The Big Three
Derek Lowe (Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Derek Lowe (Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Posted Nov 17, 2008


With some intriguing names floating around on the free agent market, perhaps the Phillies should stop looking in the bargain section and go for some high-end additions.

Ruben Amaro needs to obsess over assembling a Big Three like Captain Ahab obsessed over harpooning Moby Dick.

The elusive "Big Three" in baseball generally refers to a trio of top starters in a pitching rotation. Some teams have a one-two punch but few have a number-three who overmatches most of the league. Elite teams usually have a Big Three but they are difficult to sustain. A talented number-three often moves up in someone else’s rotation, mainly because of money. Management tends to feel satisfied with two top guns and becomes distracted with the bats and relievers.

And yet the number-three pitcher represents a tipping point for every staff. Win three-of-five and you're a .600 ball club with a playoff spot. Lose three-of-five and you're .400 and out of luck. It all starts with the first three pitchers in your five-man rotation. Can you trot out your lineup with a mismatch on the mound? If yes, you usually win. If no, you usually don't. Not always. But definitely over time. With a Big Three, the odds push 60%. Without, they drop towards 40%. Three of a kind beats a pair.

The Phillies won the World Series with excellent starting pitching. They didn't have a Big Three for long, but they did have Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton surging in September and into October.

Going forward, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Cole Hamels is the ace every team needs and Brett Myers finished an up and down year on the ultimate high note. Joe Blanton pitched his heart out from the minute he unpacked his bags. J.A. Happ showed good stuff and command in some short big league auditions, while Carlos Carrasco rose to the challenge at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

But the truth is, the rotation never clicked into place until the very end. Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton both washed out while Myers went on life-support in the minors. As far as sustaining a true Big Three in the rotation into next post-season, the Phillies aren't in a good position, which is why the recent talk of going for yet another number-four type starter is disturbing.

Why not consider Hamels, Myers, Blanton our Big Three? Because Myers washed out so completely and Blanton was hit around badly before switching leagues. One of them is sure to struggle, so one of them is likely to pitch himself out of that top three ranking. Myers has been talked of as a number-two, and at times, even as an ace, but it really refers to potential rather than consistent production. Blanton has a lot to prove the second time around the league. So what's missing?

A bona-fide stud to pitch behind Cole Hamels.

Signing another low-rotation pitcher is no way to stack the rotation. The only way to do it is from the top down.

Derek Lowe is an intriguing choice. His WHIP and OPS-against are excellent over the last three seasons in LA. Perhaps those numbers go up in Citizens Bank Park but his three-year splits show batters only hit .204 in 13 innings against him in Philly, meaning that there isn’t likely to be anything to fear from a ballpark standpoint. And he's not someone you worry about fading with exposure, because he's been around the league.

There are other names that the Phillies should be considering, like A.J. Burnett, who could also step into that upper-tier of the Phillies starting rotation.

Trades are also an option. But if Amaro is thinking about sending Happ or highly touted prospects like Jason Donald or Lou Marson elsewhere, it must be in a deal that brings a dominating type pitcher back in exchange. Of course, given the talent that the Phillies have amassed at the top of their prospects list, the Phillies should be hesitant to trade from that list. Instead, they must be prepared to spend as many free agent dollars as they can scrape together and sacrifice the draft pick that it may require to sign one of the free agent starters that are looking for a lucrative deal. Call it Phillies-Max.

Whatever it takes, the Phillies need a Big Three.

Premium players cost more because they make their teammates better. Top starting pitchers return the most field-value and even just the addition of one top starter would help to improve every one else's match-ups, earn more rest for the bullpen, and provide insurance against injury to other starters. It’s impossible to judge the true value of a top starter to that of a fourth starter or even a middle-of-the-order type hitter because there is a definite magnifying effect in signing a starter. It’s called more bang for the buck.

Even if you assume that Amaro will re-sign Jamie Moyer, you can’t assume that the 46 year old left-hander will have the type of season that he did in 2008 or that he’ll have an advantage over other number-three starters in the league. But being a Big Three pitcher is not what we should ask of him at this point anyway. Moyer is a good sign because he brings stability, communication and leadership. Jamie Moyer, a World Champion, carried the team for a stretch, but to guarantee two years simply isn’t advisable. The first year should be a generous salary and the second a club option with a fair buyout.

Signing both Moyer and another number-four type starter serves only to waste money on guys who will serve as obstacles to Happ and Carrasco. It’s likely that either Happ or Carrasco themselves become effective lower-rotation starters by the end of the season, but that still doesn’t help you if you don’t have the Big Three ahead of them.

Plugging holes at the bottom of the rotation goes a long way toward explaining why the Phillies haven't had more parades. Winning baseball games is all about sustaining mismatches on the mound three out of five nights a week.

When you look at what the Yankees are trying to do - CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain - you realize Amaro must hunt like Captain Ahab and settle for nothing less than the great white whale: a true Big Three in the starting rotation.




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