The key to the Phillies' season isn't the pitching staff as it sets up today. It's the last line of defense once those critical pieces fall off the board.
The Phillies spent spring training sorting out their pitching, auditioning about two-dozen candidates to fill two holes in the 'pen and rotation. Until Friday, the team decided only 10 nominees warranted jobs in the Major Leagues. The manager remains mostly noncommittal on his fifth starter, while the club bolstered the bullpen by acquiring a Double-A player off waivers.
Under normal circumstances, it isn't a big deal. Many teams face questions and take chances around the edges. But the Phillies aren't a normal team. The Phils were forced to use 28 pitchers last season, setting a franchise record. When it comes to pitching, they can't seem to find the answers.
All of the same problems threaten them again in 2008. They face doubt in the back of the bullpen, where Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson ended the season hurt, while Tom Gordon, age 40, will be asked to pitch through a torn labrum. In the rotation, thereâs general concern 3-through-5 (though I'm not worried about Jamie Moyer) while the clubâs best pitcher, Cole Hamels, has never been healthy for an entire season.
Smooth sailing is highly unlikely, even assuming these pitchers pitch like the Phillies want them to pitch. Lidge, who will return April 5 at the earliest, lost the closer job the last two seasons in Houston, and it wasn't due to injury. Kyle Kendrick, not blessed with great stuff, is now a familiar foe to opposing hitters. J.D. Durbin and John Ennis were better options than Adam Eaton at the end of the season.
But we know all that. Yet somehow, they captured the division. It took out-of-their-mind, over-their-head hitting to do so. Career years abounded, and that will be the difference between the 2007 version and the one that will finish 85-77, out of the playoffs and second to the Mets in a watered-down, aging NL East. It will resemble '06 more closely than '07. One can only ask so much from these gutsy, resilient players, but it never gets old asking for the little extras from ownership to fortify this excellent nucleus with championship-caliber support.
Community predictions: Readers are encouraged to continue sharing their thoughts on the 2008 season. Results will be posted later today.