Analysis

Offseason 2015 Deep Dive: SP

Until the beginning of the Winter Meetings (Dec. 7-10 in Nashville, Tenn.), I’ll be doing a deep dive on the Phillies with particular focus on their offseason plans. What may happen? What’s the future hold? Seriously, how excited should you be?

We’ll try to answer all the questions here.

Today: Starting pitcher.

Starting Pitcher

NolaPast – Not long ago the Phillies had the best starting rotation in baseball. Top talent like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt was here. But that has all changed. Halladay retired. Oswalt, too. The Phils bought out Lee’s contract, effectively ending his career with them. And Hamels is now a Texas Ranger.

The Phillies in 2015 turned primarily to low-risk, low-reward innings eaters like Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, Chad Billingsley and Kevin Correia to take the mound. They responded with a collective subpar effort; consequently, the Phils had the league’s second-worst ERA.

Yet as the season progressed the Phils added young arms to the major league stable. Aaron Nola was promoted, and soon he was joined by Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher, both acquired in the Hamels trade, and Adam Morgan. Things are now looking up. But still … the times … they have a-changed.

MLB Present – Aaron Nola, 22; Jeremy Hellickson, 28; Jerad Eickhoff, 25; Adam Morgan, 25

At this moment, Nola has the inside track to start on opening day in Cincinnati. The 2014 first round pick solidified himself quickly upon his 2015 debut, registering a 3.59 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks over 77 innings. He has good command and decent movement on his pitches, especially his curveball.

Nola’s only issue: his numbers against left-handed hitters (.310/.360/.474). Working on his changeup, or developing a new approach against lefties, will help in solving this problem. That said, Nola should still prove effective in 2016. An ERA around 3.50 is again a solid bet, with some possibility he can bring it down to even the low threes. Strikeout numbers probably won’t be high, but he induces grounders. Long story short: Nola is a near-definite No. 3 starter, a possible No. 2 starter, and with some work, there’s an outside shot he’s an ace.

Hellickson, meanwhile, will be asked to do what Harang and others couldn’t do: eat innings while being a valuable asset. The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year has been much more hittable over the last three seasons, and in 2015 for Arizona surrendered 151 hits in 146 innings. His final line for 2015: 4.62 ERA, 121 K, 43 BB. The Phillies hope he can improve upon those numbers somewhat in 2016, turning himself into a player worthy of a trade-deadline deal. Pencil him in for 110 innings, and a 4.38 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 33 walks by the trade deadline, which may not be enough. Maybe the Phils can include him in a multi-player deal.

Of all starters in the major league rotation, Eickhoff may be the most intriguing. After coming over in the Hamels trade, he only turned in a 2.65 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 13 walks in 51 innings. His secret weapon: a devastating curve. Will the fun continue? It’s likely that Eickhoff comes down to earth a little in 2016, thanks to a relatively hittable changeup and homer-friendly fastball (.250 ISO). So let’s say a 3.50 ERA with 145 strikeouts and 56 walks over a full season. That would be fantastic for a pitcher who looks like a decent No. 4 at this point.

Morgan is currently slated to be in the rotation in 2016, but it’s not a sure thing. After making his debut on Father’s Day, the lefty put up passable numbers (4.48 ERA, 49 K, 17 BB, 84.1 IP) in the back of the rotation. Morgan may not be anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, which is fine in this rebuilding season. Let’s say he puts up a 4.22 ERA with 108 K and 42 BB in about 165 innings next season.

The InjuredMatt Harrison, 30; Jesse Biddle, 24

Acquired in the Hamels trade, Harrison has been victimized by chronic back problems. After two surgeries in 2013, and a third in 2014, Harrison pitched thrice in 2015 before hitting the disabled list again. He didn’t pitch well, either: 16 IP, 6.75 ERA, 5 K, 6 BB. If Harrison was to recover completely and pitch in 2016, he’s capable of being a trusted rotation arm, like he was in 2012 when he finished eighth in AL Cy Young voting. But don’t hold your breath: there’s still no timetable on Harrison’s recovery, and if it’s even a sure thing. For that, we can’t slot him in the 2016 rotation; we can only hope he can get back to the mound.

The same pretty much holds true for Jesse Biddle, once the Phillies’ top prospect, but now recovering from October Tommy John surgery. He won’t pitch again until maybe 2017. Hopefully he can return healthy and be part of his hometown team’s future.

The Fringe – Alec Asher, 24; David Buchanan, 26; Severino Gonzalez, 23; Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, 29; Chris Leroux, 31

Whether or not veteran starters are added to the payroll before spring, Asher, Buchanan and the two Gonzalezes will have opportunities to start in 2016. Each will need to prove himself after struggling in small samples in 2015.

