NEW YORK -- It wasn't difficult to understand the Phillies' strategy in trading for veteran pitchers Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Clay Buchholz over the last two seasons.
The Phillies gave up little in the form of talent to get the three pitchers. All they had to do was be willing to take on sizable one-year contracts because the three pitchers were salary dumps for their previous clubs. For their money, the Phillies added some veteran fortification to a young starting staff while rolling the dice that said veteran might perform well enough to bring back some value on the July trade market.
The strategy was sound.
But it has not worked.
"We're batting .333," club president Andy MacPhail said on Tuesday night.
Buchholz exited his second start with the club last week with a flexor-pronator injury near his right elbow and on Tuesday had surgery that with a recovery time of four to six months will end his season (see story).
Morton made four starts last season before blowing out his hamstring so severely that it ripped off the bone.
Hellickson pitched well for the club last season and continues to this season, but the Phillies' hope of getting value for him during last July's trade season never materialized, nor did the club's hope of turning him into a first-round draft pick this June. That scenario was scuttled when the pitcher accepted the team's qualifying offer of $17.2 million for this season.
For the $22.5 million that the Phillies sunk into Morton and Buchholz, they got six starts, 24 2/3 innings and a 6.56 ERA.
"I don't think anybody likes it," MacPhail said of the lack of return that the team got on Morton and Buchholz. "How could you like it? Nobody likes to see a $14 million investment go before you get [to the third start]."
Buchholz, 32, pitched just 7 1/3 innings in two starts and was tagged for 16 hits and 10 runs. He also pitched poorly in spring training but did not complain of an injury until he exited last Tuesday night's start.
MacPhail said Buchholz's fastball velocity in spring training was down "two or three miles per hour" from where the pitcher was at the end of last season with Boston.
Buchholz's drop in velocity and subsequent injury raises questions of whether he was healthy when the Phillies acquired him. The Red Sox apparently believed he was. They picked up his $13.5 million option for 2017 on Nov. 3, weeks before sending him to Philadelphia for minor-league infielder Josh Tobias on Dec. 20, and the Phillies performed customary pre-trade medical vetting.
Buchholz did miss the second half of the 2015 season with an elbow strain, but he finished 2016 by going 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA in seven starts from Aug. 18 until the end of the season.
The injuries to Buchholz and Morton, who also was 32 when the Phillies acquired him, illustrate the risks that teams take when they decide to acquire pitchers in their 30s.
"When these things happen, as an organization, we review everything that had us reach those decisions," MacPhail said. "It's just the nature of what you're dealing with. It goes to underscore the importance of having numbers [depth] and developing pitchers in your system.
"In Morton's case, he was injured trying to leg out a bunt. What you can do differently is not have to depend upon getting pitching from that area, really. I think there's a difference between reviewing your decision-making process and determining if there were any pieces of information that you should have considered that you didn't. I don't think that's the case. It's the nature of what you're dealing with. It's one of the reasons that you haven't seen us go beyond a year (in a contract). An organization can absorb an injury for a year. You just don't want one that's going to sink you."
MacPhail arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 2015 and from the beginning made it clear that developing pitching would be an organizational priority. One of his mantras, dating to earlier stops in Baltimore and Chicago, is: "Grow the pitchers, buy the bats." Based on this ideology, it's difficult to envision the Phillies being big players in coming free-agent pitching markets. On the other hand, they could go big for a bat or two.
"I'm very confident that we're going to have the resources and the kind of ballpark where position players are going to be a lot easier to come by than pitching," MacPhail said. "Pitching is hard. I don't think that belief needed reinforcement. I have articulated that point. It's not a surprise, unfortunately.
"I think you have to stay open to any opportunity if it makes sense. But I have made it no secret, personally, that free-agent pitching is fragile and expensive by the time it gets to you. That said, I don't think you ever should rule anything out. We'll make decisions based on the information we have at the time."