Phillies Attempt To Address Pitching Problems on Deadline Day

There’s a bit of wiggle room to the definition of “contender” in the NL East. That is what drove the Phillies to buy on trade deadline day, with a particular focus on shoring up some of the pitching depth issues that have plagued them throughout the season.

They made two moves on Friday, one small and one big, netting them a total of three pitchers. They swung the big trade in the afternoon, acquiring Kyle Gibson, Ian Kennedy, and minor league lefty Hans Crouse from the Rangers in exchange for Spencer Howard and two prospects: righties Kevin Gowdy and Josh Gessner. They also received $4 million from Texas. This move came after one made earlier in the day that saw them acquire minor league lefty Braeden Ogle from the Pirates in exchange for minor league catcher Abrahan Gutierrez.

The moves were certainly motivated by the relatively soft competition in the division as well as a weak rest-of-season schedule that could allow the Phillies to make some late noise. Philadelphia is 51-51 at present, but they’re just 3.5 games behind the Mets for first place in the East, and the .476 win percentage for their remaining strength of schedule ranks as the second-weakest in baseball (just behind the Reds). Their ability to hang around, coupled with the Mets’ injury issues, provided the front office a blueprint to the postseason with odds that might be a bit rosier than their record would suggest. Into games on Friday, our Playoff Odds give the Phillies a 20.3% chance of punching a ticket to October baseball, something they have not done since 2011. They have the second-longest active playoff drought in the majors.

Addressing their pitching was certainly going to be the primary goal of Dave Dombrowski and Co. at the deadline, and with Gibson, Kennedy, and Ogle, they have — at the very least — different looks out of both the rotation and bullpen. The top half of the rotation has looked decent-to-good, with Zack Wheeler spearheading the staff and putting up Cy Young-caliber numbers. Aaron Nola, meanwhile, has struggled (compared to his prior seasons) to a 4.37 ERA, but his peripherals are still solid. And Zach Eflin, currently out with a knee issue, has also been good as a No. 3, boasting the lowest walk rate of any qualified starter.

From there, however, the Phillies rotation gets really ugly, really fast. The bulk of the rest of the starts have been taken by some combination of Vince Velasquez (16), Matt Moore (nine), Chase Anderson (eight), and Howard (seven). Moore and Anderson, each brought in on free agent deals to provide what the front office hoped would be solid depth, have been disastrous: They’ve tossed 71 innings as starters to the tune of a 6.97 ERA and 6.28 FIP. Velasquez was inserted into the rotation as a result of injuries, and he hasn’t been much better, with a 5.45 ERA and 5.77 FIP in 74.1 innings while starting.

Enter Kyle Gibson, who doesn’t need to be a world-beater in Philly but who, at the very least, must provide some stability at the end of the rotation, at least enough to limit bullpen taxation. By both ERA and FIP, Gibson is in the midst of a career year — he’s posted a 2.87 ERA and a 3.75 FIP through 113 innings. As indicated by that spread, Gibson has survived through a limitation of hard contact; his .267 BABIP allowed is a career-low, and his 9.9% HR/FB rate is the second-lowest mark for his career. He’s surely benefitted from good defense behind him, with Statcast estimating that Rangers fielders have produced eight Outs Above Average while Gibson is on the hill, the fifth-most of any pitcher. Moving to a Philly infield defense that has been shaky at best (-4.4 UZR) and really bad at worst (-15 OAA, -33 DRS) could raise some problems for Gibson, who only strikes out 20% of batters and survives off of his 51% groundball rate. Ronald Torreyes should be seeing a lot more time on the lineup card and in the field when Gibson is on the hill, as should Freddy Galvis, who they acquired at the buzzer.

