The Phillies Rotation: Two Southpaws, Then Just South

This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will continue to break them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.

It’s a rebuilding period for the Phillies, who fielded one of the oldest teams in baseball last year and felt the pinch in their starting rotation, as Cliff Lee’s 2014 was ruined by an elbow injury and A.J. Burnett had the worst full season of his career. Since then, Burnett and longtime right-hander Kyle Kendrick have left town, with an array of newcomers — well, new to the Phillies, anyway — looking to bring order to the back end of the staff. But behind the two lefties, who have both been the subject of trade talk all winter, it’s not a very pretty picture.

The ace
Cole Hamels / 31

Hamels started 2014 on the shelf with a shoulder injury, but upon his return in late April, he was his usual all-star self. He posted the best ERA (2.46) of his career with very good results in the FIP, xFIP and SIERA departments, all with a solid 8.7 K/9 and ground ball rate. Basically, it was a season of no complaints so far as fantasy owners were concerned …. except for the 9-9 record. That’s now two seasons in a row in which Hamels has pitched extremely well, compiling 7.9 WAR in that span, but with a 17-23 record to show for it. We don’t need to look too far to assign blame, as the team has gone 73-89 in both years, but it’s still depressing, especially considering the team’s lineup isn’t getting any better with the loss of Jimmy Rollins. There’s only so much Hamels can do to turn that around, of course, but for a guy who actually posted an increase in his average fastball velocity and who has averaged more than 208 innings since 2007, there’s no reason to think Hamels won’t continue to serve fantasy owners in multiple categories as a strong No. 2 or 3 starter.

The No. 2
Cliff Lee / 36

If you drafted Lee as your ace last year, don’t kick yourself too hard; he had been fantasy dynamite before last year, averaging 6.2 WAR a season from 2008 through 2013. But, alas, age caught up to the left-hander, as he suffered through a nightmarish season of elbow problems that limited him to just 13 starts. When he was on the mound, however, he pitched pretty well, with strikeout and walk figures in line with his career norms and a good 3.65/2.96/3.01 ERA/FIP/xFIP line. One of the reasons Lee has been such an attractive target on draft day in recent seasons despite his advancing years is that his skill set should age relatively well; he doesn’t rely on a mid-90s fastball or swings-and-misses to be successful, and the reports we have so far indicate Lee is on track for spring training. To which camp he reports remains a matter of speculation; the Phillies have little use for a veteran left-hander, especially one with so much trade interest were he to prove himself healthy, so don’t be surprised if he opens 2015 with another ballclub. Lee carries too much risk to be penciled in for another year as a fantasy ace, but if the health news in the next couple of weeks is positive, he could provide owners with a nifty return on value, as he’s currently being drafted outside the top 40 starting pitchers, among the likes of Zack Wheeler and Ian Kennedy.

The No. 3
Aaron Harang / 36

In his age-36 season last year, Harang made his most starts (33) and threw his most innings (204.1) since 2007, though he didn’t quite earn positive value in Zach Sanders’ end of the season rankings, where he finished 90th among starting pitchers. Some of last year’s success could be found in his highest GB/FB rate in nearly a decade, though there’s no question that he’ll come to miss having Andrelton Simmons behind him, especially on balls hit to the right side of the infield, where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard reside. Assuming Harang yields more fly balls, that’s not cause for celebration, either; he benefited from a low 6.4% HR/FB rate last year, which is almost certain to climb in Citizen Bank Park’s home-run-happy surroundings. Steamer and the fans are expecting his strand rate to fall, thus shooting his ERA into the mid-four range, and when you factor in middling strikeout and walk rates, you get the idea: Harang is mediocre. As long as he has a rotation spot, he’ll have value in NL-only formats, but he won’t have a lot of use outside of deeper mixed leagues.

