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02/06/09 5:22 PM EST

Fab four up for Phils' fifth starter job

Competition expected to be heated amongst worthy group

The Phillies begin Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 14 with plenty of stability up and down their roster.

There are few jobs up for grabs, but the most important vacancy -- and most intriguing competition -- is the fifth starter's job. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said it is a four-man race among Carlos Carrasco, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick and Chan Ho Park.

Each has a legitimate chance to win the job, with the runners-up becoming bullpen candidates.

"It's going to be an open battle for me," Amaro said.

Not in the race? Adam Eaton.

Eaton will get a chance to pitch this spring, but his chances to make the team are slim. Eaton went 14-18 with a 6.10 ERA the past two seasons with the Phillies. They sent him to the Minors last season, where he continued to struggle. It is more likely that Philadelphia will release him or trade him before the end of Spring Training than keep him on its roster. Eaton is in the final year of a three-year, $24.5 million contract. He is slated to make $8.5 million this season, plus $500,000 for a buyout on a 2010 club option. But his salary won't push him into the rotation this time.

Here is a look at the four candidates to join Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton in the rotation:

• It is impossible to say anybody is a clear favorite for the job, but if there is one, Happ could have a very slight edge over the competition. Happ went 1-0 with a 3.69 ERA in eight appearances last season, but he was 1-0 with an impressive 2.28 ERA (six earned runs in 23 2/3 innings) in four starts.

The Phillies won the four games he started, including two games against the Braves in September, when Happ replaced Kendrick in the rotation. Happ proved he can compete in critical situations. He finished strong. He made the postseason roster. So he enters Spring Training with plenty of people feeling good about him.

• The Phillies agreed to terms with Park on a one-year, $2.5 million contract in December. They told him that he would have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation, although the Phils certainly liked him because of the depth he could provide in the bullpen as a multiple-innings guy.

But Park wants to start. In fact, he wants to start so badly that he is not competing with South Korea in the World Baseball Classic. That was a big decision for him, but it shows the Phillies he means business. Park went 4-4 with a 3.40 ERA in 54 appearances last season for the Dodgers, including 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA in five starts. The veteran righty is 112-85 with a 4.34 ERA in 280 career starts, but he had gone just 34-34 with a 5.48 ERA in 104 starts since the end of the 2001 season.

But wouldn't it hurt the bullpen not to have a guy like Park in it? Kendrick and Happ have little bullpen experience.

"I think if we put ourselves in a position where Park wins the fifth spot and you put together the names in our rotation and what we expect of them, I'd be more than happy with that," Amaro said. "First, it would mean it was an open competition and one guy won out, and that would take a lot of heat off our bullpen. If you get five starters who can get past the sixth inning, it definitely takes heat off the 'pen."

Hot Stove
• Kendrick is 21-13 with a 4.78 ERA in his two seasons with the Phillies. Only Moyer (30) and Hamels (29) have won more games than Kendrick the past two years.

But after Kendrick went 10-4 with a 3.87 ERA as a rookie in 2007, he went 11-9 with a 5.49 ERA in '08. The coaching staff eventually lost its confidence in him and he lost his spot in the rotation when he went 1-4 with an 11.35 ERA in six starts down the stretch. Kendrick has to regain his confidence, throw his changeup more and show the Phillies that he is every bit as capable of being a consistent winner like he was in 2007 and early in '08.

• If there is a dark horse in this competition, Carrasco is it. He is immensely talented, but only 21 years old. The top pitching prospect in the Phillies' organization -- outfielder Dominic Brown is the only prospect ranked higher, according to Baseball America -- Carrasco went 7-7 with a 4.32 ERA for Double-A Reading last year before he went 2-2 with a 1.72 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He also went 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 11 starts in the Venezuelan Winter League.

But as talented as Carrasco is, it's not a stretch to think that he would have to blow away Happ, Park and Kendrick to earn a spot in the rotation. If one of the other three steps up, the Phillies probably wouldn't mind giving Carrasco more seasoning in Triple-A to start the season.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.