PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies bolstered their lineup this offseason with the free-agent signing of former Cleveland Indians first baseman Carlos Santana.
They boosted the bullpen with the return of Pat Neshek and the addition of Tommy Hunter.
But what about the team’s biggest need, starting pitching?
“The final piece we want to look into is the starting rotation,” general manager Matt Klentak said last week. “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, we’re excited about the young pitchers and giving them opportunities.”
Those young pitchers include Aaron Nola, 24, who was 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA and the team’s most reliable starter last season. Nick Pivetta, 24, impressed at times but was 8-10 with a 6.02 ERA. Jerad Eickhoff, 27, and Vince Velasquez, 25, are recovering from injuries. Ben Lively, 25, was 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA.
It’s a group with potential, but expect the Phillies to add one and probably two starting pitchers in the coming weeks.
The signings of Santana, Neshek and Hunter signal the Phillies want to win more than the 66 games they won in 2017. That will not happen unless they improve the starting pitching. Philadelphia starters had the 10th-worst ERA (4.80) in the 15-team National League last season.
Also at last week’s news conference to welcome Santana, Phillies management cited the veteran’s ability to have a positive influence on the team’s younger position players. It stands to reason Philadelphia would also want some veterans to mentor the young pitchers.
The past two seasons, the Phillies have added veteran starters, including Clay Buchholz and Charlie Morton, in the final years of their contract.
Will the Phillies go that route again or are they interested in trading for an experienced young starter with some years left on his contracts, such as Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays or Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates?
“I don’t think we have the luxury of being that particular,” Klentak said. “We have our oars in the water on controllable young starters. We have our oars in the water on veteran one-year free agents, and we have our oars in the water on guys in between. I’m not sure which way that’s going to go.”
The Phillies can’t be blamed for not yet making a pitching move. The market for starters has been pretty stagnant. High-priced free agents Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta have yet to sign. Klentak expects the market to loosen up soon.
“We don’t know when,” he said. “That’s nothing any team can force. It will happen organically, and whenever an opportunity that presents itself that we think merits action, we will act.”
One thing is certain: Starting pitching won’t be cheap.
The Phillies have enough prospects and position players to entice a team to make a trade. Philadelphia has four starting-caliber outfielders in Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr.
But the Phillies don’t want to overpay financially or with personnel for pitching.
“One of the things I respect about our front office is that we want to make decisions that help us in 2018 but also with an eye toward 2028,” new manager Gabe Kapler said. “We’re thinking about this as a 10-year stretch of excellence rather than what’s going to happen in April of 2018.”
But even as Kapler and Klentak talk about balancing the present against the future, there is a sense the Phillies see an opportunity to win now.
“It’s very clear with the acquisition of Neshek, with the acquisition of Hunter and with the acquisition of Santana,” Kapler said, “that we plan to win a lot of games in 2018. The acquisition of another piece is always inspiring.”