Who’s #5?

With all the hope surrounding the Phillies’ starting pitching after the acquisition of Roy Halladay, you might think the team had it all figured out. Not so. As it has been in recent years, the #5 spot in the rotation is up for grabs. Whoever is the healthiest and shows the most stuff by the end of spring training will get the honor of taking the bump every fifth day for the Fightin Phils.

In Matt Gelb’s article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted on Friday, Ruben Amaro talked about newcomer Jose Contreras and the health of Jamie Moyer. Both, along with Kyle Kendrick, are considered to be legitimate options for the #5 spot in the rotation.

Amaro, on using Contreras as a starter:

“This is a player who has already told us he’ll do whatever is best for the club, so if there’s a need in the rotation, then perhaps that’s the way to go,” Amaro said. “If we see progress in both [Kyle] Kendrick and Jamie [Moyer], then we’ll move him back to the bullpen so we can get some depth back there.”

Amaro, on Moyer’s health status:

Amaro said he has not had a recent update on Moyer, who is recovering from abdominal and knee surgeries, but said Moyer feels he will be ready for opening day.

“That’s a good sign,” Amaro said. “Our doctors probably think that might be a little aggressive, but we don’t know how he’s going to recover from the knee and the residual effects of the groin.”

It seems that Amaro’s seeding for the final rotation spot is:
1. Jamie Moyer
2. Kyle Kendrick if Moyer is not close to 100%
3. Jose Contreras if Moyer is not close to 100% and Kendrick doesn’t inspire confidence during spring training

It’s possible that none of the above win the #5 spot but it’s an outcome that the Phillies don’t want to think about. In that case, Antonio Bastardo (who has pitched well in the Dominican Winter League) and Drew Carpenter likely are Plan D and E.

I don’t think too many people rationally hope that Moyer returns as a starter. He’s 47 years old and throws slop. In 2009, his pitches have found the strike zone at a lower rate than usual (44% to a career average 51%) and yet opposing hitters made contact with those pitches 5% more than in 2008. Moyer is simply hittable, noticeably more so than he used to be.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, I read the most thorough and inspiring scouting report of Kyle Kendrick I think I’ve ever read. With a hat tip to The Fightins, a scouting report from Stephenie LaGrossa, Survivor alum and wife of Kyle:

“He only had two pitches,” Stephenie said, “and the batters caught up to him. Now he has five, and his change-up is sick.”

Sick. You hear that? I don’t know about you, but I’m sold.

Essentially, Stephenie is right. Kendrick does have three pitches, but the change-up — which he has only begun throwing frequently recently — has accounted for fewer than 7% of his pitches at the Major League level according to FanGraphs. 72% have been fastballs and 21% have been sliders. So yeah, two pitches.

I’m eager to see what those other two pitches are. Maybe Kyle will utilize two types of fastballs instead of one — his typical two-seam sinking fastball. If he adds a four-seam fastball to the mix and uses it only sparingly to keep the hitters honest, it can be a welcome addition to his repertoire.

His other pitch is likely a curveball, which showed up only in 2007 and accounted for 1.2% of his pitches that year. It’s possible that they were simply mislabeled by the Pitch F/X system, but a curveball would seem like a logical addition to Kendrick’s arsenal. The vertical drop on the curve would serve well to enhance the effectiveness of his pitches with more horizontal movement, such as his sinker and slider.

The other candidate for the final rotation spot is Jose Contreras. It seems that in 2007 and ’09, when he suffered from respective ERA’s of 5.57 and 4.92, he was victim to a high BABIP. His career average is right at .300 (as expected) but in those two seasons it was at .334 and .325.

Jose’s 2007 team, the Chicago White Sox, had the second worst UZR/150 in the Majors. Last year, both the Sox and the Colorado Rockies posted negative UZR figures, so I think it’s reasonable to assign a bit of blame to his defenses. In 2010, he will enjoy what is expected to again be one of baseball’s most efficient defenses. The Phillies had the National League’s third-best UZR/150 last year and the best in ’08.

xFIP is kinder to Contreras than ERA, putting him at 4.28 and 4.34 over the past two seasons. His strikeout rate jumped from 5.21 per nine innings to 7.25, inspiring confidence. However, his walk rate also jumped from 2.60 per nine to 3.62. If we think that his BABIP will be closer to average then his increasing walk rate isn’t terrible news.

As noted when he was signed a week and a half ago, his fastball improved significantly in velocity:

During Games 2 and 3 [of the 2009 NLDS], his fastball consistently sat in the mid-90’s, reaching as high as 96 MPH. Contreras struck out seven batters in just over seven innings of work at the end of the regular season with the Rockies as well.

Also noted is the injury history of Contreras, which isn’t exactly a short list. He last made 30 starts in 2007, so there’s not too much evidence available to think he will be durable enough to make 30 starts.

After reviewing the data and the logic, it seems that the most logical choice for the #5 spot is Kyle Kendrick. He’s the healthiest and the most reliable. There’s another reason why Kendrick should be given the job, and I think it is the strongest point in Kendrick’s favor.

The Phillies don’t have a whole lot of cash available this year. $138 million is already tied up according to Cot’s Contracts. That means the team can’t go out and just make any move at the trading deadline as they did last year when Cliff Lee came to town with his $6 million salary.

By giving Kendrick the #5 spot, he would effectively be auditioning for the 29 other teams. If he pitches well, he becomes a valuable asset at the trading deadline considering his 2010 salary ($475,000) and that he would be under team control for at least three more years at a relatively cheap price. Due to Kendrick’s light salary, the Phillies could get a trade partner to kick in some money in a trade involving one or more higher-paid players which would barely affect their bottom line this season.

Meanwhile, between April and the end of July, Jamie Moyer could either be used as a reliever (he did have a favorable split against left-handed hitters last season) or spend his time “rehabilitating” on his own with some Minor League stints thrown in during July. Contreras, of course, would throw out of the Phillies’ bullpen. After trading Kendrick, either Moyer or Contreras would usurp the #5 spot; likely Moyer if he’s healthy.

Using Kendrick from April through July has the added benefit of keeping his successor fresh. Think about the addition of Pedro Martinez last year. He clearly wasn’t durable enough to pitch a whole season, so the Phillies signed him and didn’t use him until August 12 in a not so ho-hum game in Chicago. Martinez was kept fresh enough to pitch effectively for the team in the playoffs.

Going into spring training, Kyle Kendrick should be (read: not is) the huge favorite to win the #5 spot in the starting rotation. Unless he completely unravels, not much should change that. Kendrick can become far too valuable an asset for the Phillies to avoid taking the chance.