Phillies' rotation good, not great

Perhaps because of the impending holiday, I didn't receive much feedback about Monday's column, in which I suggested (among other things) that Oakland's Rich Harden might well be the best fifth starter in the majors, and the A's should have the best rotation in their division. Oddly, among the few responses were two expressing indignation at my suggestion that Harden might be better than ... Brett Myers?

    Rob, how can you fail to mention Brett Myers/Eric Milton as the best fifth starter in the major leagues? I feel that whichever Larry Bowa decides to go with as the fifth starter is much better and more established than Rich Harden. Harden may be good in a couple of years, but he struggled after a strong beginning last year. The Phillies rotation is the best 1-5 in all of baseball now that Millwood has returned.
    -- Matt Hawk

Matt, your e-mail address suggests that you're either a current or former University of Pittsburgh student, so we'll excuse you for what might only be described as irrational exuberance.

If you gave every general manager the choice between Harden and Myers, I suspect that a healthy majority would select Harden. His ERA in the majors last season was essentially the same as Myers' and his peripheral numbers are better. Looking at all of Harden's professional innings in 2003 -- roughly half of them in Triple-A -- he struck out nine hitters per nine innings, and his control was decent. Myers, meanwhile, struck out seven batters per nine innings. Granted, Myers spent all season in the majors (Harden didn't), but Myers, a National Leaguer, also faced a lot of pitchers (Harden didn't).

Like I said, most GM's would probably rather have Harden. As for Eric Milton, pardon me for a moment while I snicker. He's got a 4.76 career ERA. Granted, when healthy he's a better pitcher than that, but anybody who's not obsessed with proven veterans would take Harden over Milton, too.

In the specifics, this is a pretty silly discussion. Most teams would love to have Harden or Myers or Milton in the fifth slot, because if one of them is your fifth starter then you must have a pretty impressive rotation.

Not that impressive, though, at least not in the Phillies' case. How on earth could anybody think the Phillies' rotation is the best in the majors? Essentially, it will be the same in 2004 as it was in 2003, except Milton replaces Brandon Duckworth. Well, only one of the returning starters posted a sub-4.00 ERA last season (Vicente Padilla, 3.62). In 2003, the Phillies ranked 12th in the majors in starters' ERA (4.20). And that doesn't even take into account the Phillies playing 1) in the mostly DH-less National League, and 2) half their games in Veterans Stadium, a pitcher's park. The Phillies' rotation last season -- and next season, most likely -- is distinguished not by its high quality, but rather by its general quality. I expect improvement in 2004, because Millwood should pitch a bit better and the young pitchers (Myers and Padilla) still have some room for improvement. But the strength of this team is not pitching.

It's hitting.

Yes, everybody knows the Phillies struggled to score runs last season. Remember all those strikeouts? (Bill Conlin certainly does.)

Except they didn't struggle, at all. Playing half their games in a pitcher's park, the Phillies still managed to score 791 runs, fifth in the league (and just a hair behind the Astros, who play half their games in a hitter's park). Yes, the Phillies hitters were actually better than their pitchers (the Phils ranked just seventh-best in runs allowed).

In 2004, the Phillies will remain in the middle of the pack in runs allowed. Oh, they might move down a tick, or up a couple of ticks. But it's the lineup that's likely going to make them the best team in the division (no, I'm not officially picking them yet; it's too early to predict second place for the Braves). Pat Burrell is going to bounce back with a decent (at least) season, and whoever's playing third base -- David Bell or Placido Polanco -- will do better than Bell did in 2003.

Before last season, I predicted the Phillies would explode, and lead the league in runs scored. Instead the Braves exploded, and the Phillies didn't come close. However, the Phils did score plenty of runs, and in terms of runs scored and allowed they played significantly better than their record.

Conventional wisdom says the Phillies are headed for great things. And as much as it pains me to go along with conventional wisdom, I have to agree. There are just too many reasons to think the Phillies will get better, and almost none to think they'll get worse.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.