Fifth Starter? Not Important Now – Phillies Nation
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Fifth Starter? Not Important Now

The loneliest time for any human being? That hour you have to wait for AAA to help change your flat tire.

Look, I’m no tire expert. Dad didn’t wheel me under the 1988 Ford Escort – which I remember most for its front license plate: the old-school Phillies typography and a cartoon Phanatic. My hands never knew oil or sludge and I for years, I couldn’t tell a monkey wrench from an Allen wrench. Horrible, but true. So when I find a deflated tire on my car, I call the pros – the guys who might appreciate that Escort more for its strange hum than its childish license plate.

During that hour waiting for AAA, I started thinking about numerous things, chief among them the Phillies fifth-starter competition. It’s truly the only competitive battle ongoing in spring training. Bullpen entrants will be left up to chance; if Brad Lidge can convince the managerial crew that his knee is elastic, his arm is fantastic and his head isn’t spastic, he’ll be slinging sliders in the ninth inning by opening day. That will eliminate a job for Antonio Bastardo or – shudder – Ryan Vogelsong. But the winner of the fifth starter competition will truly be victorious: He’ll get an opportunity to pitch major innings for one-fifth of the National League champion’s season. The loser? Maybe the bullpen. Maybe Lehigh Valley, where he’ll likely be shagging balls with Vogelsong. Seriously, Vogelsong.

Fifth starter. It’s one of the common buzz terms of spring. Every team seeks a fifth starter. They sign a couple retreads, hand a cookie to a prospect and assure a veteran slop-thrower that he is not completely secure in his position. And some kid who’s already tasted the sour juices of major league rejection gets a lemony shot at redemption. Jamie Moyer is that veteran. Kyle Kendrick is that kid.

Then you add ingredients. Moyer is the $8 million reason the Phillies aren’t shuttling out an all-universe rotation in 2009, led by the studious duo of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, backed by the feisty Cole Hamels and rock-solid Joe Blanton and JA Happ. Because of Moyer and his inability to leave a game he says to love more than flank steak, the Phillies opted to refill the system, swallow the pills and hope that the National League still can’t figure out the wicked combination of 74 MPH curveball and 81 MPH changeup. Needless to say, the preferred exit was with the Clydesdales and Pat Burrell.

Kendrick had his chances. He broke through in the wacky 2007 season, when the National League failed enough to let a bullpen co-led by Antonio Alfonseca reach the postseason. Kendrick’s fastball-sinker routine won some games, then got tired, then stunk. His head blew up. He moved to Allentown. Now he has gained a changeup, a “sick” cutter (always believe a 30-something female ex-“Survivor” contestant) and the tutelage of Halladay, the coffee-slurping breaking-ball king who plows through the elliptical for breakfast.

On one end: The old guy who doesn’t know how to leave. On the other end: The hungry youngster with the greatest teacher in pitching land.

I know who I’m taking.

But that’s not the point. It’s the fifth-starter competition. The winner has the opportunity to start one-fifth of the Phillies games, but will he? Tough to call. For help, let’s run through the names of 2009 Phillies starting pitchers:

Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels, JA Happ, Cliff Lee, Chan Ho Park, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Pedro Martinez, Andrew Carpenter, Rodrigo Lopez, Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick.

The Phillies used 12 starters in 2009; only two of the five pitchers who started the season on the rotation ended the season on the rotation (Blanton, Hamels). Durability is a key. The ability to pitch solidly is the other key. Not a key? The ability to pitch well in March, when hitters are working on their timing and managers are shuffling lineups every three innings. Take, for example, Mr. Park.

Park’s spring 2009 numbers would have made Lee or Halladay blush: 21.1 IP / 6 ER / 20 H / 25 K / 2 BB / 2.53 ERA. He translated that to the 2009 season, where right out of the gate, he showed his true colors: 3.1 IP / 5 ER / 7 H / 2 K / 3 BB / 10.38 ERA. While he improved from there, he wasn’t an effective starter, leaving the rotation for the man who lost that 2009 spring battle, Happ. That kid only ran through the National League, barely missing a Rookie of the Year award despite a sub-3.00 ERA. Today, Happ is entrenched in the Phillies 2010 rotation; Park, meanwhile, is trying desperately to win a starting job with the New York Yankees.

What 2009 showed is however strong a man can pitch in March, it won’t mean much once the calendar turns to April. Moreover, you have to look at the big picture. Park was obviously effective as a reliever with the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers; in 2009, he again showed his worth as a reliever, a man who can turn all his pitches up to 11 for one or two innings, instead of pacing himself for six or seven.

The problem here, is that in 2009, Kendrick barely showed enough to prove he can last six or seven consistently against National League offenses, while Moyer has proven that at least enough to give him a decided advantage in the fifth-starter competition. The good thing, though, is that the Phillies won’t use just five starters in 2010. Someone will get sore or injured. Someone won’t pitch well enough to hold his job. There might be a trade. Anything and everything can and probably will happen – the joy of a baseball season.

This is why when I waited for that AAA-certified auto-repair man, I realized there wasn’t much of a competition for fifth starter. With all likelihood, Moyer will start in April for the Phillies alongside Halladay, Hamels, Blanton and Happ. But Kendrick – wh0 has pitched quite well so far this spring – is the next guy in the ready. He’ll be starting by May or June, when he can prove himself worthy of facing and defeating National League hitting. If he can do that, he won’t find the same fate that found Andrew Carpenter, Rodrigo Lopez and Antonio Bastardo. Instead, he’ll be starting the important games in September 2010, maybe with the division on the line, maybe with 40,000-plus red-clad radicals throwing their towels around and screaming like banshees.

Oh, yeah, he did that last year.

It’s likely he’ll be there again this year, but he won’t prove it in March.

Tim Malcolm is a former regular writer at Phillies Nation. He’ll write once in a while to talk Phillies. He also writes a once-in-a-while scribe of the 2010 Phillies at Pheel! The 2010 Philadelphia Phillies.

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