Asher, another Hamels trade return, had a tough time in his first 29 innings with the Phillies (9.31 ERA, 16 K, 10 BB). He still rates as a potential back-end starter or mid-leverage reliever, but will likely have to prove himself in Lehigh Valley in 2016.

Buchanan will probably join him on the IronPigs roster. After a solid showing in 2014 he struggled, with a 6.99 ERA in 74 innings last season. He was much better in 54 innings with the Pigs, earning a 2.80 ERA. It remains to be seen if Buchanan can be a serviceable major league starter, but at the very least he’s a quick call-up candidate when and if a starter goes down with an injury.

The same goes for Severino Gonzalez, who started his career with a 7.92 ERA in 30 innings. The good news is his FIP was much more respectable (4.50), and his strikeout to walk ratio was a solid 28 to 7. There could be more to Gonzalez than what we saw in a short sample. He’ll likely start 2016 in Lehigh Valley, but of all the fringe players, I’d peg him as most likely to succeed.

As for MAG, he’s on the third and final year of a contract signed in the 2013 offseason. The Cuban hasn’t lived up to any hype, enduring a shoulder injury in 2015, but General Manager Matt Klentak says he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot, long as he’s healthy. Spending time in the Venezuelan Winter League, MAG has a 4.13 ERA with 19 strikeouts and 12 walks in 32 innings. All signs point to MAG missing out on a rotation spot, unless he magically discovers a consistent approach, translating into a superb spring showing.

Finally, LeRoux has major league experience in his long career spanning multiple organizations. He put up a nice 2.82 ERA in 22 games with the IronPigs last year, but only three of those games were starts. It’s possible he could be called up in a pinch, but he’s a more likely last-minute bullpen candidate.

MiLB PresentJake Thompson, 22; Zach Eflin, 21; Ben Lively, 24

Thompson, acquired in the Hamels trade, has the stuff to be a No. 2 starter, but it’s safer to slot him as a future No. 3 or 4 arm. He wasn’t wowing anyone for AA Frisco in the Texas system (4.72 ERA, 78 K, 30 BB), but changed quite a few minds after coming to Reading (1.80 ERA, 34 K, 12 BB in 45 IP). The strikeout numbers are a little low, and the velocity isn’t staggering, so that’s something to watch as he starts 2016 most likely in Lehigh Valley. He should be with the Phillies by September, with a realistic chance at a midseason callup.

Eflin, who will turn 22 early in the 2016 season, went the distance in Reading in 2015, finishing with a 3.69 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 23 walks in 131 innings. He’s a workhorse, turning in more than 350 innings over the last three seasons, and is trying to perfect a curveball to go with his mid-90s fastball. He’s likely to begin 2016 in Lehigh Valley.

Part of the Marlon Byrd trade, Lively had an up and down season with Reading in 2015 – a 1.43 WHIP, 4.13 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 45 walks in 143 innings. He’s now age-appropriate for the IronPigs and should probably start with them in 2016, joining Eflin and Thompson in the rotation.

If you’re keeping track, the IronPigs could have too many starters: Eflin, Lively, Thompson, Asher, Buchanan, Gonzalez, MAG, LeRoux. There’s an easy solution to this: LeRoux is likely a bullpen arm, and Asher could be converted to a reliever in 2016 (scouts say his stuff plays well as a reliever). That leaves Eflin, Lively, Thompson, Buchanan, Gonzalez and MAG, with five going to Lehigh Valley and the sixth either heading to Philly or becoming the IronPigs’ long man.

Further Down the LineMatt Imhof, 22; Victor Arano, 21; Brandon Leibrandt, 23; Ricardo Pinto, 22; John Richy, 23; David Whitehead, 23; Nick Pivetta, 23

AlsoElniery Garcia, 21; Tyler Viza, 21; Franklyn Kilome, 20; Adonis Medina, 19.

A 2014 second round draft pick, Imhof spent his first full season with the Phillies in Clearwater, registering a 3.94 ERA, 59 strikeouts and 39 walks in 77 innings. That’s not overwhelmingly great, but was recovering from bicep tendonitis during the season. He could start 2016 in Reading or back with the Threshers.

Arano, who will turn 21 in February, had a pedestrian season in Clearwater. He’s pitched better as a reliever in the Mexican Winter League: 20 IP, 18 K, 2 BB, 0.90 ERA. Chances are he’ll move to Reading in 2016 to continue working as a starter (he still needs to develop a consistent six-inning performance), but the relief option is intriguing.

Leibrandt, a 2014 draft pick, leaped from Williamsport to Clearwater in 2015; while injured a few times in the season, he ended up with a 3.11 ERA (67 K, 21 BB) in 101 innings. The son of former major leaguer Charlie Leibrandt doesn’t have astounding stuff, but he’s close to a polished arm (think fringe AAAA). He’ll start in Reading in 2016.

