There was a time not all that long ago when the Philadelphia Phillies starting pitching rotation included outstanding southpaws among the group. And looking back through history, the team has nearly always presented a lefty option.
As recently as 2014, the season began with both Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee still in that starting rotation. The two left-handers had been teammates at that point for the better part of four of the previous five seasons.
When Lee first joined the Phillies in a 2009 trade from Cleveland he stepped into a starting pitching rotation that already included both Hamels and veteran Jamie Moyer.
Hamels was first called up to the big-leagues by the Phillies as a 22-year-old rookie in May 2006. The Phillies had no lefty options in their rotation as that season opened. Before it was over they would have three.
In the middle of the 2005 season, Randy Wolf, who had been a member of the team’s starting pitching group for the prior six years, suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He would miss the entire second half of that 2005 season and the first four months in 2006.
Wolf returned to join Hamels in the Phillies rotation on July 30, 2006. Less than three weeks later, Moyer arrived in a trade from Seattle. The three would finish out that year together before Wolf moved on to the Dodgers via free agency.
Wolf had been promoted to the big-leagues back in 1999, joining the rotation for good in June. In the prior two seasons, Matt Beech had been the lone left-handed Phillies starting pitcher.
Back further into the 90’s, the club had seen Sid Fernandez, Mike Mimbs, David West, and a late-career Fernando Valenzuela take regular turns at one point or another. And in the early part of the decade, the duo of Terry Mulholland and Danny Jackson helped the 1993 team win a National League pennent.
Mulholland had joined the team in a 1989 trade from San Francisco which also brought southpaw Dennis Cook. Those two joined Bruce Ruffin and Don Carman, giving the Phillies four left-handed starting options.
Carman could trace his own career beginnings back to the final effective years in the career of not only the greatest left-handed starter, but also the greatest Phillies pitcher of all-time, Steve Carlton.
During the early 2000’s, Wolf would be joined in the Phillies pitching rotation at various times by other left-handed starters, including Omar Daal, Bruce Chen, and Eric Milton. After Wolf was lost to the elbow surgery, Eude Brito was called up and made five starts as a left-hander.
Some of these southpaws were among the greatest pitchers to ever pull on a Phillies uniform. Some were effective starters for short periods. Others were journeymen filling a rotation spot for just a short period.
But one thing that Phillies teams had in their pitching arsenal for decades was a legitimate left-handed starter. Even before Carlton’s arrival, the last place 1971 Phillies had veterans Woodie Fryman and Chris Short and young Ken Reynolds, all lefties, pitching out of the rotation.
The pipeline, if you will, of left-handed starters has dried up down at Citizens Bank Park since the departure of Hamels. The next-man-up was supposed to be Adam Morgan, but he was never able to secure a long-term role and has now settled in as a reliever.
After Morgan finished up the 2016 season still as a member of the rotation, the Phillies had no left-handers take a regular turn for most of the next two-and-a-half years.
Trying to keep his team in the playoff hunt last season, general manager Matt Klentak signed 30-year-old Drew Smyly in late July and a week later swung a trade for 36-year-old veteran Jason Vargas. That gave the Phillies a pair of southpaws in their rotation down the stretch. But both were short-term additions, and neither will be back for the 2020 season.
As the Phillies get set to open the Grapefruit League season down in Florida this coming weekend there are once again few legitimate left-handed starting pitching options for the rotation.
In a Wednesday piece on the rotation, Scott Lauber for The Inquirer wrote: “Lefty prospect Damon Jones is a dark-horse candidate.” I like Jones, a 25-year-old who went 5-4 with a 2.91 ERA. He allowed just 74 hits over 114.1 innings across 23 starts with a 152/59 K:BB ratio in a 2019 season split between three levels of the minor league system. However, I see Jones more as a power reliever.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t lefty arms around camp, even a couple who could fill a rotation slot briefly at some point. The bullpen has a variety of left-handed options for new manager Joe Girardi, including Morgan, Jose Alvarez, and Francisco Liriano.
Liriano has made 300 starts in MLB over 14 seasons and could potentially be used as a spot or emergency starter. The only other two left-handers currently in camp who appear to have any chance to take the mound as a starting pitcher in the big-leagues at some point would appear to be Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez.
Irvin is now 26-years-old. He went 2-1 with a 5.83 ERA over 16 games, just three of those as a starter during his first taste of MLB play a year ago. However, Irvin has made 41 starts at Triple-A Lehigh Valley over the past two seasons. The Phillies are likely to keep him stretched out there again to begin 2020.
Suarez made three starts when first called up in 2018. He was used exclusively out of the bullpen in 37 games with the Phillies last season. Suarez made 28 starts over the last two seasons between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Down in the minor leagues the Phillies currently have only two left-handers who appear to have even a possibility of one day taking the mound as a starting pitcher. Those would be Erik Miller, chosen in the fourth round of the MLB Draft last June, and Ethan Lindow, who was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year last season. Both are a couple of years away, and neither can be considered a true top prospect at this point.
Is it important to have a left-hander in the starting rotation? Does it matter? That is a legitimate question. If the Phillies had five legitimate, effective, right-handers in their rotation at any point over the last half-dozen years it might not be an issue.
Showing opposing hitters the change of pace that a left-hander offers, neutralizing top left-handed hitters for the first two or three turns through the batting order. These are just a couple of ways a southpaw would help.
For my money, I would prefer to always have a right-left starting pitching mix that included two of one and three of the other. My preferred rotation would alternate lefties and righties against each opponent.
It would be nice if the Phillies could at least develop one truly legitimate starting left-hander. That, or trade for one who could be an effective member of their rotation for a few years. Right now, that arm does not appear to be on the 2020 roster.
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