Friday, September 24, 2004

Quality Time, on the Mound
With the pressure entirely off and elimination just a day or two away, the Phillies played another fine series--in Florida, of all places, finishing off a three-game sweep with last night's 9-8 win in 10 innings. The game featured home runs from Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, giving me further hope that years from now, when we look back on this bitterly disappointing 2004 season, we'll at least be able to say that this was the year our superb middle-infield combo came together. J-Roll and C-Ut are both just 25.

Vicente Padilla was hit around last night, but the first two wins in Miami featured strong starts by Cory Lidle and Eric Milton, both weeks from free agency. Unfortunately, as Rich Hofmann pointed out in a Philadelphia Daily News column yesterday, this has been the exception rather than the rule this season:

Sixty-seven quality starts in 150 games is abominable for a team with aspirations. I mean, the Braves have 91 quality starts, and that's what the Phillies are chasing, and they aren't in the same time zone right now.

Which brings us to the Eric Milton question. Specifically, whether to re-sign Milton (and his 18 quality starts, counting last night's) after this season.

...when you look at the guys who are presumably coming back next season, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers each have 10 quality starts this year. Let's be generous and say they all revert back to their 2003 form (54 combined quality starts), which is a very, very dubious presumption. But let's go with it.

Even then, the Phils need about 35 more quality starts if they are serious about dethroning the Braves and winning the NL East. Let's say Gavin Floyd has a really nice rookie season and gives you a dozen. You still need 20-something more - and that's if everything else goes perfectly.

Given that, you're going to let [Eric] Milton walk away?

If you do, it had better be for something pretty special.

Because we're not talking about run support here, or hitting with runners in scoring position, or the manager, or perceived tension in the clubhouse. We're talking about good, solid, professional innings thrown by your starting staff, night after night, regardless of the score or the circumstances. This should be the Phillies' clear, No. 1 concern in the offseason, because it is the clear, No. 1 reason they flopped this year.

I'm more optimistic than Hofmann about Wolf, Padilla and Myers getting back to what they did in 2003, or even improving upon it: they're all young, all talented, and at least in the cases of Wolf and Padilla should be back to full health next year. As to Milton, I just can't believe he'll be worth what the market will bear for "the best lefty starter available"; his 14-4 record is largely a function of run support, and his fly-ball proclivities are really ill-suited for Citizens' Bank Park. Add in his injury history--I think he's playing on a bionic knee--and the risk is unacceptably high. Finally, 18 quality starts is nice... but really it's about what Wolf, Padilla and Myers each did last year. Is that worth the $8-11 million per that Milton will cost?

I'd rather see the Phils pocket that money and go after a devalued asset like Matt Clement, who has pitched with little run support and through injuries this season but sure looks to me like an ace in the becoming. Failing that, they could keep loading the bullpen, look to add another big bat at CF or third base, and fill out the rotation around Wolf, Padilla and Myers with some combination of Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd, and the aforementioned Lidle... who himself has 14 quality starts this season, if his ESPN game log is to be believed. At maybe a third of Milton's likely price, that sounds pretty okay from a fifth starter.

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