I have to be honest, I could not have initially disagreed more with the Phillies’ decision to start Vince Velasquez today. He came into this afternoon’s rubber match against the Braves with an 0-2 record and 7.50 ERA in four career games at SunTrust Park. Braves hitters had posted a ridiculous 1.016 OPS and .415 batting average against him in those games. And Velasquez, who has suddenly become one of the team’s primary late-inning arms (and not on merit), was being jerked back into the starting rotation after making nine relief appearances, including what was a brief 10-pitch outing on Friday night.
After watching the Braves methodically dismantle the Phillies in a 15-1 drubbing, I have a confession to make. I was completely wrong.
I was wrong because in the end, it didn’t matter if the Phillies started Velasquez–who predictably struggled–or Cole Irvin–who predictably struggled–or Jerad Eickhoff–who predictably struggled. All three pitchers were completely overmatched and thoroughly beaten by what looks like one of the National League’s most complete lineups. You know, the type of relentless lineup many of us thought the Phillies would have. By the time Gabe Kapler removed Eickhoff, whose 39 ineffective pitches yielded six hits, a walk, five earned runs, and two more homers, and tabbed utility guy Sean Rodriguez for the eighth down by two touchdowns, it’s almost as if the manager was saying to his front office and the fans, “What the hell do you guys want from me here?”
If he didn’t ask, he should have.
Kapler will continue to catch heat from fans and certain media types after the Phillies lost for the fifth time in their last seven games to fall 2.5 games behind Atlanta. They have lost 4.5 games in the standings to the Braves over the last eight days and now have to deal with a surging Nationals team that knows they have a prime opportunity to gain ground at home this week. This is undoubtedly a concerning trajectory for the Phillies, and while Kapler certainly hasn’t been perfect, I mean–how much of what is happening right now is really on him?
Was it Kapler’s fault that his ace couldn’t survive five innings on Saturday night as his ERA swelled to 4.89 15 starts into the season? Is it Kapler’s fault that in a pivotal game he had to choose from this tasty menu of options:
- Velasquez, now a relief pitcher, who had not made a start since May 6. Also–small detail here–he hasn’t been an effective starting pitcher, which is why he’s now a relief pitcher.
- Soft-tossing Cole Irvin, who needs to be nearly perfect with his command and pitch sequencing to survive the limitations of a lower-ceiling arm. Or…
- Eickhoff, a guy who has surrendered 18 homers over his last 28.1 IP. EIGHTEEN. HOMERS.
Ronald Acuña Jr. had homered against every NL East team but one.
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) June 16, 2019
Was Tyler Cloyd not available?
Throw in a bullpen ravaged by injury and a lineup that featured Cesar Hernández and Nick Williams hitting in the middle of the order out of necessity, and, I mean, what are we even talking about here?
Now, if you want to expand the scope of blame and fault the collective group of decision-makers, which I presume includes the manager (at least I hope it does), for opting to pass on Enyel De Los Santos, then, yeah, fine. If you want to dog them for not going with Jake Arrieta on four days rest, that’s fine, too. De Los Santos was decent for Lehigh Valley today, and Arrieta surely would have given them more than what they ultimately got, but it’s hard for me to imagine that was the difference, assuming he wanted the ball. Either way, I just don’t see it. Not with these injuries and not with what followed Rhys Hoskins after the cleanup spot in today’s lineup. Hernandez-Williams-Franco-Knapp-Pitcher. Read that back and tell someone with a straight face that Enyel De Los Santos was the difference today.
This brings us to a question that I often like to ask when it looks like the sky is falling–and it does look like the sky is falling–now what? Now that the series autopsy is over, everybody has cursed at their tv screens, demanded the manager be fired, four guys be DFA’d, and sent their angry tweets, where do the Phillies go from here?
Let’s start with the truth. Contrary to popular belief, at 39-32, with–let’s count ’em up–91 games still remaining, the Phillies’ season isn’t over because things didn’t go their way in a three-game series on the road in June. That’s not how this works, but nobody–from ownership down to the manager–can simply sit back and say “tough one,” while hoping the eventual return of a few relievers, Roman Quinn, and Jay Bruce is going to completely fix things. It will help some, but the obvious and unsettling deficiencies exposed and highlighted this weekend weren’t the unlucky product of a rough small sample of games against a hot team. If anything, I have probably been a little too optimistic about the Phillies this season, but the weaknesses and vulnerabilities on display against the Braves in this series were symptomatic of a team that, as currently constructed, is simply not good enough.
Step one in fixing the problem is admitting that one exists. If you’re looking for some good news on a night when there doesn’t appear to be much of it, well, here it goes. The Phillies have shown a proactive approach already this month by plugging holes on their bench and in their lineup through trades. I interpret that aggressiveness as an acknowledgement of the issues that exist and a willingness to address them in an effort to compete this season. That said, while they probably still need to further address the offense, the issue that exists in this rotation couldn’t be more obvious, and it is, for sure, the one most likely to derail their playoff hopes. Enter step two. They tried patience, they hoped that one of these guys would step up and nail down a spot. It didn’t happen, and now, while the Phillies are partly at the mercy of a developing market, they can ill-afford to wait until the trade deadline to do something about it if they still believe this is a playoff-caliber team. This is a big “if” at the moment.
In the interim, as they continue to evaluate the merits of adding to this current roster and decide just how far they are willing to go to upgrade it, get ready for more sporadic clunkers and pray that run-differential is vastly overrated.