Monday, March 16, 2009

Kamado Report: Chan Ho Park fighting for Phillies rotation spot

Michael Street

The World Champion Philadelphia Phillies have very few positions up for grabs in spring training this season, and one of them is the fifth starter.

Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton are all locks for the 1-4 spots, but there's a competition among the 23-year-old Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ and Chan Ho Park.

Kendrick started for the Phillies in 2007 and 2008, but slipped back dramatically last year. In a 20-start 2007, he ended with a 10-4 record at the back of the rotation, logging 121 innings and striking out 49 and walking 25, for a 3.87 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP.

Those are very good numbers, even if they indicate a pitcher who pitches to contact; his .287 BABIP (measuring how often balls hit fair fall in for a hit--the average is around .300) shows he had some luck and some defensive help. And giving up 16 HRs is never a good sign.

In 2008, he started 30 games as the #5 man in the Phillies rotation, and his luck started to run out. Though his 11-9 record isn't terrible, in 155 IP, he struck out 68 and walked 57, surrendering 23 HRs. His ratios were a 5.49 ERA and 1.61 WHIP—pretty awful. Not too coincidentally, his BABIP was .310, indicating about the same amount of bad luck.

In all likelihood, Kendrick's expected levels are somewhere in the middle of those two seasons, meaning he's certainly below average, even for a #5 pitcher. And that home run trend is pretty scary.

So this year, the Phillies don't want to rely on good or bad luck, so they have some competition for that spot.

J.A. Happ is one competitor for that spot, as a top prospect who gave the Phillies four big starts down the stretch last season in July and September. Though he only scored a 1-0 record in those starts, Philadelphia ended up winning all four games, and Happ didn't embarrass himself.

He's a lanky pitcher who's struck out a lot of guys in the minors, but has yet to pitch a full season in the majors. Plus, he's a lefty and the Phillies' main lefty in the bullpen—J.C. Romero—is under suspension for using androstenedione, which he claimed was part of a supplement he took last summer. Romero will be out for the first fifty games of the year, so the Phillies might want Happ to be their top lefty in the bullpen rather than the third lefty in the rotation.

Another competitor is Carlos Carrasco, a prospect ranked higher than Happ, but the 21-year-old has only had 36 innings of work at AAA last season, so they're unlikely to thrust him into the rotation unless they have to.

That leaves Chan Ho Park, who has worked out of the pen the past two season. The last time he was a starter, it didn't go well. For the 2006 San Diego Padres, Park started 21 games and finished with a 7-7 record with a 4.81 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. In 136 IP, he struck out 96 and walked 44, not bad ratios, but he also surrendered 20 HRs in spacious PETCO.

And as bad as all those numbers were, they were an improvement over his four previous seasons as a starter for the Texas Rangers. Pitching in Arlington's homer-friendly Ameriquest Field didn't help him keep the ball in the yard; he gave up 31 homers in 203 IP there, a rate of about 1.37/game.

In fact, Park has never pitched as well as he did with the Dodgers, where he resurrected his career last season. After floundering with the 2006 Mets, Park came back to Los Angeles, the same place he started his career in 1994. Though he made five starts, Park was largely used in middle relief. He logged 95 IP, struck out 79 and walked 36, for a 3.40 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.

That was good enough for Park to get a contract from the Phillies for $2.5M, a number that might double with performance incentives, as well as a chance to crack the rotation. Park was clear that he intended to be a starter again, and passed up a chance to pitch for his native South Korea in the World Baseball Classic, a decision that moved him to tears in the press conference.

It appears to be a good decision. Until his start today, Park had pitched seven innings in two outings, giving up two runs on 7 hits, walking none and striking out five.

Today's game against the Cardinals would be against one of the top teams in the NL Central last season, featuring the league's best hitter in Albert Pujols, along with formidable batsmen like converted pitcher Rick Ankiel, last year's breakthrough Skip Schumaker, and slugger Chris Duncan.

But Park looked to be in midseason form, flashing a new changeup and excellent control as he pitched 4.2 innings, striking out six and walking none, giving up just three hits. With the exception of a hanging breaking ball that Pujols got out in front of, and a blistering line drive by Schumaker, Park's pitches looked very strong and the Cards look baffled.

There are two kinds of pitchers in spring training—really, two kinds of players: ones who are working on their game, with their starting spots assured; and others, working hard to secure a spot in the roster.

Pitchers who already know where they fit into a team's plans might try out new pitches, and will be less concerned about the final score than about how they feel during the game. Giving up a few runs or a few hits is OK, so long as they're feeling their pitches. This is warmup time for them, which is why it's usually said that in spring training (and in the early season), batters are ahead of pitchers.

But those moundmen like Park who want to secure a spot in the rotation, they're pitching as well as they possibly can, and they look like it. Park was never really in trouble today, and he's getting tips on his new changeup from Jamie Moyer, one of the best in the game with this change-of-pace pitch. It's especially helpful when you've lost a few MPH off your fastball, like the 34-year-old Park.

Rick Ankiel reached base with a one-out bloop single in the first, bringing Pujols to the plate, but Park whiffed him before inducing a soft groundout from Duncan. Khalil Greene got another hit on a soft liner to short center in the second, but he was also stranded.

Skip Schumaker got the only hard hit of the day, a low liner that went into left field, then hopped under the glove of Raul Ibanez, allowing him to reach second base and get himself in scoring position. Rick Ankiel came to the plate and Park fell behind him 3-0, and things looked dangerous, with Pujols on deck. Rather than putting another duck on the pond for Phat Albert, Park ran the count full and got Ankiel on a pop fly to right.

The threat was not over, however, since Schumaker advanced to third, and Pujols marched to the plate. Even a bloop single or a passed ball would allow that run to score from third.

But Park got Pujols to reach for an outside pitch, grounding the ball softly to 3B for the final out, and the only real threat of the game against Park. He struck out the first two batters in the fifth inning before Charlie Manuel lifted him, no doubt because he'd reached his pitch count.

There's plenty of spring training yet to come, and still time for Park or Happ to fall apart or pull ahead of the competition, but for now, it's neck-and-neck and Park is looking very solid. Whether he ends up in the rotation or the 'pen, Park looks to be ready for a huge year.

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