Pinto won the Paul Owens Award for best pitcher in the Phils system in 2015. He has a solid fastball and plus changeup, which helped him to a 105/37 K/BB ratio between Lakewood and Clearwater. He seems primed to also jump to Reading in 2016, and should get the full year there before being in the conversation for 2017 as a mid-rotation starter.

Richy was part of the Chase Utley trade and only put in two starts with the Threshers in 2015 (2.84 ERA, 10 K, 1 BB). In all, his 2015 in advanced-A ball was pretty solid (115 K, 35 BB, 4.07 ERA). He should move right up to Reading in 2016 and could also be in the conversation for 2017.

Whitehead struggled mightily in Clearwater (4.44 ERA, 94 K, 51 BB in 135 IP). He doesn’t figure to be anything more than minor league filler and could be the odd man out in the Reading rotation in 2016.

And Pivetta, who came over in the Jonathan Papelbon trade, has a mid-90s fastball and curveball, and could be a major leaguer in two years or so, but struggled mightily upon coming to Reading.

Clearwater’s 2016 rotation could be composed of Ranfi Casimiro (improved command in 2015 in Lakewood), Will Morris (converted to a starter in 2015) and Shane Watson (getting back on track after a suspension in 2014-15) plus Garcia, who can improve his walk rate but showed pretty good stuff in Lakewood, and Viza, who pitched much better in 2015 after a terrible 2014 where he surrendered 172 hits in 126 innings.

Drew Anderson, a solid prospect who seemed poised for Clearwater in 2015, had Tommy John surgery early in the season. He would return at some point in 2016.

Otherwise, the next big potential arm is Kilome, who has electric stuff (fastball, sinker, assorted breaking pitches) and put up a 3.28 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 22 walks in 49 Williamsport innings in 2015. He could start 2016 in Lakewood.

Medina, a top-20 prospect for the Phils, is raw but pitched well in the Gulf Coast League in 2015. He may start in Williamsport in 2016 after extended spring training.

Other arms are still hard to project, but of what’s listed here, pay attention to Imhof, Pinto, Richy and Kilome.

Present Need – The major league Phillies could use another sure thing in the rotation, but it doesn’t have to be David Price or Zack Greinke. J.A. Happ agreed to a three-year, $36 million deal with the Blue Jays – that’s probably the ceiling for the kind of deal the Phillies want to make with a free agent pitcher. No need to risk big on starting pitching yet – let Thompson, Lively and Eflin develop with Nola, Eickhoff, Asher and Morgan. See what’s out there, get better in other areas, then decide the right big play.

In the meantime, Tim Lincecum or Scott Kazmir on a two-year, incentive-laden deal, or Mat Latos or Doug Fister on a one-year bounceback deal feels more appropriate. But there’s time – the Phillies can wait the market out and see if a Yovani Gallardo, let’s say, is still out there and would agree to a two-year, $20 million contract. Or they can make another low-risk trade, like the one they made for Hellickson. No need to rush anything now.

More important than a big name right now is depth, and though Asher, Buchanan and the Gonzalezes exist, more is always better. Signing at least one veteran to ultimately shove in Lehigh Valley is likely, and there are names out there (Eric Stults, Randy Wolf).

Down the system, a need is starting to emerge in the high-A levels. The easy way to address this: draft tons of college arms. Klentak and Co. should also be active in the international pool to restock the system.

Future – Klentak has made it a point to address the need for good pitching. Simply put, you can’t win much if you don’t employ pitchers who can get you to the seventh with a lead. The strategy for now is to build a stable of arms capable of just that (Nola, Eickhoff, Morgan, Eflin, Thompson, Lively). That said, nobody here looks to be a bonafide ace (except maybe Nola).

But that’s the point for now: build depth. Expect a starting rotation for 2016 of Nola, Eickhoff, Hellickson, an offseason pickup, and the winner of a battle between Morgan and the fringe starters. Thompson, Eflin and Lively are likely to arrive in 2016, phasing out Hellickson and the fringe starters. Then the Phillies would open 2017 with something like Nola, Thompson, and Eickhoff/Eflin/Lively/Morgan/Asher/Gonzalez. That’s when you start entertaining adding an elite veteran arm via trade or free agency.

Fast forward to 2018, and suddenly it’s a free-agent ace, Nola, Thompson, and Eickhoff/Eflin/Lively/Morgan/Asher/Gonzalez plus potentially Imhof/Pinto/Richy. Kilome, if all goes well, becomes a possibility in 2019.

That’s the power of depth: Build surefire back-rotation pieces now while searching for the next aces of the staff. It may take a year to three years, but the approach can still prove fruitful in the interim.

***

Next: Tomorrow I scour the relief pitching ranks.

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