In need of 60% of a rotation, is it still worth it for Phillies to buy big at trade deadline?

In need of 60% of a rotation, is it still worth it for Phillies to buy big at trade deadline?

NEW YORK — The Phillies added over $430 million in contracts this past offseason. Their opening day payroll was an estimated $45 million more than it was a year ago.

They’re 47-43 at the All-Star break and on pace for 85 wins, a total that would not get them to the playoffs.

They have gotten little out of their starting rotation, especially lately. Since June 20, Aaron Nola has allowed two earned runs total in four starts for a 0.61 ERA.

In the Phillies' other 13 games over that span, the rest of the starting staff has allowed 55 earned runs in 65⅓ innings. That's a 7.58 ERA.

Now, Jake Arrieta could miss time. The Phillies will evaluate him during the All-Star break to figure out the best course of action in dealing with the bone spur in his elbow.

If Arrieta is forced to the injured list ... is it even worth it for the Phillies to make a series of win-now trades to (perhaps only incrementally) boost their chances of contending in 2019? As the injuries mount and underperformance of key hitters continues, the front office has to ask itself the hard question of whether winning the division or making noise in the playoffs is even realistic this season.

It's a surprising question to be asking given all of the Phillies’ offseason additions but things just have not gone as planned.

Trade season will be different

Keep in mind, there are no more August trades. There is a hard trade deadline of July 31, after which only minor-league deals can be made. So a team cannot act in a more measured way ahead of July 31 while continuing to evaluate its chances before making more moves in August if necessary.

Last August, you'll recall, the Phillies made trades for Justin Bour, Jose Bautista and Luis Avilan. In the preceding decade, they acquired Jamie Moyer in August 2006, Matt Stairs and Scott Eyre in August 2008, Mike Sweeney in August 2010 and dealt away Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz in August 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Now the process speeds up for every team, buyer or seller.

NL all bunched up

If we're being realistic, the Phillies need three-fifths of a rotation. Outside of Nola and Zach Eflin, the rest of their starting pitchers have been unreliable. Nick Pivetta's ERA is 5.84 overall and 4.78 since he returned from the minors. Arrieta has a 6.63 ERA in his last seven starts. Vince Velasquez is rarely able to exceed five innings. On a start-by-start basis, none of them can truly be trusted to go out there and keep you in a game.

The National League is weird this season. As poorly as the Phillies have played since Memorial Day, the only two NL teams who are even one game better than the Phillies are the Dodgers and Braves. The Phillies, Cubs, Nationals, Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Pirates and Padres are all separated by two games or fewer.

Who's available?

There are many obtainable starting pitchers. There's the top tier of Zack Greinke (maybe), Robbie Ray, Madison Bumgarner and Matthew Boyd.

There's the low-cost, low-reward stabilizing group of Danny Duffy, Tanner Roark and Mike Leake.

Marcus Stroman, who fits somewhere in between those two categories, could probably be had.

If the Phillies needed only one of them, the situation would be more cut-and-dried: Go get a starting pitcher. But they need at least two or maybe three of them. At that point, even if you go the cheaper route, you are potentially trading away an intriguing prospect or two and several lottery tickets. You're adding payroll and potentially boxing yourself into a pitcher who may not be a substantial long-term upgrade.

From a team-building standpoint, Boyd makes the most sense because he can help this season and into the future. He's a lefty with "stuff," the kind of major-league piece the Phillies do not have right now. He's under team control for three full seasons after 2019. 

He'd also cost the most because of those reasons.

So, what makes sense?

The Phillies are in a tricky position. They will not sell. Selling makes no sense given their position and they don't even have realistically sellable pieces. Could they move someone like Maikel Franco, Velasquez or Pivetta for the right price? Sure. But it wouldn't be in a selling move, it would be for something else that helps right now.

GM Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler have both said over the last two weeks that it's more about current Phillies improving than it is about outside additions. And that's true. The guys they've already acquired, from Bryce Harper to J.T. Realmuto to Jean Segura to the trio of expensive relievers who've spent most of the season on the shelf (David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek), must make more of an impact.

