The most pressing issue facing the Phillies as the team’s first workouts for pitchers and catchers got underway this morning is the club’s irrefutable lack of difference-making talent in the starting rotation. The team hasn’t generated much buzz this winter—partly because of the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, partly because it has been a relatively quiet winter for Matt Klentak’s front office—but the little attention they have received has centered around this glaring deficiency. To this point, perhaps due, in part, to a historically slow-developing market, the team has failed to address the concern.
While national writers like Jon Heyman continue to link the Phillies with big ticket arm Jake Arrieta, such an acquisition still feels unlikely due to the aggressive demands of agent Scott Boras. Arrieta reportedly turned down from the Cubs a deal similar (6 years/$126 million) to the one they ultimately handed Yu Darvish. Unless Arrieta is willing to take a larger annual salary with less time commitment, he won’t be in Philly this season. Perhaps Klentak decides to add a second-tier starter over the next week or two, but it’s also possible they stand pat and see if the team’s young offense forces them to make an in-season move. Rookie manager Gabe Kapler certainly seems to think that’s a possibility, given his assertions to reporters yesterday that his club possesses the ability to “shock people” this season.
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) February 13, 2018
Let’s take a look at the arms the Phillies currently possess that will attempt to do just that.
We know that Aaron Nola will headline the rotation. After that, let’s assume that Vince Velasquez has shown a high enough ceiling to warrant one last chance to stick as a starter. Jerad Eickhoff, meanwhile, is coming off a down year, but has shown enough at the Major League level to earn a spot out of camp in a shoddy rotation. Then, it’s a bunch of question marks. The following is my best guess on how things will shake out.
Let’s first look at Nick Pivetta. The 25-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 last season, which he threw nearly 66 percent of the time. He offers a plus curveball that keeps hitters off balance. In a start last June against the Red Sox, Pivetta was at his best. He went seven innings, allowing only four hits and two walks while striking out nine. Former Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said during a pregame radio broadcast late last season that Pivetta has the highest ceiling of any of the Phillies’ young arms near or at the Major League level. That’s great, but it’s possible that new pitching coach Rick Kranitz will focus more on Pivetta allowing a troubling 3.86 BB/9, 1.69 HR/9, and a 1.51 WHIP as he battled control and consistency issues, while often struggling to stay out of big innings. Still, given the Phillies’ lack of high ceiling talent, he should have the inside track for a job.
If Pivetta has the highest ceiling then Jake Thompson has the best pedigree. One of the prizes of the Cole Hamels trade in 2015, the 24-year-old struggled mightily in the minors last season, often fighting his control both in and out of the strike zone. He failed to impress over 53.2 IP with the Phillies in 2016, and his respectable 3.88 ERA over 11 appearances last year were overshadowed by a concerning 1.55 WHIP, 4.3 BB/9 and 6.8 K/9. Still, Thompson was the most highly regarded of the bunch heading into last season, and for that reason, he may be in line to grab a spot when the team breaks camp.
From there, things get even less certain. Ben Lively, who will turn 26 in March, will also get a long look this spring. 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. A major issue is that he doesn’t miss bats. His 5.28 K/9 last season highlights this. He also faced consistency issues. After going 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. At this point, it’s likely that he’s either a long reliever or spot starter if he makes the team out of camp.
Mark Leiter Jr., who turns 27 next month, 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 that spanned 50 innings. He demonstrated versatility, appearing in 11 games as a starter and 16 games in relief. His primary issue is that he doesn’t have a pitch or quality that separates him from the competition. He only completed seven innings once in his 11 starts. Leiter is not a starting pitcher on a contender. He could return to the Lehigh Valley rotation, or he could find himself in a long relief role with the big club. I do think he has value, but it’s likely out of the bullpen.
Some people out there really like Zach Eflin, but I’m not one of them. He 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, but 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. I get the allure of a ground ball pitcher at Citizens Bank Park, but unless his health hampered his performance, I just don’t see the upside or justification for going with Eflin.
If the Phillies fail to acquire a veteran starter, it could open the door for 23-year-old Thomas Eshelman. 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 last season. In an outing early last August, 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 of Phillies’ minor league pitcher of the year. At this point, the Phillies should know what they have in guys like Lively and Leiter Jr., and Eflin which is decent depth and not much more. I would much rather see the unknown commodity. While his terrific numbers from last season didn’t land him high on prospect lists because he doesn’t consistently break 90 mph with his fastball and his strikeout numbers (6.1 K/9) aren’t eye-popping, a quality spring on the heels of his fantastic performance a season ago should give him a chance to earn a spot in the rotation.
If this doesn’t seem like an overly optimistic or promising assessment, that’s because it isn’t. A rotation of Nola, Eickhoff, Velasquez, Pivetta and take your pick just isn’t good enough. I appreciate Gabe Kapler’s rosy outlook for his team and there are reasons to be excited, but if the Phillies want to get serious about contending, then this exercise should only emphasize the team’s dire need to add a quality starting pitcher.