The Phillies played their 95th game of the season Thursday night and have 13 more full cycles through a rotation that, right now, has only one constant in Zack Wheeler.
The trade deadline is eight days away and starting pitching is just as big of a need for the Phils as bullpen help. Beyond the concerns at the back of the rotation with Vince Velasquez and Matt Moore, the Phillies placed Zach Eflin on the injured list this week with knee tendinitis and have not received the production they expected from Aaron Nola, who’s pitched fewer than six innings in 10 of 19 starts.
Entering a crucial four-game series against the Braves, the Phils trail the Mets by 3½ games and are just one ahead of Atlanta. They need more starting pitching if they’re going to win the NL East.
Moore entered Thursday with a 3.06 ERA in his last four starts, all Phillies wins, but averaged 4.4 innings. Chase Anderson is still in the picture and could be activated off of the injured list in the next week, but that’s not enough, and unless Spencer Howard can suddenly get 15-18 outs with consistency, he’s not a viable short-term solution either.
The Phils are about $4 million beneath the luxury tax threshold of $210 million. As discussed on the Phillies Talk podcast this week, they have signaled several times they’d exceed it for the right difference-making opportunity, plus teams’ penalties may end up resetting this offseason with a new collective bargaining agreement. That second point is key with penalties increasing each consecutive year a team is over.
There are a decent number of starting pitchers available, particularly guys who’d slot into the 4 and 5 spots in a rotation. Some are two-month rentals, some come with club control.
There are fringy names like the Cubs’ Zach Davies, the Royals’ Mike Minor, the Pirates’ Tyler Anderson, the Rangers’ Jordan Lyles -- guys who don’t seem like they’d be meaningful upgrades because they either don’t go deep into games, are prone to blow-up outings or both.
There’s the top of the market, which could potentially include Kyle Hendricks, Jose Berrios or John Means, but they’d cost quite a bit given their talent and years of remaining control.
Two pitchers who could fit the Phillies based on their contracts and ability to make a difference over a dozen starts are Rockies right-hander Jon Gray and Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly.
In terms of stuff and upside, Gray has as much any starting pitcher on the trade block. He has a big, heavy, 96 mph fastball and a slider that misses bats 40 percent of the time.
He’s having his best season in 2021 with a 3.68 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, no easy feat at Coors Field. He’s been a change-of-scenery candidate for a few years now and is likely to be dealt by July 30 given the Rockies’ position and Gray’s impending free agency. Folks around the league have wondered for a while what Gray could do away from Colorado. He turns 30 in November and is worth a look this winter even if the Phils don’t trade for him this month.
Gray’s teammate, German Marquez, has been and will continue to be worth pursuing, but the Rockies will have to be bowled over to trade him. There are few pitchers in either league with breaking balls as effective as Marquez’.
Kelly is more command and finesse than stuff, but he’s interesting because he can go deeper into games than most of the mediocre pitchers teams dangle this time of year.
The Phillies need that length more than they need the four innings Davies gives you or the five you can expect from Pineda. Kelly has four starts this season of at least seven innings and has pitched at least six in 12 of 20.
Kelly has quietly been a slightly-better-than-league-average starting pitcher in Arizona’s rotation over three seasons. In 57 starts, he has a 4.26 ERA and has walked 2.4 batters per nine innings, a rate comparable to Eflin’s prior to this year.
Kelly is not a strikeout pitcher. He’s whiffed 99 in 117 innings this season. He relies on spotting his 92 mph fastball and mixing up his four-pitch repertoire, throwing his curveball, changeup and cutter enough on the first pitch and with two strikes to keep a hitter guessing.
He does not have as long a track record as Joe Blanton did when the Phillies acquired him at the 2008 trade deadline, but Kelly is in a similar tier. An acquiring team would be counting on him to come in and give them six innings of three-run ball the rest of the way. Any team benefits from that sort of reliability, even when it doesn’t come with standout stuff.
Kelly, 32, was drafted by the Rays in 2010, released four years later and spent the next four seasons pitching in Korea. He was a good find by the Diamondbacks ahead of the 2019 season. They signed him to a two-year, $5.5 million contract with a club option they exercised this season for $4.25 million. He has another club option for 2022 at $5.25 million, a decent price tag for a No. 4 starter.