 2014.
“That is very evident right now,” Sandberg said at the end of 2013.
This season will start just as the last finished. The Phillies added A.J. Burnett for $16 million, but he will merely replace Hamels for at least the first month. Shoulder injuries slowed Jonathan Pettibone, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Martin, and Adam Morgan to varying degrees. Swingman Chad Gaudin failed his physical at the start of spring training.
That elevated David Buchanan, a 24-year-old righthander left unprotected in last December’s Rule 5 draft, and 29-year-old Jeff Manship, owner of a 6.42 career ERA, to relevancy. But Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez, who will make a combined $12.2 million in 2014, are even more important. They must stabilize the back of the rotation.
“We look good,” Lee said. “Obviously, Cole being injured isn’t good, but we get him back and we’re going to be pretty strong. Health is the key to everything. If we stay healthy and continue to go out there, then we’ll give the team a chance to win a lot.”
The issue is beyond the aces. Phillies starters posted a 5.41 ERA in the 98 games not started last season by Hamels or Lee. They averaged a shade less than 51/3 innings per start; the league average was 6 innings per start. The staff’s 4.41 ERA ranked 25th in baseball and bested only Colorado in the National League.
Major-league teams used an average of 10.3 starters in 2013, which means the Phillies were not equipped to combat a typical amount of turnover last season. The rash of season-ending injuries this spring to pitchers across baseball accentuated the need for rotation depth.
Or, as Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “You just never know. You feel like you have enough. Then the next thing you know, something happens and it screws up everything.” Gonzalez watched two of his best starters — Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy — succumb to injuries requiring Tommy John surgery this spring.
The Phillies intended for John Lannan to be their fifth starter in 2013. They signed him to a $2.5 million contract, and that produced a 5.33 ERA and left-knee surgery. The fifth spot, essentially, belonged to Lannan (14 starts), Cloyd (11 starts), Miner (three starts), and Raul Valdes (one start). They were not effective.
Those pitchers were purged from the roster. Lannan agreed to a minor-league deal with the New York Mets and secured a spot as a lefthanded reliever. Cleveland claimed Cloyd off waivers, later designated him for assignment, then re-signed the righthander to a minor-league deal. Miner was in camp with Seattle as a nonroster player. Valdes, 36, was the oldest player in Houston’s camp and could not crack the worst roster in baseball as a lefthanded reliever.
It is odd to consider the subtraction of Roy Halladay as a positive. But Halladay, who retired in December, was one of baseball’s worst pitchers in 2013. His 6.82 ERA was the highest for any pitcher with at least 13 starts. The Phillies paid him $20 million.
Now Kendrick, 29, is pitching for his massive payday. He will be a free agent at season’s end, and should he remain healthy with a decent performance, about $30 million could await. That is the market value established last winter when Scott Feldman and Jason Vargas — pitchers comparable to Kendrick — signed. It “definitely” motivates a player, Kendrick said.
“When similar guys close to your numbers sign those deals, that’s a good thing,” Kendrick said. “It’s good for baseball. It’s good for guys coming up, a guy like myself, after this year. Obviously, you see them and you just want to put up better numbers.”
Kendrick resembled a solid No. 3 starter for a 29-start stretch. His ERA from Aug. 14, 2012, to last season’s all-star break was 3.26 in 187 2/3 innings. It ballooned to 6.91 over his final 11 starts of 2013, which abruptly concluded with shoulder soreness.
“I don’t know if he’s a three starter,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “I know he’s pretty reliable, pretty consistent. He has over 60 wins over the last several years. For a guy that I guess takes a lot of heat, he still wins baseball games. We need people to eat up innings and be reliable, and he’s been one of those guys for us.”
For at least a month, the Phillies will need Kendrick to pitch like a No. 3 starter.