Analysis

Offseason Preview: Fixing the starting rotation



vince_velasquez_1280_45avkr5n_rnwycj81This week we’re looking at what the Phillies biggest holes in anticipation of the offseason. How will they fill the holes? That’s what we’re after in the offseason preview.

Fixing the starting rotation

The Phillies finished in the bottom half of the majors in starter ERA, coming in at 4.41 (18th place). To help, the Phils’ starters found their groove in September and October, compiling a 3.31 ERA.

The Phillies are in a unique situation with their starting pitchers. In a rough count, the Phils could have up to 10 possible in-house starters that could fill out the rotation. The young, talented depth with some experience under their belts mixed with a savvy vet or two could be just what the doctor ordered for the 2017 season.

Here’s what we know:

Locks

Jerad Eickhoff
Aaron Nola
Vince Velasquez

Eickhoff was as constant as could be in 2016. An ERA of 3.65 should have translated into more than 11 wins for the 26-year-old. The right-hander allowed three runs or fewer in 27 of 33 starts this season. Don’t be shocked if Eickhoff is on the mound for opening day 2017 in Cincinnati.

Nola’s low-grade right UCL sprain and a strain in his flexor pronator tendon gave the entire city a scare, hoping surgery could be avoided. He has avoided it, and if healthy – which all reports indicate – Nola will be ready for spring training. We all remember Nola struggling mightily when the calendar turned to June. But in the first two months Nola was indeed an ace, posting a 2.93 ERA and a WHIP under one. The Phils are betting that talent isn’t suddenly lost. Nola will be counted on next season to be the guy he was the first two months of 2016.

“Vinny from Philly” sure provided us with some thrills in 2016. But like Nola, Velasquez gave us an injury scare back in May with a strained bicep. For Velasquez to be successful, he must stay injury free and work deeper into games, avoiding long at bats and walks. But Velasquez’s “success” isn’t the same definition as other successes; Velasquez’s “success” is dominance. The right-hander is the third lock for the 2017 starting rotation.

Bubble

Zach Eflin
Jake Thompson
Alec Asher
Ben Lively
Adam Morgan

Eflin has the inside track to be a “lock” for 2017. His major league debut and last three starts of the season before being placed on the DL were all forgettable. But between, Eflin tallied a 2.08 ERA and registered two complete games. Hopefully his last three starts can be attributed to his chronic knee pain, because the righty’s command suddenly left him. Once again … another if … but if Eflin can stay healthy, he’ll be the favorite in the battle for a fourth rotation spot.

Thompson was dominant for triple-A Lehigh Valley, posting an 11-5 record with a 2.50 ERA. It took Thompson a while to find his footing in the majors, as he had a 9.78 ERA in his first four starts. The 22-year-old settled down and showed flashes down the stretch with a 3.41 ERA in his final six starts. But Thompson will have to improve his command because his 28 walks in 53.2 innings won’t cut it for a spot next season.

There was a vast improvement from Alec Asher’s 2015 experience to his 2016 experience. Asher showed more movement on his pitches and is in play for a rotation spot for 2017.

Between double-A and triple-A, Lively was 18-5 with a 2.69 ERA. In 170.2 innings in 2016, the right-hander allowed just 118 hits and 42 walks. Acquired after the 2014 season for Marlon Byrd, Lively has been a workhorse for the Phils in their system and has as real an opportunity as anyone on this list to crack the opening day roster.

Morgan is probably more off the radar than the rest. At best he’s a quick injury fill-in. Bottom line: Morgan had his chances, and the Phils have better options.

Next Level

Mark Appel
Nick Pivetta

Appel, the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, has struggled in the minors. After a decent start to 2016 with Lehigh Valley, Appel’s season was ended prematurely in May with shoulder issues and elbow surgery. The former top pick must prove he can be consistent and stay healthy. Appel turned 25 this past July; the clock is ticking.

