Without Hamels, who will fill out Phils' rotation?

Without Hamels, who will fill out Phils' rotation?
March 6, 2014, 11:30 am
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From left to right: Phillies rotation candidates David Buchanan, Jeff Manship, Sean O'Sullivan and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (USA Today Images, AP)

Even before Thursday's setback, Cole Hamels wasn't going to be ready for opening day. And because of the way the off days are scheduled early in the season, the Phillies won't need a fifth starter until their fourth series of the season, either April 13 or 14.

The thought was that they could make do with a four-man rotation until Hamels was ready to return in mid- to late-April. But based on his tired arm and alarming quotes -- "35 pitches [last Saturday] felt like 1,000," he said -- it's looking like the Phils will need a rotation replacement well into May.

There is no replacing a pitcher like Hamels, who has a $144 million contract and a 3.13 ERA the last four years. The Phils must attempt to survive without him. A.J. Burnett helps, but that signing now morphs from an added bonus for the Phils to a 1-for-1 swap at the top of the rotation, at least for the early part of the season.

It's been a disastrous two months for Phillies starting pitchers. Jonathan Pettibone is dealing with shoulder issues. So is Ethan Martin, who was shut down last week. Adam Morgan and Shane Watson, who are a bit further away from the majors, each had shoulder surgery this offseason. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was rusty in his spring debut last week, and barring some substantial, quick improvements, he could begin the year in the minor leagues. The Phillies gave Gonzalez a three-year, $12 million contract, but they hold three options on him.

Cliff Lee, Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez are locks for the rotation. But for that fifth spot, it looks like a three-man battle if Gonzalez doesn't win the job.

Here are the candidates:

David Buchanan
Buchanan wasn't invited to spring training until it was weeks away and the Phillies decided they needed more starting pitching depth. He was also unprotected in December's Rule 5 draft, meaning any team could have claimed him away from the Phillies.

Now, he might be the frontrunner for the fifth starter's job.

Buchanan has opened eyes so far this spring with three strikeouts in two scoreless innings and an ability to keep the ball low. His scheduled start this afternoon in a split squad game against the Tigers was postponed because of weather.

A seventh-round pick by the Phils in 2010, Buchanan has a 3.98 ERA in 79 minor-league starts, with 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.8 walks. There have been comparisons between Buchanan and Kendrick since he was drafted.

"Everybody says it," Buchanan told the Trenton Times in late February. "They’ll say I’m KK’s brother. That’s the joke, they’ll call me K Jr." 

Buchanan, 24, has more upside than two of his competitors.

Jeff Manship, Sean O'Sullivan
Both spring training invitees have major-league experience -- Manship 52 appearances and 10 starts, O'Sullivan 50 appearances and 37 starts.

Neither has been successful in the bigs, though. Manship has a career 6.42 ERA and 1.62 WHIP, and O'Sullivan has a 5.89 ERA and 1.58 WHIP.

Manship and O'Sullivan were brought in by the Phillies to be organizational depth -- the ninth and 10th starting pitchers. A series of unfortunate events have resulted in them shooting up the depth chart.

If the Phils value experience for the handful of starts (or more) that Hamels misses, they'll turn to either Manship or O'Sullivan.

The sleeper
A dark horse candidate for the job is spring training invitee Mario Hollands, a 6-foot-5 lefty who's thrown two scoreless innings in Florida. He has a 3.93 ERA in 405 1/3 minor-league innings since being drafted in the 10th round by the Phillies in 2010 out of UC Santa Barbara.

Some might throw out the name Jesse Biddle, but he isn't a candidate to break camp with the team.

The outlook
If Hamels is out for an extended period of time, it's difficult to imagine the Phillies contending with a 3-4-5 of Kendrick, Hernandez and a replacement-level starter. It would be a huge blow and yet another high-priced Phillie to be shelved for a lenghty period of time.

Hamels says an MRI and a cortisone shot have been deemed unnecessary and that there is no pain or structural damage in his arm, just fatigue.

But this is a story that has gotten progressively worse, and the outlook at the moment is not hopeful for a team that needs as much luck as it can get.