Commentary

No guarantees in Roy Oswalt deal

Phillies still have work to do if they are going to reach third straight World Series

Originally Published: July 29, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

One thing we know about the Phillies is: They sure can corner the market on "Roys."

Apparently, Roy Hobbs, Roy Smalley, Brandon Roy and Siegfried & Roy were all unavailable this week. So instead, the Phillies traded for Roy Oswalt on Thursday.

And now they'd love to assume that just pairing him with Roy Halladay will be enough to restart the engines on their October Express.

But will it? Not everyone is so sure.

[+] EnlargeRoy Oswalt
Brett Davis/US PresswireWhich Roy Oswalt are the Phillies getting? The dominant one or the one some people thought seemed disinterested -- or injured -- in Houston?

"It makes the division more competitive," said one NL scout Thursday. "But does it make the Phillies the favorite? No. I don't think it does, because of Atlanta's pitching. Their pitching is still really good. I think [Tim] Hudson, [Jair] Jurrjens and [Tommy] Hanson match up very well with Halladay, Oswalt and [Cole] Hamels. And Atlanta's bullpen is better."

Then there's Oswalt himself. His numbers are still great. His stuff is still dynamic. But he's been giving off a very different aura on the mound lately. And it's been enough to make some people wonder if that's a sign there's a very different pitcher behind that now-familiar face.

"This guy is not the same," said another NL scout. "He's been pitching lately like a guy who didn't want to be there [in Houston]. If he gets back to pitching like he did in the past and the beginning of this season, then the Phillies have a No. 1 or a No. 2 who is capable of doing things the guy they traded for him [J.A. Happ] couldn't do.

"But that's not the guy I've seen lately. The guy I've seen lately has made me wonder: Is he healthy? Is his back OK? Is he feeling his age? Or has he just had enough of Houston? Because he just hasn't been the same guy. He hasn't been the super-competitive guy he's always been. That's what he's got to get back to, and he's capable of doing that. If he does, then it's a hell of a deal. If not, I don't know."

We've also heard this same talk from other folks in the last week or so, as the Oswalt trade rumors erupted. We heard an executive of one NL team explain to us, for instance, why he couldn't envision overpaying for THIS Roy Oswalt because "I used to fear facing that guy. Now, I don't have the same fear I used to have when he took the mound against us."

You listen to those doubts, and they seem to mesh with Oswalt's own words and get-me-outta-here body language in recent weeks. But when you stack them up against his performance, it's hard to believe we're talking about a pitcher in any semblance of decline.

He ranks among the league leaders in quality starts (15 -- as many as Ubaldo Jimenez), WHIP (1.11 -- better than Chris Carpenter), opponent OPS (.652 -- better than Tim Lincecum) and strikeout/walk ratio (3.53 -- better than all but a half-dozen pitchers in the league). So that kind of gets your attention.

He's allowing a lower opponent batting average (.229), on-base percentage (.280) and OPS (.652) than he has in any season in his fabulous career. His strikeout ratio (8.4 per 9 IP) is his best since his rookie year.

And his swing-and-miss percentage (20.7 percent) is almost identical to that of Halladay (20.8), Carpenter (20.6) and Jimenez (21.0), according to our friends at FanGraphs.

So if this is how this man pitches when he's not into it, imagine what the Phillies might get if this trade gets his adrenaline pumping again.

And Oswalt is also heading into the time of year when he has traditionally been at his best. His career record in August: 28-7. In September: 26-9. In October: 2-0. That's a .778 win percentage (56-16) after July -- the highest among all active pitchers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And we should probably toss in Oswalt's REAL October stats. He's 4-0, with a 3.66 ERA, lifetime in seven postseason starts, and his team went 5-2 in those starts. So if the Phillies were looking for a man who has never shown any fear of The Big Game down the stretch, Roy Oswalt would seem to fit the profile.

Which means that if the Phillies can run him, Halladay and Hamels out there in the first three games of every postseason series, that's an October-ready rotation that stacks up with anybody's.

Except there's one minor catch:

They still have to get to October.

And even if their new co-ace magically morphs back into the Oswalt of yesteryear, his addition isn't enough, in and of itself, to make the Phillies' 3½-game deficit in the NL East and 2½-game gap in the wild-card madness disappear.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Barbara Johnston/US PresswireRoy Halladay has another Roy on the way to join him at the top of the Phillies' rotation.

FanGraphs estimates he'll be worth about five extra wins to the Phillies over the next season-and-a-third -- but that computes to only about 1.2 wins over the rest of this season.

Meanwhile, the 6 1/3 innings he's been averaging per start represent only about one extra out per start over what the Phillies were getting from Jamie Moyer, the pitcher Oswalt is effectively replacing in the rotation. So that still leaves a lot of outs for one of the league's shakiest bullpens to slurp up every night.

Plus remember this: The dollars Oswalt adds to the payroll also figure to make it less likely that the Phillies can now deal for a reliever who makes even quasi-significant money.

And one thing Oswalt, for sure, can't do is make the Phillies' lineup any healthier -- or remind these guys how to score runs on the road. And that's become a huge issue.

Over their past 30 games away from Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies have hit just .234, averaged only 3.2 runs per game, won just one series (in Yankee Stadium, of all places) and played .300 baseball (9-21). And ohbytheway, they have 31 road games left this year -- starting with Oswalt's Phillies debut Friday in Washington.

So as one scout put it Thursday, "this deal probably sets them up for 2011 more than it sets them up for where they are right now."

But you never know with a team like this. It's a team that has gone to two straight World Series. It's a team that's built to go to another one. And it's a team that basically inspired its front office to make this kind of deal by running off a seven-game winning streak in the last week.

So in the week that led up to this trade, the Phillies put themselves in position to make another mad charge at the postseason. And Thursday, they went out and traded for the kind of pitcher who makes that charge a little more possible.

But Roy Oswalt doesn't change the face of the National League -- or even the NL East -- all by himself. This team has 62 games to play. Oswalt figures to play in only 13 of them.

So for the Phillies to look like geniuses, the onus is on the men who dug themselves this hole in the first place -- far more than it is on the ace they just airlifted in to (in theory, anyway) re-enact The Cliff Lee Story.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com