While not widely talked about in the Phils system, Pivetta put up good numbers in both Lehigh Valley and Reading this season. He was 12-8 while posting a 3.27 ERA in 22 starts. Pivetta seems to be on a good track to get his shot soon, but it’ll be difficult for him to leapfrog anyone on the bubble.

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The Need

The Phils shouldn’t be big players in the starting pitcher free agent market, as they have a ton of options within the organization. However, with as many young starters as they have, it never hurts to bring in a veteran or two to show young guns the ropes (and offer stability when injuries occur). The question is, how many veterans do you sign?

Currently the rotation would include Eickhoff, Nola and Velasquez, plus two of the bubble pitchers (say, Eflin and Thompson). If the Phils signed one free agent, it’ll bump one of the bubble names off the rotation. Two free agents would push another off. Signing two free agents could stunt the growth of the younger pitchers, because if they’re ready, they should be in Philadelphia, not Lehigh Valley. So one free agent pitcher is probably the right course of action.

Here’s a list of players the Phillies could pursue:

The Commitments

6. Ivan Nova

Nova played his first six and a half years with the Yankees before being traded to the Pirates at the 2016 deadline; over that stretch with the Buccos he was 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA. The 29-year-old made $4.1 million last year and should certainly make more when free agency strikes. One could see Nova getting between $10 million and $15 million per year, and a likely multi-year deal. Because of that, the right-hander would be a stretch for the Phils.

5. Gio Gonzalez

Former Phils prospect Gio Gonzalez has a $12 million club option for next season. If the Nationals let the 31-year-old walk (and it’s not yet known what they’ll do), Gonzalez could be looking at a multi-year deal worth $15 million per year or more. The current National could make sense for the Phils next season because no lefties appear in sight within the organization, but it would be a big committment.

4. Jaime Garcia

Garcia also has a $12 million club option for next year. The effective lefty is 30 with a career ERA of 3.57. He also has pitched in a ton of big games. If Saint Louis opts out of Garcia’s contract, the lefty would get a similar deal to Gonzalez.

The Lower Risk

3. Doug Fister

Fister is an eight-year veteran with a career ERA of 3.60, but the 33-year-old pitched with Houston in 2016, tallying a 12-13 record with a 4.64 ERA. Phillies fans were able to get a good glimpse of Fister when pitching for the Nats in 2014 and ’15. Those two years, he was 21-13 with a 3.10 ERA. The right-hander may cost over $10 million per year in the thin market, and could even be a one-year candidate considering his poor 2016.

The Best Bets

2. Charlie Morton

Morton has a $9.5 million mutual option with the Phillies for next season. A torn hamstring early in 2016 certainly leaves doubts about what the 33-year-old has left in the tank. That said, if all systems are a go for Morton, the right-hander can still be an effective piece for next season, and at a cheaper cost than Hellickson. Decline the offer and pursue on a cheaper ($5 million, say) one-year pact in free agency.

1. Jeremy Hellickson

We had an up-close-and-personal view of what a healthy Hellickson can provide a baseball team. The good news is the ball is still in the Phils’ court. They’re likely to offer him a qualifying offer ($17.2 million for one year). If he takes it you have your free agent pitcher. If he declines it the Phils would nab a compensatory draft pick in 2017. So it really doesn’t hurt to extend the offer.

If Hellickson turns down the offer (the market is thin and Hellickson would be a prized piece), he could be worth $15 million per year – pushing $20 million – for three years. Is Hellickson worth that? Probably not. But go for the qualifying offer.

Gonzalez and Garcia are interesting if their teams cut them loose, but mostly because they are left-handers. In the end, it may be best to try the same thing as 2016, but with one caveat: Hellickson or Morton. They don’t need two free agent starters with the way their young rotation is shaping up.

The Trade Market

It could get juicy here, though if the Phillies are trading for starting pitching, it would have to be for someone like Velasquez (young, discarded or something of a risk, inexpensive) and not a one- or two-year rental.

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