Dombrowski discusses state of Phils' fifth starter

May 27th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Todd Zolecki’s Phillies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Taijuan Walker offered respite Friday with a solid 6 2/3 innings in a 6-4 victory over the Braves at Truist Park. The Phillies’ rotation ranks 24th in baseball with a 5.01 ERA. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said this week in Atlanta that the starting pitching depth is a concern.

He points out, however, that this isn’t just a Phillies problem.

“Everybody is looking,” he said. “To give you an example, we have people call us for our starting pitching.”

It might be difficult to believe folks are calling the Phillies, but then the club felt fortunate last weekend, when it got Dylan Covey on a waiver-wire claim. Covey, who spent the past two seasons pitching in China, could be Philadelphia’s No. 5 starter.

The Phillies opened Spring Training expecting Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suárez and Walker to be their front four, with some combination of Andrew Painter and Bailey Falter pitching as the No. 5.

It has not gone as planned.

“Your big four are really important,” Dombrowski said. “Wheeler, Walker, Nola and Suárez -- if those four are throwing the ball well, we’ll take care of the fifth. … If you have a fifth starter in today’s world, in most cases, and they’re giving you four, five good innings, I think most clubs will take it.”

Painter has not pitched since March 1 because of an injured UCL in his right elbow. He might be back this summer, and the club believes he could help this season. Falter, who was optioned to Triple-A on May 16, is the first Phillies pitcher to start a season 0-7 since Jerad Eickhoff in 2017.

Complaining about a team’s No. 5 starter is a bit like complaining about a team’s No. 9 hitter. If the team’s first eight hitters are doing their jobs, the No. 9 hitter shouldn’t matter so much. But because the Phillies’ front four haven’t met expectations, the fifth spot is getting more attention.

“There are different things you can do with that fifth spot if you’re getting those innings from the top,” Dombrowski said.

The Phillies prefer not to pitch left-hander Matt Strahm every five days due to health concerns. He has not pitched more than 44 2/3 innings in a season since 2019.

“If we have to do that -- let’s just say we have to do that -- we’d rather save that,” Dombrowski said. “Because if you do it now, you’re going to be done by the first of August, and he’s very valuable for us.”

Internal options on the 40-man roster are right-hander Nick Nelson, who is injured, and left-handers Cristopher Sánchez and Michael Plassmeyer. But Sánchez and Plassmeyer have struggled so much that the Phillies preferred Covey to pitch earlier this week against Arizona. Prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry are not ready yet, but perhaps they will force the Phillies’ hand at some point.

“You’re always hoping,” Dombrowski said. “But I think when you’re talking about prospects -- Painter, Abel, McGarry -- you still have to do what’s best for them. I don’t want to rush. I don’t want to do anything that hurts their long-term development. They are treated as they need to be treated, not because of our needs.”

Jon Duplantier could be an option at some point.

What about a trade?

“Exorbitant,” Dombrowski said about the asking price. “First of all, most clubs need starting pitching. So if you’re one of those clubs, you’re not going to trade until you get overwhelmed. And most clubs don’t overwhelm you at this time. They’re trying other alternatives. I know we’ve played almost 50 games, but when you get to the All-Star break, the standings could look significantly different.

“I don’t think they want to pay an exorbitant price [today] thinking they’re going to be there then you’re not. There’s a vast amount of injuries to pitchers. The Dodgers have eight pitchers on the 60-day [injured list] and two other pitchers on the 15. … Their depth will catch up to them at some point. We have so many games to play yet. We really have to be careful.

“We talk about depth. Every day we look. But I’m sure everybody else does, too.”