The rest
Jerome Williams / 33
David Buchanan / 25
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez / 28
Chad Billingsley / 30
Jonathan Pettibone / 24

• Williams bounced between three teams last year, finally being claimed off waivers by the Phillies in August, where he pitched serviceably in nine starts. Moving to the National League after stints in Houston and Arlington helped, and he relied more heavily on his sinker and changeup, but a heavy dose of luck — he outperformed his SIERA, FIP and xFIP by more than a full run in Philly — helped as much as anything. He keeps the walks down, which is certainly nice, but he’s not a source of strikeouts, the ERA likely won’t fall below four and if Hamels can’t get wins on this team, Williams probably won’t, either.

• Buchanan pitched decently in his rookie year, maintaining a ground ball rate above 50% while keeping the walks in check over 20 starts. Upon his return in August from a midseason demotion to Triple-A, Buchanan focused more greatly on pitching to contact, utilizing his sinker more at the expense of his four-seamer in his last 10 starts. That approach plunged his K/9 below five, but he also never allowed more than three earned runs in any of those starts. Steamer believes a sharp reduction in his strand rate and another half walk per nine innings will cause his ERA and FIP to soar, but so long as he can keep the ball on the ground, he could yield some value in NL-only leagues if he can earn some starts.

• You remember Gonzalez, the Cuban defector who the Phillies originally signed to a four-year, $48 million deal in the summer of 2013 only to reduce the contract to three years at $12 million after a physical revealed elbow problems. That was before he developed shoulder soreness last spring that delayed his professional debut until mid-May, though he eventually made his way to Philadelphia, making six relief appearances in September. Gonzalez flashed some impressive strikeout ability in 46 innings split between three minor league levels, where he pitched mostly out of the bullpen, though he suffered from control problems, compiling a 5.1 BB/9. Kiley McDaniel sees Gonzalez more as a late-inning reliever than as a starter, and although the Phillies are on record saying they want to give him a chance to earn a starting gig, he’ll first need to prove that his arm can handle the extra workload.

• Billingsley offers the most intrigue among the back-end rotation candidates, as he was an effective fantasy starter with the Dodgers as recently as 2012. But he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and suffered a torn flexor tendon last year, and only pitched 19 professional innings between the two seasons. The Phillies don’t expect Billingsley to return until at least late April, and while he has the potential to contribute in mixed leagues, owners will want to see how his arm holds up before granting him a roster spot.

• Pettibone’s 2014 season was ruined by a torn labrum, the second straight season in which he’s lost time due to a shoulder injury. In his 18 starts two years ago, the right-hander produced a mediocre 6.4% K-BB%, though he did show an ability to get grounders. Were he to land a rotation spot, however, it’s unlikely he would offer much value except as a streaming candidate.

Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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One minor quibble from an admitted Phillies homer, yes Ryan Howard is terrible, but Utley was worth more than 10 runs defensively last year and had the second best range factor among second basemen. Given his career marks it doesn’t seem like it was some statistical outlier. Chase Utley is one of the very few things we have at this point, please don’t try to take that from us.

Other than that can’t really disagree with any of this

Emcee Peepants
Emcee Peepants

Agreed, Utley has gone from a plus-plus defender to merely plus and Howard has gone from a minus to a minus-minus so the right side probably grades out to average. I’m more worried about the Cody Asche/Maikel Franco/SS PuPu Platter side of the infield. God, this is going to a be a long season…


SS should be good enough defensively with Galvis (his hitting is another story and god help us if they try to make Cesar Hernandez a short stop) but yeah, 3B could be really bad. Franco looked decent enough in a small sample last year, but his glove was never all that highly though of in the minors and Asche was a butcher. At least Michael Young isn’t in that mix

Emcee Peepants
Emcee Peepants

Galvis has only 300 MLB innings at SS though and was horrible last year with -4 DRS and -10.6 UZR/150 in only 200 innings. He’s a decent enough 2B but I’m not convinced he is a decent enough SS. He’s probably the least worst option though for this season. At least we don’t have to worry about someone blocking JP Crawford when he is ready?