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Gabe Kapler on pitching: I trust Matt Klentak


Gabe Kapler (left) trusts general manager Matt Klentak (right) will upgrade his pitching. (Kyusung Gong, Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

It would probably be an understatement to say that Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has had his hands tied behind his back in 2019 in terms of his available pitching.

While Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos have rejoined the bullpen – and Tommy Hunter and Adam Morgan don’t appear too far behind – the Phillies have had as many as seven relief pitchers on the bullpen at one time in 2019. Closer Hector Neris has been the only consistently productive relief option for Kapler in 2019 that hasn’t spent time on the injured list.

Meanwhile, the Phillies entered the year concerned about what they had in the starting rotation behind 2018 All-Star Aaron Nola. Zach Eflin has a 2.83 ERA in 2019 and Nick Pivetta has been excellent since returning from Triple-A, but Nola, expected to be the one sure thing heading into 2019, has a 4.89 ERA and has surrendered 13 home runs in 15 starts. Jake Arrieta isn’t having the bounce-back season that the Phillies may have hoped for, and the No. 5 spot in the rotation has turned into a revolving door that’s seen both Jerad Eickhoff and Cole Irvin get shelled recently.

It’s not a controversial statement to say that the Phillies need to bolster their available arms, both in terms of starting pitchers and relievers. And at least some of those additions will likely have to come externally. But that’s not something Kapler is focused on.

“The manager of a baseball team’s job is to take the roster that he has and the guys that he has in Triple-A and do the best possible job with that group,” Kapler said Wednesday morning to Angelo Cataldi on SportsRadio 94 WIP. “I trust that [general manager] Matt Klentak and our front office, they are very consistent in going out and looking for pieces that will make our club better.”

The most immediate focus in terms of upgrades is likely finding someone to fill the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation. Internally, the Phillies have run through a majority of their potential options, and don’t seem especially eager to give Enyel De Los Santos his first start of the 2019 season. Last Sunday in Atlanta, the Phillies went with an old-school bullpen game, using Vince Velasquez, who is just a reliever now, for the first 2.1 innings. He, Irvin and Eickhoff allowed 15 combined runs in a blowout loss.

A couple rainouts may have pushed back when the No. 5 starter will have to be used next, but it feels like every fifth day now is an automatic loss. When Hall of Famer Roy Halladay pitched for the Phillies, “every fifth day was a Halladay,” because it felt like a guaranteed victory when he took the mound. Now, every fifth day now has become a chance for the bullpen to get overworked and a new losing streak to start. The Phillies can’t afford to wait until after the All-Star Break to address the hole at the back-end of their rotation, which is why there’s been speculation about a possible trade for Cincinnati Reds RHP Tanner Roark or Seattle Mariners RHP Mike Leake.

Even if the Phillies find a solution to the back-end of the starting rotation and Nola begins to look like an ace again, the Phillies are almost certainly a second ace away from being a legitimate playoff threat. But given the amount of qualifiers in that sentence – and other needs beyond pitching – it’s becoming harder to justify going all-in for a front-line starting pitcher this summer. It would be one thing to trade for Toronto Blue Jays RHP Marcus Stroman or Cleveland Indians RHP Trevor Bauer, for example, because both are under team control beyond 2019. It may be flawed to think that San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner is capable of carrying a rotation to the World Series at this juncture of his career, but even if he’s the missing piece for a team that’s only a trade or two away from a parade float, the 2019 Phillies don’t seem to fit that description. And Bumgarner can become a free-agent after the season.

As far as the bullpen is concerned, it’s certainly conceivable to think that the Phillies will make some minor additions, hoping for a better payoff than they got last year when they traded for lefty Aaron Loup. But are the Phillies – who traded their former No. 1 overall prospect Sixto Sanchez in February to acquire catcher J.T. Realmuto – going to further deplete their farm system to make a major trade for someone like Cleveland Indians lefty Brad Hand or San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates? Probably not. Instead, they’ll hope that a wave of relievers coming off the injured list, which will likely include David Robertson at some point in the next six weeks, will allow them to spend elsewhere.

In any event, Kapler’s job should get somewhat easier in the coming weeks as some of his relievers return. Until certain needs are addressed – and maybe some external additions are made – he’s going to have his work cut out for him in terms of managing the starting rotation. But that’s what he signed up for.

“My job is not to look outside the organization, it’s to look internally and try to put those guys in the best position to succeed.”

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