With the top of their starting rotation set and playoff ready, the Philadelphia Phillies now have two months to fill out the rest of their postseason pitching staff. Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton and trade deadline acquisition Cliff Lee will most certainly be the top three starters for the Phils, but the fourth starting spot will be the subject of speculation and debate for the rest of the regular season.
Of course, the Phillies don't necessarily have to have four starters in the postseason. Hamels, Lee, and Blanton are all innings-eaters that would likely be effective on short rest. But manager Charlie Manuel went with four starters last season and after the way that run ended, it seems reasonable to think that he would keep the same strategy this year.
However, the real reason Phillies fans are assuming there will be a fourth starter is because of the impressive stat line of rookie left-hander J.A. Happ.
Happ, a 26-year-old who started the season in the bullpen, is 7-2 with a 2.97 ERA and a WHIP of 1.16. He has pitched at least six innings in each of his last eight games and in 10 of his 13 starts. His calm demeanor on the mound and knack for working out of a jam have won over Phillies fans, who are now questioning reports that Happ may be moved back to the bullpen.
The reports are based on the impending debut of new Phillie Pedro Martinez, who is currently working his way back up to speed in the minors. Martinez, despite having expressed a willingness to contribute in any way, is probably best-suited to fill a starting role. Likewise, veteran Jamie Moyer has pitched out of the bullpen just once in the past 12 years.
This reasoning doesn't sit well with many Philadelphia fans, who argue that Happ is clearly a more effective pitcher and shouldn't be pushed out of the way just because of his age (or lack thereof). But fans need to step back and look at the big picture.
Following the trade for Lee, what is now the Phillies greatest area of concern?
Clearly, it's the bullpen.
If Happ were to continue in his role as a fourth starter for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, the Phillies might very well get better production from him than they would from Martinez or Moyer. But if Moyer or Martinez can be effective in that role and Happ can be effective out of the pen, the Phillies would be killing two birds with one stone.
The Phillies need to know exactly how much gas Martinez and Moyer have left in the tank and they need to move Happ to the bullpen in order to find out. If it turns out that neither can produce consistently, the Phils can go back to Happ. But if one of the veterans can step up and perform at a high level, the Phillies would actually be a better team with Happ in the bullpen come October.
Another thing to consider is that Happ is in his first full season as a major-league pitcher. He is currently on pace to finish the season with around 200 innings pitched, which would shatter his previous high of 166.2 recorded last year between triple-A and the majors. Moving him to the bullpen would help keep his innings down and hopefully keep him fresh.
It's understandable that some would grumble if Happ switches roles, but reasonable fans should be able to understand that there is a method to the madness.