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And Then There Were Two... ?

by Christine Cartafalsa

Well, maybe not officially, but from the looks of it the Phillies seem to have narrowed their focus to two possible competitors in a race for the fifth spot in the pitching rotation to J.A. Happ and Chan Ho Park.

While Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Carrasco have yet to concede, the chances that either will make it onto the team’s 25-man roster are slim to none. Carrasco is only 21 years old and has plenty of time to gain more experience in the minor leagues. There is no reason to rush him into a spot that he’s just not ready to have. Otherwise he may turn into another Kendrick – a pitcher who wowed the crowd in the 2007, but quickly sunk into a swamp of inconsistency and lost his spot in the rotation late in the 2008 season. Kendrick may have shown up at Spring Training this year as pitching coach Rich Dubee’s favorite, but the tides have turned thanks to his less-than-professional demeanor and a whopping 14.39 ERA.

So with Carrasco and Kendrick dwindling far behind on the race track, Happ and Park prepare themselves for a no-holds-barred duel on the pitching mound during the last three weeks of spring training and both candidates are making impressive arguments.

J.A. Happ
Happ has come a long way since allowing five runs in a mediocre 2007 debut in the big leagues against the Mets. He answered the call from the Phillies on three separate occasions to take the place of struggling starters Brett Myers, Adam Eaton and Kendrick (Happ pitched from the bullpen when Joe Blanton was acquired from Oakland to replace Eaton). As a starter, Happ never showed a sign of inexperience and earned his first major league win, pitching six shut-out innings against the Atlanta Braves on September 16th. Happ continues to present his case to the powers-that-be with a 2.45 ERA this spring, pitching a total of 11 innings allowing 10 hits and 3 runs, striking out 9.

WORKING AGAINST HIM: Like the dilemma that clouds the batters’ box, the Phillies may want to avoid having a left-handed heavy starting pitching staff. They do, however, need another lefty in the bullpen while reliever J.C. Romero serves his 50-game suspension for unknowingly taking a banned substance. However, Happ’s performance from the bullpen in 2008 did nothing but buy him a ticket back to the minors. He resumed a role in the bullpen for the post season, but only emerged to pitch one inning as he was no doubt there to serve as a quick substitute should a starter have gotten injured. Happ also lacks a history in the big leagues which may or may not come back to haunt him as it apparently did Kendrick. However, the bullpen is not the place for Happ to exorcise those potential demons. The definition of long reliever, while good in theory, often translates into someone who should be a starter spending weeks on a bench while secretly hoping the actual starter has a bad day on the mound. It’s then up to the long reliever to scrape off the rust from his arm and pull a miracle out of his hat.

Chan Ho Park
In January the Phillies signed Park to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the intention of having him provide relief from the bullpen. That was not Park’s intention. He has made it clear in words and action that he desperately wants to start for the Phillies, even turning down the opportunity to play for South Korea in the World Baseball Classic so he could focus on earning his spot in the rotation. If it’s experience the Phillies are looking for, Park just may be the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow having made his professional debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994. It hasn’t been a steady run for Park, having bounced back and forth between the minors and majors since then. Performance wise he has also displayed the same yo-yo frequency, ranging from a horrendous compilation of a 2-10 record with the Astro’s AAA team in 2007 to an excellent outing against the Indians in June of 2008 with 9 strike-outs and 1 earned run. His career is decorated with historical nuggets and titles which include him being the first Korean-born player in the major leagues. He is also one of four pitchers who can say he’s started against all 30 major league teams (the Phillies’ own Jamie Moyer is another who can make that claim). He finished his final season with the Dodgers out of the bullpen as a set-up man to closer Jonathan Broxton. Park now makes his voice heard in Clearwater with a 1.54 ERA in 11.2 innings, only giving up 10 hits, 2 runs and no walks with 11 strike-outs.

WORKING AGAINST HIM: Both the Phillies and their followers really seem to like bringing their stars of tomorrow out of their breeding grounds. Exceptions can be made as with Brad Lidge, but for the most part they enjoy watching their own family resume the roles as older members step down or move onto different things. It’s a very respectable practice as this grants the Phillies the opportunity to say their recent World Series title was not produced from an open checkbook. However, it will put an unnecessary amount of pressure on the newcomers to win the respect of the fans which is not an easy task. Even tougher is earning the faith of the Phillies’ front office staff and media in one’s time of need – a prime example being the amount of attention and empathy that was devoted to Brett Myers’ struggles as opposed to Adam Eaton’s. Baseball is definitely driven on a “what have you done for me lately” attitude and the Phillies may feel that they owe Happ the opportunity.