Regardless of the additions general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made to the Philadelphia Phillies roster during the offseason, starting pitching was going to be the strength of the team in 2013.
With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels topping the rotation, Philadelphia has a chance of competing for an NL East title and wild-card playoff spot. But Amaro had to make the necessary improvements on offense to make sure his team's strong pitching wouldn't be wasted.
However, that's presuming that Halladay, Lee and Hamels are all healthy. In 2012, rumors and concerns over injuries followed Halladay throughout spring training as he showed diminished velocity. In June, Halladay went on the disabled list with a strained shoulder and eventually missed nearly eight weeks of the season.
Though Halladay made 14 starts after returning from the DL, there is understandably some concern as to whether or not he can make it through a full season healthy again. He's 35 years old with nearly 2,700 innings on his odometer.
In his latest mailbag column for MLB.com, Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki was asked about Halladay's health and what sort of offseason conditioning he was working through to prevent a repeat of 2012.
According to Amaro, Halladay's offseason is going according to plan and he'll begin throwing off a mound in the very near future. However, there was one part of Amaro's remarks that might seem a bit cryptic to Phillies fans.
"He's doing well," said Amaro, "but we don't know what kind of Doc we're going to get until Doc's down firing in Spring Training. But he's feeling pretty good so far."
To be fair, that's probably the most honest answer Amaro could give.
If he said Halladay looks great and was popping catchers' mitts in Clearwater, Fla., while the right-hander was really trying to build strength in his shoulder and didn't have his full velocity yet, fans, reporters and analysts would hit the panic button and Amaro would look foolish.
Halladay would also surely be upset that reports of his progress were misleading and Amaro didn't manage expectations properly.
Instead, Amaro said everything was proceeding as planned. But until Halladay starts throwing to catchers off a mound and faces live competition, it's impossible to say that his shoulder looks stronger than it was last year and that he should be fine for next season.
However, the words "we don't know what kind of Doc we're going to get" does leave an opening for some doubt to creep in.
What if Halladay won't be the pitcher we're accustomed to seeing, the ace who won 40 games in his first two seasons with the Phillies? Is he capable of pitching more than 240 innings and averaging 220 strikeouts again?
According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, Philadelphia was ready to talk about a contract extension before Halladay was injured. Those plans have probably been ditched.
Obviously, the Phillies are hoping Halladay will be able to earn his $20 million salary for 2013 and pitch well enough for the team to pick up his option for 2014 (also worth $20 million). If age and workload have finally caught up with him, however, devising a contingency plan might be in order for Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel.
Fortunately, the Phillies have two other ace-level starters ready to take over the No. 1 spot in the rotation if Halladay suffers any setbacks.
Though Lee compiled a 6-9 record last season, he finished among the National League's top 10 starters with a 3.16 ERA. His 207 strikeouts and 1.11 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) both ranked in the league's top five.
Hamels' 17 wins were the fifth-highest total in the NL. His 216 strikeouts ranked third among the league's starting pitchers, while his 1.12 WHIP was right behind Lee. Opposing batters hit .237 against Hamels, one of the 10 best marks in the NL.
Both pitchers exceeded 200 innings for the season, the sort of workload expected from a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Losing Halladay would affect the depth of the starting rotation, of course. With Vance Worley and Trevor May going to the Minnesota Twins in a trade for outfielder Ben Revere, there was already less to work with.
Rather than three elite pitchers, the Phillies would have two. Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan would fill the next two spots, leaving the fifth starter a question mark. Tyler Cloyd, who made six starts last season, would probably be the favorite for that role.
Jesse Biddle is the Phillies' top prospect, according to Baseball America. But he pitched in Single-A last season and is realistically at least another year from appearing in the major leagues.
Jonathan Pettibone could be a possibility to join the Phillies rotation in 2013. He finished last year with Triple-A Lehigh Valley and looked impressive in his seven starts. Overall, Pettibone went 13-8 with a 3.10 ERA, striking out 113 batters in 159.2 innings.
The Phillies and Amaro would probably have to go with what's already on hand in Halladay's absence. What's available to trade might have to be used to fill the team's opening in right field, unless Amaro and Manuel believe Domonic Brown is the answer at that position. The front office likely wants a better run producer there, however.
Phillies fans are surely tired of hearing such rumors and speculation, but if Halladay can't go, rumblings about the team trading Cliff Lee will start up again. While the left-hander would surely help the Phillies compete for a playoff spot and division title, he's also Amaro's most tradeable asset.
Lee is the team's best chance to fetch a blockbuster return and help the Phillies return to contention faster if their starting rotation can't feature the three studs that were supposed to set them apart from the competition in 2013. But that might be a "Break glass in case of emergency" situation.
If Halladay suffers from shoulder fatigue and diminished velocity again, however, it might be an emergency scenario at Citizens Bank Park. Under those circumstances, glass probably won't be the only thing that Amaro breaks in his office this year.
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