Without a front-line pitcher, opponents will not fear the Phillies.
"The Phillies need a front-line pitcher."
The line has been repeated so many times, it’s lost meaning.
Months removed from the final game of 2005, the mention of a front-line pitcher conjures up images of Roger Clemens, Johan Santana and Dontrelle Willis.
But during the season, a front-line starter doesn’t need to throw a single pitch to be effective, or leave a trace in the stat sheets.
The threat of him can be enough.
The Phillies know this well. They entered such a situation on July 25, when they traveled to Houston for three games with the surging Astros. No pitch was even thrown, and the Astros had already swept.
As prophesized by every paper in the city, as shivered over by every fan, the Phillies were dusted out of Houston, 1-2-3, just as feared. Led by two dominant performances by Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, followed by a solid outing from an ailing Roger Clemens, the Phillies were hurled further back in the Wild Card standings, managing to score only four runs the entire series. Later in the season, in a series beginning Sept. 5, the Phillies had their chances, but were swept once again, this time at home, completing the Astros' season sweep.
When it was all said and done, only one game separated the Phillies and Astros in the final standings, but they were leagues apart in pitching, which helped guide them to the World Series. The Phillies could never match what the Astros could do: batter you with intimidation, fry you with pitching, and always know that a win was only one day away.
Unless nothing else is done before April, there isn’t a team in the league that will enter a series with the Phillies knowing they have no shot at winning, just as the Phillies knew in that Houston series. There isn’t a single pitcher -- starter or otherwise -- that will send pangs of fear through opposing hitters.
Billy Wagner had that, but he’s gone. He was the only pitcher who had "it."
One benefit of having a closer like Wagner was having a presence that reverberated into the middle innings of a close game. Opponents knew they must not surrender the lead or their chances of winning would be slim.
On the mound, he could represent shear tyranny. Wagner could tear hitters down, embarrass them, make them regret ever putting on a uniform. Wagner could break a team’s spirit so badly, it would carry over to the next day.
A.I.: Artificial Intimidation
Let's face it: The Phillies want a front-line pitcher, and can't have one. The only thing they can do now is continue to work the edges.
One reason I advocate having at least one fire-baller in the bullpen, regardless of control, is having someone to get the blood flowing when a game seems lost, or to trample the opposing team’s spirits when the coast is clear.
I love the idea of Yoel Hernandez, the minor league closer who lead the Venezuelan winter league in saves. He’s clocked in the high-90s and keeps his ERA in check. Having a young pitcher like that, to pitch in low-pressure spots, would at least give kids something to watch in the eighth-inning of a one-sided game. It might also give the team an emergency charge in a desperate situation.
David Bell, cash, to Kansas City for 21-year-old fireball relief pitcher Ambiorix Burgos.