Philadelphia Phillies: Previewing the 2018 starting rotation

There are few certainties in the starting rotation for Gabe Kapler.

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As the 2016 season ended, former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told reporters he wanted experienced hitters to augment his young lineup. He got them that winter in the form of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, although ironically the Phillies’ offensive improvements in 2017 had more to do with young hitters like Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins while Kendrick was moved at the trade deadline and Saunders was released in June.

This past August, barely a month before he was reassigned to the front office, Mackanin again sounded off on what he thought his team needed to improve. This time, his prescription was for starting pitching.

Though he has been succeeded by Gabe Kapler in the manager’s office, Mackanin was spot on when he gave his assessment. At the time of that press conference, the Phillies were 23rd in starters’ ERA (4.82) and batting average against (.268). A succession of young arms marched through the rotation and looking ahead at the 2018 season, there are few sure things.

Today, we will take the first in a four-part early look at the Phillies and what their roster may look like headed into Spring Training. In this edition, we will look at the starting rotation and what it might look like going into 2018.

To be determined

Mackanin’s assessment last year remains true: the Phillies need a veteran arm to help stabilize the rotation and mentor the young arms coming through the system.

You can expect the Opening Day rotation to include at least one veteran starter from outside the organization. A guy like Andrew Cashner, who won’t command huge money but can provide veteran leadership to the rotation, would be a good choice. If general manager Matt Klentak is looking longer term, signing someone like Alex Cobb would be an interesting choice. Cobb’s arm injuries will depress his initial asking price but he is young and talented enough that, if things go well, he could be a major contributor on a contending team a few years down the line.

There are a lot of reasons to sign an established starter. Providing leadership to the up-and-comers is chief amongst them. The team also probably wants a viable alternative to Aaron Nola as Opening Day starter as the team has a history of trying to keep that honor off the resume of young pitchers as they enter arbitration (see Cole Hamels in 2008). Expect Klentak to fill at least one spot in the rotation via free agency or trade.

The sure thing

Speaking of Nola, he is without question the surest bet in the rotation next year.

After a fantastic rookie season in 2015, the seventh overall selection in the 2014 draft started the ’16 season like gangbusters before falling off a cliff in June. An elbow strain eventually stopped his season in August after amassing a 6-9 record and 4.78 ERA in 20 starts.

Nola started the season slowly, racking up a 5.06 ERA in his first six starts and was again on the disabled list for a month, albeit with a back injury rather than a recurrence of elbow problems. But as June started, Nola took off. In 21 starts from June 6 on he went 10-8 with a 3.18 ERA, striking out 155 batters in 136 innings. He went on an incredible run of ten starts where he gave up two runs or fewer and became the first Phillie to do that since the pitcher’s mound was moved to its current distance in 1893. During the streak, he posted a 1.71 ERA held opposing hitters to a .196 average.

He ended the season 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts, striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings. He has the makings of a future ace, and he and his incredible curveball will be stone cold locks for the rotation.

Favorites

With three more spots to fill, there are two pitchers who can be called favorites for the job. Both ended the season on the 60-day DL: Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez.

Eickhoff has looked to be solid major league starter since he came to the team in the Cole Hamels trade in 2015. He made his major league debut shortly after the deal and finished the ’15 season with a 3-3 record and a 2.65 ERA in eight starts. The next year, he turned in an impressive first full campaign, going 11-14 with a 3.65 ERA in 33 starts, dropping his walk rate and setting himself up as a potential long-term option in the rotation.

But he regressed in 2017, going 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. His K/9 jumped from 7.6 to 8.3, but he also walked almost two more batters per nine (3.7 from 1.9 in ’16). He left his final start of the year in late August early with a nerve issue in his hand that ended his season.

Velasquez is a case study in unharnessed talent. The 25-year-old righthander, acquired two offseasons ago in the trade that sent Ken Giles to the Houston Astros, has flashed ace-level stuff in the two years he’s been in Philly. He announced himself in just his second start, pitching a three-hit shutout with 16 strikeouts and no walks.

He has been inconsistent with his control since. In two seasons as a Phillie, he’s struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings but walked 3.5 batters per nine. In 2017, he only lasted beyond the fifth inning five times in 15 starts. He flashed here and there, like his best start of the ’17 season against the Atlanta Braves on the last day of July, when he threw seven scoreless innings in a 2-1 win. But he couldn’t build on that, throwing five innings his next start before getting shelled for three runs in one inning against the New York Mets on August 10.

In the aftermath of that game, he was discovered to have had a vascular issue in the middle finger of his throwing hand and had season-ending surgery to correct the problem.

Velasquez and Eickhoff both had down years in 2016, but both have a lot of talent. They aren’t utter locks. Velasquez, in particular, has been subject to talk about a move to the bullpen. But if they get through Spring Training healthy and don’t self-destruct in Grapefruit League games, they will be in the rotation come Opening Day.

Open competition

Assuming that the Phillies only sign one pitcher this offseason, and barring any big performance by a non-roster player in Spring Training, the final rotation spot will be up for grabs between five different pitchers.

Of those five, the most natively gifted is probably Nick Pivetta. Blessed with a good fastball and strikeout stuff, Pivetta showed flashes of being a fantastic pitcher this year. He threw seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Red Sox in May. In July, he tossed another seven-inning win against the Mets. In his last three starts of the year, all wins, he gave up two runs combined while striking out 19. His problem, as with all the other men on this list, is his control. He walked 3.9 batters per nine this year, but if he can cut that number down he’ll have the best shot to take the fifth spot.

Jake Thompson improved from 2016, clocking in with a 3.88 ERA in eight starts, highlighted by an excellent September. He’s not a strikeout guy but can manage at a fifth starter if he keeps home runs to a minimum. Mark Leiter Jr. started the season as a reliever but won his first start by going six scoreless innings. He was inconsistent as heck the rest of the season. He followed two good games in late August by getting shellacked by the Mets for nine runs (eight earned) in 3.1 innings. A good spring and more consistency could get him the job.

Ben Lively, acquired by the Phillies from Cincinnati in 2014 in exchange for Marlon Byrd, finally got his shot at the big leagues this season and pitched adequately, going 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA in 15 starts. He was never spectacular but only gave up over three earned runs in a game three times, and he turned into a minor cult hero by posting the best hitting numbers by a Phillies pitcher since Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee were around: a .231/.231/.462 slash line, two homers, and eight RBI.

The last man in the mix, Zach Eflin, will go as far as his body will take him. He burst onto the scene in 2016, making up for a terrible debut against Toronto with an excellent string of seven starts in which he pitched to a 2.08 ERA, including two complete games and a shutout. But his next three starts saw him give up 20 runs in 13 innings as knee issues finally caught up with him. He had surgery on his patellar tendon and came to Spring Training pain-free. He went north with the team and started well before struggling in May and being sent back to Triple-A. In August he returned to the majors and again started well before a shoulder strain ended his season.

Looking at that group, Pivetta is the most talented and will probably get the first shot. Lively is probably next, with the other three in the mix behind. Barring any major moves, this will likely be the hottest position battle on the team come springtime.

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