Could the Phillies “piggyback” their way to a serviceable pitching rotation?

When Spencer Howard was pulled from the ballgame just one out into the third inning on Saturday, there was a collective *groan* let out by the Phillies fanbase. Howard’s stamina and velocity struggles are quickly growing old – people wanted to see the top prospect churn out a 5-6 inning outing.

Nine Ranger Suarez induced outs later, and there was a bit of a different tune being sung around the now fully reopened Citizens Bank Park. Maybe there was something more to this Howard-Suarez partnership. Heck, if it wasn’t for a Jean Segura error during the third inning, the duo would’ve combined for six scoreless innings against an offense that just tagged Zack Wheeler for two runs the night prior.

As things currently stand, it looks like we’re going to have to continue to wait when it comes to Howard’s development as a full-time starting pitcher. His overall arm strength simply isn’t there quite yet, likely a result of a minor league career that was flipped upside down to COVID-19.

Suarez is in a similar position. The young southpaw missed the majority of 2020 due to contracting the virus himself, and showed up late to this year’s Spring Training due to international travel restrictions. Both players aren’t in a position to go 5.0+ innings every fifth day, but when used together, they combine to make a rather effective “fifth starter.”

Joe Girardi hinted that the Phillies plan is to continue “piggybacking” Howard and Suarez off each other moving forward, but I’d like to challenge the organization to take it one step further. With Vince Velasquez coming back down to earth during his most recent start against Cincinnati, he’s another back-of-the-rotation arm who would likely benefit from a reduced role.

Velasquez’ opponent batting average absolutely skyrockets the third time through the order when looking at his career splits – not only would piggybacking Vince with other pitchers help the Phillies, it would likely help Vince out as well.

Should the Phillies start attacking all of their back-of-the-rotation games with the “piggyback” style that they use during Spencer Howard starts?

With Chase Anderson and Matt Moore both relegated to bullpen roles after failing to hang onto their respective starting roles, beginning to use them alongside Velasquez in a more consistent manner could allow the team to milk some sort of value out of their one-year contracts. Anderson did have some early success this season as a 4-5 inning starter, and there’s something to be said about utilizing Moore due to his left-handed status. As we just saw with Howard and Suarez, sometimes simply switching from a right-hander to a left-hander is all it takes to keep the opposing hitters off guard.

Individually, Velasquez, Anderson, and Moore are all below average pitchers. However, when combined together in a piggyback based setup, it’s possible (emphasis on possible) that the Phillies could construct a decent #4/#5 starter. If the trio of pitchers can combine to give the Phillies six to seven innings of 1-2 run ball every fifth day, that’s about as good as you can ask for considering the state of the organization’s pitching depth at the moment.

With Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Zach Eflin representing the team’s “horses” at the top of the rotation, all you’re demanding out of the back-end starters is average outings once a week. Howard and Suarez have found a way to do it, now it’s time for Velasquez/Anderson/Moore to do the same.

I wouldn’t even be opposed to attacking games with a designated “opener” once in awhile, something the Tampa Bay Rays have mastered over recent years. Doing something like Archie Bradley for one inning, Velasquez for two, Anderson for two, Moore for two, and then Alvarado/Coonrod/Neris for the final six outs would be better than simply asking Velasquez to make continuous 6.0+ inning starts.

You can’t tell me it’s not worth a try. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

UPDATE: Chase Anderson and Matt Moore were both placed on the COVID-related IL this morning, with LHP Christopher Sanchez called up from AAA.