The worst-case scenario for the 2019 Phillies is not missing the playoffs. It's selling off some of the farm because of a disappointing first half and then still missing the playoffs.

This month will test Klentak's mettle.

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As trade deadline approaches, Phillies GM Matt Klentak to get firsthand look at much-coveted Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd

As trade deadline approaches, Phillies GM Matt Klentak to get firsthand look at much-coveted Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd

The Phillies began an important week in the schedule with a 2-1 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Despite scoring just three runs in the final two games, the Phillies took two of three from the Pirates to remain entrenched in the National League wild-card race as next week's trade deadline (and big decisions for the front office) steams toward us.

And, this year, it's a real trade deadline. There are no more August waiver deals, the kind that once brought the Phillies Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs and the Houston Astros Justin Verlander in 2017, two months before they won the World Series.

The Detroit Tigers traded Verlander to the Astros in August 2017. Two years later, the Tigers, who entered Monday tied with Baltimore for the worst record in the majors, remain in a rebuild and they have several trade candidates that intrigue contending teams.

The Phillies will get a good look at one of them — maybe more — over the next couple of days when they travel to Detroit for a quick, two-game interleague series on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak will join the team in Detroit for the series and will no doubt have his eyes trained on Tuesday night's Detroit starter, lefty Matthew Boyd.

Though Klentak would surely prefer otherwise, it's possible he could also get a look at Shane Greene, the Tigers' All-Star closer. Outfielder Nicholas Castellanos and lefty starter Daniel Norris are also on Detroit's trading block.

The Phillies have big needs in the starting rotation and at the back end of the bullpen. Sources say the Phils have had conversations with the Tigers about all of their available players, particularly Boyd and Greene. Both are the type of pitcher the Phillies would like to acquire in that they are talented and under contractual control beyond this season. In other words, they are not rentals. Boyd has three years of control after this season and Greene is under control through next season.

Now, here's the rub: That type of control raises the price tag on these pitchers and by all accounts, the Tigers are looking for a huge score — as they should.

One baseball executive familiar with the Tigers' thinking said the club was looking for four young players for Boyd — "two with star potential and two more with a chance."

The Tigers are in position to seek a huge score not only because Boyd has so many years of control remaining but also because the market for starting pitchers heavily favors sellers. Toronto's Marcus Stroman (the Phillies have scouted him recently) and Boyd are the top two controllable pitchers on the market. It remains unclear if Arizona will deal lefty Robbie Ray, who is under control for another season, or Zack Greinke because the Diamondbacks are still in the wild-card chase. The D-backs could hold on to both and look to deal them in the offseason if they desire. The market for Greinke will be limited, now and in the offseason, because he is owed over $80 million through 2021 and he has a no-trade clause. The Phillies have plenty of money and would prefer to use that over prospect capital, but even they would have reservations about taking on that amount of money for a guy who will pitch at 36 and 37 the next two seasons and has Philadelphia on his no-trade list.

Madison Bumgarner is another pitcher that the Phils have long liked, but his availability is now complicated by the fact the Giants have gotten hot and are now in the wild-card race. (Surely, teams with available starters like Toronto and Detroit love that.)

In the end, Bumgarner might not be quite as attractive for a team that is more than one piece away from a title because he will be a free agent at season's end. The Phillies, just four games over .500 and with multiple holes, have to consider the prospect cost of a rental player because they just don't appear to be good enough to make a significant October run.

Can we beat the Dodgers by adding just one player, or are we better off hanging onto our prospects? That's a question teams like the Phillies have to ask themselves. It is a question they have already asked themselves.

For someone like Boyd, the Tigers would probably ask the Phillies for a package that would include position players such as Alec Bohm, Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley, or pitchers Adonis Medina, Spencer Howard and Francisco Morales. The Phils might part with a couple of these guys — hey, they're going to need pitching next season, too — but their current place in the standings would suggest that they will also be very protective of this group, especially Bohm and Howard.

