The Phillies will be quick to tell you all about the young starting pitching depth they’ve assembled over the past few seasons.
Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, and Mark Leiter Jr. all debuted in 2017, joining other young arms like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vincent Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. Throw in 22-year-old Tom Eshelman, who was tremendous at Reading and Lehigh Valley this past season, and it’s true the team has optionality in constructing the 2018 rotation.
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume Nola is a lock and the Phillies will afford Velasquez and Eickhoff one more look in the rotation. But what comes after? Can any of these guys actually pitch? Let’s take a look at the team’s collection of young arms heading into the offseason.
The Good: The 24-year-old struck out 140 batters in 133 IP (9.5 K/9) and has a live arm. He averaged 94.5 mph on his fastball, which he threw nearly 66% percent of the time in 2017. He offers a plus curveball that helped keep hitters off balance. His June 15 start at home against Boston was Pivetta at his best. He went seven innings, allowing only four hits and two walks while striking out nine Red Sox hitters. Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said during a pregame broadcast late in the season that Pivetta has the highest ceiling of any of the Phillies’ young arms near or at the major league level. I agree.
The Bad: Only 11 days after the aforementioned Red Sox start, we saw the worst of Pivetta. He went only 2.2 innings, allowing six hits and five walks in a loss at Arizona. Pivetta allowed 3.86 BB/9, 1.69 HR/9, and carried a 1.51 WHIP. He battled control and consistency issues and often struggled to stay out of big innings. He failed to demonstrate an ability to pitch out of close spots.
The Bottom Line: Pivetta should be in the rotation next season. The Phillies simply lack big arms that are ready to compete at the highest level. His ability to miss bats and two above average offerings create enough intrigue that the Phillies can afford to take another extended look.
The Good: The 25-year-old averaged roughly six innings per start over 15 games this season. He posted a respectable 4.26 ERA and only allowed 2.17 BB/9. He can command both sides of the strike zone with his fastball that generally sits at 88-91 MPH to go along with an average curveball. He went seven innings in each of his first three starts and often kept his team in games.
The Bad: He’s not missing any bats. His 5.28 K/9 highlights this. Furthermore, while he went seven innings in his first three starts, he only went that deep into games twice over his final 12 starts. Lively also has a tendency to live up in the strike zone with his fastball and that’s a recipe for disaster.
The Bottom Line: The Phillies have a surplus of guys like Lively. A team looking to acquire a fifth starter may be interested. If he remains with the Phillies, it’s likely he’s either a long reliever/spot starter, or remains in Lehigh Valley as organizational depth. Don’t expect him to be part of the five-man rotation out of spring training.
Mark Leiter Jr.
The Good: Leiter posted a respectable 8.3 K/9 and 1.34 WHIP over 90.2 IP as a rookie. He was particularly good at home where he posted a 3.06 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP over 12 appearances spanning 50 innings. He demonstrated versatility, appearing in 11 games as a starter and 16 games in relief.
The Bad: While Leiter was a rookie in 2017, he’s not exactly young. He’ll be 27-years-old at the start of next season. He doesn’t really do any one thing well and his average arsenal led to mediocre results. He only completed seven innings once in his 11 starts. He allowed 1.79 HR/9.
The Bottom Line: Leiter is not a starting pitcher on a contender. Similar to Lively, the Phillies could opt to shop him to a team seeking to build it’s pitching depth. Leiter could return to the Lehigh Valley rotation, or he could find himself in a long relief role in 2018.
The Good: The 23-year-old posted an impressive 3-0 record with a 3.06 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over five starts at Reading before earning a promotion to Lehigh Valley. The promotion impacted his numbers for the better. Eshelman displayed the advanced command the Phillies coveted when they acquired him in the Ken Giles deal two offseasons ago. He can throw a four-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup with efficiency and effectiveness. He didn’t walk more than one batter in any start this season. In an August 9 outing, he threw 62 of 77 pitches for strikes over a six inning, one run performance. For the season, he issued only 13 free passes in 121 Triple-A innings (1.1 BB/9), while posting a 10-3 record and a pristine 0.94 WHIP. His spectacular season earned him the award as the Phillies’ minor league pitcher of the year.
The Bad: Eshelman had a fantastic season, and, no exaggeration, was one of the best minor league pitchers in baseball this season, yet isn’t found atop many of the team’s top prospects lists because he simply doesn’t have a big arm. He does not consistently break 90 mph with his fastball and his strikeout numbers (6.1 K/9) aren’t noteworthy.
The Bottom Line: There’s simply nothing left for Eshelman to prove at AAA, but he could end up there again in ‘18. The Phillies spent much of 2017 evaluating uneven performances of the organization’s other young arms. Eshelman has more than earned his shot and should be in the mix to make the rotation out of spring training.
The Good: Eflin is a bit of a feast or famine pitcher. He’s put together some very impressive starts at times during his two abbreviated seasons with the Phillies. When he’s on, he can pound the lower half of the strike zone and induce weak contact.
The Bad: He’s dealt with multiple knee injuries and his 2017 season ended early with a right shoulder strain. He’s struggled to stay healthy, and when he was healthy in 2017 he was ineffective. In 11 starts, opponents hit .309 with an .896 OPS. He struggled to keep the ball in the yard, allowing 2.24 HR/9 and his 4.9 K/9 was the worst among all Phillies starters.
The Bottom Line: I’m not an Eflin guy. I’m not sure how the Phillies could be at this point. I get the allure of a ground ball pitcher at Citizens Bank Park, but between his injury history, lack of production, and competition, I don’t see how Eflin is part of this rotation moving forward. He could possibly end up back in the minors, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was elsewhere in 2018.
So, who’s in the rotation?
Aaron Nola is a lock. The Phillies seem set on giving Vincent Velasquez another look in the rotation. The Phils, even if they don’t plan to add an elite arm this offseason via trade or free agency, seem poised to add a veteran to the mix. That’s three spots filled. My guess is that Nick Pivetta, because of his swing-and-miss stuff, gets one of the back-end spots. Eickhoff will probably round out the rotation, leaving Eshelman and the others at AAA out of spring training. Expect a deal involving one or two of the arms above.