Then there’s the bullpen. The team’s group ranks 28th in both WAR and WPA, and is in massive need of an upgrade or even just better depth. Kennedy isn’t the flashiest add there, but he’s striking out 28% of hitters, walking under 6%, and working with a fastball that averages 94.3 mph. He almost exclusively throws his four-seamer, and it’s a really good pitch, but like Gibson, Kennedy has also likely benefitted from a combination of good defense and good luck given his .278 BABIP allowed and 92.6% left-on-base rate. When hitters connect, they make strong contact — as evidenced by their 51.2% hard-hit rate and .370 expected wOBA on contact — but his 12.5% swinging strike rate is a career-high, as is his 29.4% CSW (excluding his 19 inning cup of coffee in 2007).

Crouse and Ogle are the other two pitchers the Phillies acquired on Friday. Crouse is ranked as the No. 10 prospect on the Rangers list and is currently pitching in Double-A. He was highlighted in Eric Longenhagen’s piece on American League 40-man crunch situations a few days ago as a must-add prospect to be protected from the Rule 5 draft, and it just so happens that Philly has 40-man room to spare. Crouse was a second-round pick in 2017 and though he has dealt with some arm injuries in the past, he is healthy this year and seems to be putting it together. He has a fastball in the mid-90s and a wipeout slider. He controls stuff well, but between injuries and his delivery, there’s big reliever risk. Then there’s Ogle, who has had a velocity spike and now sits in the mid-90s as well. His arm slot creates shape on the fastball that causes it to play below its raw velocity grade, but he’s a lefty with rare arm strength and an average slider, so he has a shot to be a lower-leverage bullpen piece.

Phillies gave up plenty to make all these moves. The biggest name here is obviously Howard. He’s been tried as a fix to the Phillies’ rotation problems this season but has dealt with stamina issues, seeing huge velocity drops from the first inning into the middle frames. As a result, he’s faced no more than 17 batters in any start this season, and the results have not been good: a 5.72 ERA, 4.00 FIP, and 5.17 xFIP in 28.1 innings. The sample is small and the talent is obviously still there — he has since graduated from the prospect rankings but he checked in as high as 26th overall on our 2020 top 100, and entered 2021 ranked 33rd. The recent issues have caused a dip in his stock — dropping him to No. 56 on his final list — but the fastball velo is still there, as is the potential for good secondary stuff with two power breakers. The risk, of course, is that he ends up a reliever. The Phillies tried him there a bit early on this year, but the Rangers will surely give him plenty of opportunity to rediscover his ability to pitch deeper into games as a starter.

Gowdy and Gessner are also heading back to Texas. Gowdy was the Phillies’ second-round pick back in 2016, signing for almost $2 million more than slot value. He’s been slowed by Tommy John and other injuries and is finally back to pitching decently well, though he’s still at High-A as a 23-year-old. He has plus command, with a fastball in the low-90s that can reach up to 94-95. He has an average curve and has since added a split change, giving him the potential to be a back-end starter. As for Gessner, he’s a 21-year-old Australian product with just 7.2 innings pitched in complex, but he has looked good. He’s a sinker/slider guy that sits in the low 90s but is up to 95. It’s a nice lottery ticket pickup for Texas.

To get Ogle, the Phillies sent Gutierrez, who was originally included as part of Pittsburgh’s return in their since-nixed trade for now-Mariner Tyler Anderson. Trading Gutierrez allowed the Phillies to deal from a position of strength; with J.T. Realmuto on a five-year deal and Rafael Marchan a luxury backup, they have plenty of ability to trade backstops. The Pirates have prioritized hitters who walk more than they strike out in recent trades and Gutierrez is another one that fits the bill. He is Rule 5 eligible this winter.

Ultimately, the Phillies felt like they had an opportunity to be buyers given the weakness of the NL East. None of these moves are particularly flashy in a vacuum, and while giving up Howard may hurt them down the road, a chance at an NL East title may make it all worth it — especially if Gibson and Kennedy continue to perform to their ERAs, albeit in front of a much-worse defense.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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David Klein

I’d say that a fip of 4 and expected era of 4.10 suggests Howard got a little unlucky thanks to the Phillies bad defense perhaps but your point on his velo loss in the middle innings is def worrisome.