When Dave Dombrowski was hired to lead baseball operations for the Phillies in mid-December, he was assigned a lengthy to-do list.
Catcher and shortstop were the big items and Dombrowski, with the backing of ownership’s checkbook, eventually solidified reunions with J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, both of whom had become free agents.
Earlier, Dombrowski had gone to work on the bullpen, trading for Jose Alvarado and Sam Coonrod, signing coveted free agent Archie Bradley and later adding several others on minor-league deals, including the accomplished Hector Rondon.
But even as Dombrowski was crossing off significant entries on his to-do list, one item stared back at him, hauntingly — the organization’s starting pitching depth, or lack of it.
“One of our main goals when I came over here was to get starting pitching depth,” he said on Wednesday. “We didn’t think the organization with the young guys other than Spencer Howard — there might be some guys coming up, but we didn’t think we had a lot of depth behind the first four (starters) and then No. 5 with Howard. We’re looking for some individuals who can compete for our spots.”
Dombrowski went on to say, “We felt we really needed to protect ourselves and we don’t have that (from an) internal perspective with a club that we felt can compete to win a division.”
So, over the past week or so, Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld have addressed the team’s internal shortage of starting pitching depth with the signings of Ivan Nova and Bryan Mitchell to minor-league deals and, more notably, with the signings of veterans Matt Moore and Chase Anderson to big-league deals.
Moore, who was introduced in a video conference on Wednesday, will make $3 million in 2021. Anderson, whose agreement has been confirmed by sources but not announced by the team because it’s contingent on a physical, will make $4 million.
So, for $7 million, the Phils added innings to the back half of a rotation that will need them more than ever as the game gets back to something closer to normal in 2021. After making less than half their usual number of starts during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, pitchers must be protected from injury as they stretch their workloads to a place more indicative of a full season.
The Phils are set with Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin in the top three spots of the rotation. After that, Howard and Vince Velasquez return and now Moore, Anderson and Nova are in the mix. Moore is the only lefty so you can bet on him being in the season-opening rotation.
“As we sit here today, I don’t know if we’re going to use a six-man rotation at times,” Dombrowski said. “We know there are limitations on the number of innings some of our pitchers can throw, particularly a youngster like Howard.”
Once again in 2021, the schedule could be affected by COVID-19. When doubleheaders stack up, starting pitching depth becomes vital.
But even before COVID-19, few teams ever got through a season with just five starting pitchers.
“Acquiring pitching depth is really important because you know at some point, and you pray to God that it doesn’t happen, that somebody is going to get nicked up and you’re going to need that depth,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So I think from a depth standpoint, we have improved and I like where we’re at.”
In addition to mentioning the possibility of employing a six-man rotation at times, Dombrowski said there could be occasions when a pitcher skips a start to protect an arm. It’s a read and react situation, as Brother Gabe Kapler used to say.
One of the early calls could come with Velasquez. It’s not difficult to envision Moore and Anderson pushing him out of the rotation and his power arm being used in the bullpen. It’s also not difficult to envision him being traded.
Howard remains the organization’s best and most advanced pitching prospect. The 24-year-old right-hander made six mostly underwhelming starts in the majors last year, spent time on the injured list with shoulder tightness, and totaled just 24⅓ innings. Howard has reached 100 innings just once in his pro career. To turn him completely loose would be to risk injury. The team must be smart in building his workload.
“We don’t have a specific plan as of yet,” said Dombrowski, referring to Howard. “There’s a lot of different alternatives — skipping starts, pitching out of the bullpen, shortening starts. But we haven’t really come up with what we’re trying to do as of yet, and it’ll be something that we do prior to getting into spring training.”
“Obviously we’ll have a target area for Spencer,” Girardi added. “We want him to go out and compete and pitch the best that he can to help us win games, and we’ll go from there. But he will be watched and we will have a plan for him and be ready to adjust it if we need to.”
The Phillies’ payroll for 2021 is now pushing $199 million. The luxury tax threshold is $210 million and the Phils, like most every other team, are mindful of that. The team could still tinker around the edges with another reliever, and a bat off the bench seems likely. But with some newly added and much-needed starting pitching depth, “I think our club is getting close to being the club that we’ll see come spring training,” Dombrowski said.