"We were the worst in the league, weren't we?" Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said this weekend at Citizens Bank Park. "Yeah, that would constitute needing some help, especially if you think you're going to try to win a championship."
The Phillies acquired Cliff Lee in a trade with the Indians and signed Pedro Martinez as a free agent. They stabilized the rotation, which pitched well enough down the stretch to get the Phillies back to the World Series.
It has been a different story this season. A Roy Halladay-led rotation has a 3.69 ERA, which ranks fourth in the NL. Phillies starters have pitched six or more innings in 18 of their previous 21 starts. They have pitched seven or more innings in 11 of their past 21.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee would not compare this rotation to ones from the previous three seasons, when the Phillies reached the postseason, but it could end up being the best. Phildelphia starters had a 4.91 ERA in 2007, a 4.23 ERA in '08 and a 4.29 ERA in '09 -- although the '09 rotation had a collective 3.76 ERA from Lee's first start July 31 through the end of the regular season.
The starters' ability to pitch deep this season has allowed the bullpen, which has been without Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero at various points, to throw just 107 innings. That is the fewest innings of any bullpen in Major League Baseball.
So far, so good -- and that's considering the Phillies not only have missed Lidge, Madson and Romero, but Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, too. So for the moment, the Phils seem unlikely to make a significant move before the July 31 Trade Deadline, although ESPNChicago.com reported Sunday that Philadelphia has recently scouted White Sox relievers Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz.
"We may have totally different needs in two weeks or two months than what we think we might be a need right now. Right now, we need Lidge and Madson to get healthy."
-- Ruben Amaro Jr.
That the Phillies are scouting pitching is not surprising. They scout every team, and they want to be prepared should Happ not recover from his left forearm injury, or Lidge or Madson do not recover from their elbow and toe injuries, respectively.
"We've got a long way to go," Amaro cautioned. "We may have totally different needs in two weeks or two months than what we think we might be a need right now. Right now, we need Lidge and Madson to get healthy."
Phillies fans have been abuzz since Astros ace Roy Oswalt asked for a trade late last week. Could the Phillies use him? Absolutely. Will they get him? It is unlikely, for a couple reasons. First, Philadelphia probably does not have the budget to take on Oswalt's $15 million salary. Oswalt also will make $16 million next season, which means goodbye to any chances of resigning Jayson Werth. Second, the Phillies just traded Lee to the Mariners in December, because they said they needed to restock their farm system. How could they then rationalize trading prospects for Oswalt? Wouldn't it have been better just to keep Lee in the first place?
"We're going to be reluctant to move talent, because we've moved a lot of talent out of our system," Amaro said. "But we'll see how things shape up over the next several months."
It would not cost the Phillies any talent to re-sign Martinez. Amaro said they remain in contact with Martinez, although if the rotation keeps pitching like it has -- and Happ eventually returns from a left forearm injury and pitches well -- they might not need him like they needed him last season.
"We haven't seen him throw, but we check in with him," Amaro said of Martinez.
Left-hander Cole Hamels has Amaro feeling better about the rotation. He is 3-0 with a 2.36 ERA in four starts this month, compared to a 2-2 mark and a 5.28 ERA in April. The Phillies had high hopes for Halladay and Hamels atop the rotation in 2010. They think they've seen the potential of that combination recently.
"I've always believed in him," Amaro said of Hamels. "I've never stopped believing in him. I believe he's one of the best left-handers in the league, and I think he's going to improve. I think he's a young player that in some ways learned a lesson and I think he's moving forward."
Left-hander Jamie Moyer also has pitched well. He is 5-3 with a 4.30 ERA, and has a 3.35 ERA in his past six starts.
Moyer is the pitcher Martinez replaced in the rotation in August.
"It's a pleasant surprise," Amaro said. "But I'm not that surprised, because he's so resilient. He's done a lot of things after the age of 40 that for a lot of people, it shouldn't be that surprising."
Can the Phillies improve their pitching? Certainly.
Will they? It depends what happens with Happ, Lidge and Madson, and what else might pop up before the Trade Deadline.
"What's nice about this is we really haven't had major contributions from Madson, Lidge and Happ," Amaro said. "For us to be where we are without them is great. I think when we get them back hopefully they'll be fresh and they'll be healthy. It's still a big question mark, but all indications are that they're moving forward."