Nonetheless, it should be interesting to watch Boyd pitch against Aaron Nola on Tuesday night in Detroit. Boyd is 6-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 20 starts for the lowly Tigers. He walks under 2.0 batters per nine innings and strikes out an even 12.0. He pitches a little like J.A. Happ, unafraid to go after hitters up in the zone with a sneaky fastball and complement it with a good changeup. He'd be a nice pickup for the Phillies, for now and beyond, and Matt Klentak will be watching. Is he willing to pay the price? Tick, tick, tick. The trade deadline is nine days away.

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Drew Smyly's outstanding debut, fearless Ranger Suarez help Phillies beat Pirates

Drew Smyly's outstanding debut, fearless Ranger Suarez help Phillies beat Pirates

PITTSBURGH — Despite a second straight day of little offense, the Phillies were able to escape PNC Park on Sunday with a series win. The Phillies had just three hits through eight innings and just six for the day. Ultimately, they got the game’s biggest hit — a solo homer from Rhys Hoskins with one out in the 11th — and that was enough to secure a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates heading into an off day Monday and a two-game set with the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday.

This is what happens when you get outstanding pitching. You can do little at the plate and still win a ballgame with one swing of the bat.

Make no mistake: The Phillies won this game because of their pitching. Even Hoskins admitted that.

“It was pretty incredible,” he said.

The Pirates scored a run in the first inning and nothing after that.

That first-inning run came against Drew Smyly, the veteran lefty who opted out of his minor-league contract with the Brewers on Thursday after the Phillies had reached out with a chance to be a starter in the big leagues. Smyly spent several days in roster limbo and did not get to join his new teammates in the clubhouse until Sunday morning. He signed his contract before the game then proceeded to pitch six innings of one-run ball. He scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight. He got 16 swing and misses, eight on a curveball that catcher Andrew Knapp said was like no other he’d ever caught because it had screwball action.

“It's definitely a great one to start off on,” Smiley said. “Just try to build off of it. It was a lot of fun being out there with a new group of guys, a fresh start. I'm very grateful to the Phillies for this opportunity and just going to try to roll with it.”

Smyly, 30, missed 2017 and 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was released by Texas in late June after recording a 8.42 ERA in 51 1/3 innings.

“I feel like once Texas designated me and then I went and signed with the Brewers, I really started to figure out some things about myself and kind of a new game plan, a new approach on how to attack hitters,” Smyly said. “I instantly saw results and I only think it's going to get better. I just feel like I'm a different pitcher than I was with Texas right now.”

Smyly would not offer specifics about the changes he made after Texas.

“I don't want to give away my secrets,” he said with a laugh. “Still have a lot of games to play. But it's just the way I'm attacking and the way I feel like I'm mixing it up. I was pretty predictable in Texas. I wasn't good. I didn't perform well. I know what I'm capable of. I've had a lot of good seasons in the past before my Tommy John surgery. So I just need to get back. The game has changed a little bit in the last two years and I just have to get back to attacking hitters and keeping them off balance. I think I have a good idea of how to do that now.”

After Smyly departed, the Phils got five shutout innings from the bullpen. Most impressive was rookie Ranger Suarez’ two scoreless innings after Hector Neris hit two batters and got a bases-loaded line out to left to survive a ninth-inning scare.

The lefty Suarez survived a leadoff double in the 10th and a hit in the 11th. He struck out the final two batters of the game. Eight of his last nine appearances have been scoreless. Not bad for a guy working out of the bullpen regularly for the first time.

Manager Gabe Kapler called Suarez’ work “gutsy” and “courageous.” The 23-year-old from Venezuela does pitch with a fearless swagger.

“I don’t need any fear,” Suarez said through translator Diego Ettedgui. “I need outs. And I was able to get them."

And the Phillies, still hoping to snap a seven-year playoff drought, were able to clinch a series win on a day when they scored just two runs.

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