Friday's pitching matchup at Tropicana Field was symbolic, crystallizing one major aspect of what has gone wrong during Matt Klentak's reign as Phillies general manager: The team has not been able to build lasting, viable starting pitching depth.
Charlie Morton started the series opener for the top-seeded Rays.
Vince Velasquez, with 27 quality starts in 99 tries, went for the Phillies in a must-win game. He threw 92 pitches in 4⅓ innings. He was staked to a 4-1 lead and it was 4-3 when his line was complete. He did not pitch poorly but the Phillies, with the majors’ worst bullpen against a team that makes winning plays at the plate, on the bases and in the field, needed more.
Velasquez is a good dude who has strengths and could be useful to a team in some role. Here, at this point, he’s emblematic of the Phillies' inability under Klentak to create that viable starting pitching depth, specifically over the last three seasons when this team has fought to make the playoffs but too often has had only one or two reliable starters. Velasquez and Nick Pivetta were given many chances. Their success was fleeting and no opportunity was seized. Had either panned out, perhaps the playoff drought wouldn't be nine years.
The 2019 Phillies were so thin on starting pitching that they had to turn to cheap veteran rentals Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly in the second half. The team fizzled out in September and missed the playoffs.
The 2020 Phillies were so thin on starting pitching that they had no good answer (four bullpen games and a spot start by Adonis Medina) to replace Jake Arrieta or Spencer Howard in the September starts they missed. They fizzled out in September again.
Too few finds
The Phillies hired Klentak after the 2015 season. One of his first moves was the shrewd, inexpensive acquisition of Morton from the Pirates for pitcher David Whitehead, who topped out at Double A.
It remains one of the best trades Klentak has made as Phillies GM — which is a problem.
Morton had one year and $8 million remaining on his deal when the Phillies acquired him. He made four starts — two very good ones — before tearing his hamstring while running to first base after a sacrifice bunt. Just like that, his season and his time with the Phillies was over.
Morton had a $9.5 million team option for 2017. The Phillies bought it out for $1 million, he signed a two-year contract with the Astros, and after hitting seven of eight incentives, he made just under $20 million.
Meanwhile, the Phillies that same offseason acquired Clay Buchholz and signed Joaquin Benoit and Michael Saunders. That cost a combined $29 million. All three had short, forgettable stints here.
You cannot kill Klentak for not exercising that option for a pitcher coming off of a hamstring tear. But foresight is part of the job, right? The same things that attracted Klentak to Morton a year earlier were still there. His fastball velocity jumped from 92.8 mph to 95-96 mph with the Phillies and has remained there ever since.
Why didn't they make more of an effort to keep Morton? Why hasn't Klentak been able to uncover an undervalued player like Morton since?
Since leaving the Phillies, Morton has signed two-year deals with the Astros and Rays. He's gone 47-18 with a 3.34 ERA in 97 starts with 100 more strikeouts than innings pitched. He pitched well against the Dodgers and won a (since tainted) World Series with the Astros in 2017, then made two strong starts in the playoffs for Tampa Bay last year.
Morton has been one of the top 15 or 20 starting pitchers in baseball the last four years. He's been exactly the kind of No. 2 starter Jake Arrieta could not be here. The Phillies paid Arrieta $75 million and he went 22-23 with an ERA 1% worse than the league average.
Not until the $118 million signing of Zack Wheeler this past offseason did the Phillies finally find someone they could bank on every fifth day behind Nola. It wasn't enough.
There aren't many locks on the pitching staff to return beyond Nola, Wheeler, Zach Eflin and the young relievers making the minimum. The Phillies need a helluva lot more. Barring a last-ditch playoff push and October success, it would be a surprise if Klentak is the GM who makes those necessary additions.