NEW YORK – On a gray afternoon at the new ballpark in Flushing, Charlie Manuel looked across the grounds to the right-field stands and a narrow green roof that sheltered the concourse during a light rain. It looked close, like old Tiger Stadium roof close, but Manuel disputed that.
"No way," he said.
The observation interrupted a conversation about the Philadelphia Phillies' pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation, and former GM Pat Gillick's custom of making trades to improve it during the club's current run of back-to-back NL East titles. Well, this season's rotation is again in need of an upgrade, as it ranks next-to-last in the league in ERA and starters' ERA, explaining why the starters – a group that includes Cole Hamels(notes) but has gone on without Brett Myers(notes) – also pitch fewer innings than all but two NL clubs.
They'd traded for Kyle Lohse(notes) at the trading deadline two years ago and had won nine of his 13 starts. Last season Gillick added Joe Blanton(notes), and the Phillies won nine of his 13 starts, including the last four. Of course, we all know what the New York Mets were doing at the same time, this minor character flaw that has cost them the last couple seasons and occasionally comes up in conversation around the city.
First, though, Manuel had gotten to thinking about that old roof on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Forty years ago, he said, when he was a Twins rookie, he was taking batting practice before a game at Tiger Stadium. His manager, an argumentative little guy named Billy Martin, told him if he hit a ball over the roof in right field he would start that night.
"I hit nine in a row over the roof," Manuel said. "So, I got the start. And then I went 0 for 4."
The point being: It's the pitching, stupid. It's always the pitching.
As the Phillies and Mets gathered to play at Citi Field on draft day, the day before general managers typically get to thinking not just about the flaws in their big league rosters, but rectifying them, (and on the day the Phillies put a shell-shocked Brad Lidge(notes) on the DL with a sprained knee) it was a reminder that this is – and will be – about the pitching.
The Mets have hidden the flaws in their starting rotation inside a home ballpark that has played roughly to the size of the Long Island Sound. And still the men who follow Johan Santana(notes) and, imagine this, Livan Hernandez(notes) – the likes of John Maine(notes) and Tim Redding(notes) and Mike Pelfrey(notes) and the exiled Oliver Perez(notes) – have been reliably hittable. The Phillies' rotation has been worse, partly because their starters play their home games in a park the size of a veterinarian's waiting room, and partly because the rotation is worse.
Even before J.A. Happ(notes) pitched into the teeth of Citi Field's reputation as a pitchers' park Tuesday night and allowed home runs to David Wright(notes) and Carlos Beltran(notes) in the first three innings, even before he threatened to turn it into his own private Yankee Stadium (as did Santana, who on Tuesday allowed home runs to Ryan Howard(notes), Raul Ibanez(notes) and Jimmy Rollins(notes)), thoughts turned to all the possibilities: Brad Penny(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes), Jake Peavy(notes), Erik Bedard(notes), Jarrod Washburn(notes), Jason Marquis(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Carl Pavano(notes), on and on.
The Phillies – meaning rookie GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and a staff that includes Gillick as a senior advisor – seem to be curious about all of them, or most of them. Myers' hip surgery and Chan Ho Park's(notes) inconsistency mean the rotation leans heavily left, but that won't necessarily run them off, say, Washburn or Bedard.
"We've been trying to upgrade our staff," Amaro said Tuesday afternoon. "You can never have enough pitching going down the stretch. The fact we're going to be missing Brad [Lidge] for a couple weeks or longer may also put our focus on a bullpen presence. If I had my druthers, I'd like to hit both areas."
And while clearly the Phillies' annual July aggressiveness has helped settle the division in consecutive seasons, Amaro insisted he was no more likely to make a trade because the Mets happen to share their vulnerability.
"I can't worry about what the Mets do," he said.
Or, in this case, don't do. The Mets haven't made a significant deadline deal since 2006, when they traded Xavier Nady(notes) for Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez(notes). Three years later, the Phillies also need at least one starter, as do the Dodgers and the Brewers in the National League alone, meaning the competition should be stiff, even if the supply is on the high side.
Meantime, the Mets are also without offensive components Carlos Delgado(notes) and Jose Reyes, along with back-end reliever J.J. Putz(notes), bringing Mets manager Jerry Manuel to observe, "We have to keep the score down. If we're an NBA team, we'd have to play in the 60's. We couldn't play in the 90's or 100's."
So, here they all are again. Charlie Manuel nodded in agreement. It's about the pitching, and they might not have enough.
"I'd say we're in there again, yeah," he said. "We're in that same mode."