This week we’re looking at 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 had many questions with the rotation entering the 2017 season. Could Aaron Nola return from injury to be as dominant as he was in April and May of 2016? Could Vince Velasquez take the next step after his first full season in the big leagues? Could Jerad Eickhoff continue his durability and dependability of 2015-16?
Only one question was answered. Aaron Nola has emerged as a top-line starter. Other than that, there are even more questions heading toward the 2018 campaign.
Velasquez’s season ended prematurely because of injury, but when healthy, he was flat-out poor. Eickhoff’s control was an issue, as he walked more batters in nearly 70 fewer innings than 2016. The 27-year-old also had two DL stints – one in June and one in August – with the latter shutting him down for the year.
Because of the injuries, the Phillies got an extended look out of Nick Pivetta, who ended up with the seventh-worst ERA in the league. Zach Eflin also had an ERA north of six, and once again found his way onto the DL.
Ben Lively, Mark Leiter and Jake Thompson were so-so – certainly nothing to brag about. The Phillies have a lot of work to do to shore up the rotation. Whether it’s with guys in the system or elsewhere remains to be seen.
We can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Nola is himself. The right-hander finished 12-11 with a 3.54 ERA and struck out 9.9 batters per nine. During a nine-game stretch last year, Nola went 5-2 with a 1.77 ERA and opponents hit just .201. Nola struck out 70 batters in 60.1 innings. The 24-year-old also had increased life on his fastball, averaging a mile per hour more than 2016. He was able to hit the mid-90s on occasion.
I believe Velasquez gets one more shot as a starter. Another injury-riddled year or a sustained run of four-inning outings means the Phillies should move the hard-thrower into the bullpen.
Mark Leiter Jr.
The Phillies are going to have a ton of competition for the three remaining spots in the rotation, and that doesn’t include any potential free agents or trades. So that number could dwindle to two open spots, possibly one. Still, the Phils would be wise to bring in at least two outside arms.
It’s not a forgone conclusion Eickhoff is in the rotation next year. The inconsistency and lack of availability was a real turn-off, and it could come down to the spring training for the right-hander to prove he’s the pitcher of 2016.
Lively is certainly on the bubble. He, too, was inconsistent. The 6-4, 190 pounder has struck out just 52 batters in 88.2 innings with an ERA of 4.26. The 25-year-old has the stuff of a fourth of fifth starter and could be that on most teams, but the Phils shouldn’t be settling just yet.
Eflin has been tough to figure out in his two years as a Phillie. When he’s on, he’s quick and efficient and can easily go deep into games. But when he’s off, he serves more as a batting practice pitcher for his opponents. The 23-year-old had a 2.82 ERA in his first five starts last season, but the wheels fell off in his final six starts, pitching to a 9.46 ERA, allowing 51 hits in 32.1 innings. Eflin has flashed brilliance, but not enough to where a spot is given.
Pivetta had a tough go of it in his rookie campaign but finished on a high note, only allowing just two earned runs in his final 17 innings pitched. He won those three starts and lowered his ERA more than a half-run. The right-hander also struggled finding the strike zone, walking 57 batters in 133 innings. There’s no question Pivetta has the stuff to be a third starter in a good rotation, but until he figures it out, he’ll likely be riding the bus to and from Lehigh Valley.
Thompson had a disappointing year in 22 starts with Lehigh Valley, posting an ERA of 5.25, but his numbers with the club were actually better. He had a 3.88 ERA in 11 appearances (eight starts), but mostly escaped through smoke and mirrors. The 23-year-old allowed 50 hits, 22 walks, and nine home runs in 46.1 innings. He was able to work out of jams, to his credit, but it wasn’t pretty. Once considered one of the best pitchers in the system with a terrific 2016 in Lehigh Valley, Thompson may be the last pitcher the Phillies turn to for a shot in the rotation, behind an emerging Eshelman.
Leiter filled in admirably as a spot starter in 2017. He’s not going to light the world on fire with his stuff, but the 26-year-old pitches beyond his years with guts. The rookie will likely be a long-man out of the bullpen for 2018, but if the Phils are in a pinch due to injury, Leiter is their man.
Eshelman was one of the organization’s top pitchers, carrying a 2.40 ERA with a 13-3 record. The 23-year-old possessed pinpoint control, walking 18 batters in 150 innings. But like Lively and Eflin, Eshelman doesn’t whiff a lot of batters – only 102 in 150 innings. He’s next in line from Lehigh Valley to make the jump, but the lack of strikeout stuff could lead to an adjustment period once called up.
Disappointing is the best way to describe Mark Appel’s professional ledger. Once a top-40 prospect, Appel is 26 and still waiting on a major league shot. He posted a 5.27 ERA in 82 innings last season with Lehigh Valley, striking out 60 but walking 54. Lack of command, injuries and inconsistency have all plagued the once-promising righty. He’d need an enormous turnaround in 2018 to find himself in the Philadelphia rotation.
What’s the fix
Since Nola is the only known quantity on the staff, and the Phillies can’t just let three to four bubble arms open the season, we imagine the front office will target a top-level arm in the offseason (think somewhere around Nola’s level or a half-step below).
There are few options out there for a top-level arm. Let’s look at some immediate-impact starting pitchers, ranking our choices from least preferred to most preferred.
4. Yu Darvish
Who wouldn’t want Darvish on their team? He has a proven track record as a four-time all star, and he has the postseason experience all general managers covet in their top arms. This season for Texas and Los Angeles he went 10-12 with a 3.86 ERA. He struck out 209 batters in 186.2 innings and allowed just 159 hits. Darvish is known for his multiple-pitch repertoire and would slide right onto the top of the Phillies’ rotation. But he’s 31, has been an injury concern and will cost a fortune. The Phillies don’t need to be in the mix to bring in Darvish.
3. Jake Arrieta
Arrieta was unhittable in 2015 when he posted a 1.77 ERA en route to his only Cy Young award. His WHIP was 0.87, which is ridiculous for the starting pitcher. But over the last two years he hasn’t pitched at the same level. Granted, staying at that plane is near impossible, but he’s fallen off further than expected. After a rough first three months, the right-hander did turn it around in July, posting a 2.26 ERA in his last 14 starts of the year. He’d be a great addition, but the situation is similar to Darvish. Arrieta will be 32 by the time 2018 kicks off and will cost too much money when the Phillies simply aren’t ready to compete for a championship.
2. Lance Lynn
Lynn is an interesting case because like Darvish, he missed a full season (2016) due to Tommy John surgery. But he came back in 2017 to make 33 starts and finish 11-8 with a 3.43 ERA. He tossed 186.1 innings and allowed just 151 hits. Other than the one year Lynn sat out, he’s pitched at least 175 innings in all five of his full seasons and has an all-star appearance to show for it with a career ERA of 3.38. His home run numbers jumped considerably, however. In 2014 and ’15, Lynn surrendered 13 home runs. Last year, he more than doubled that number with 27. His strikeouts per nine also went down by more than a strikeout to 7.4, while his walks per nine is up to 3.8, a career high and not very strong. But the right-hander was able to bounce back from injury and remain true to form. He’d immediately be anointed as the No. 2 and would probably be cheaper than Darvish and Arietta. He’s 30-years-old.
1. Alex Cobb
After missing most of 2016 with elbow surgery, the 30-year-old Cobb made 29 starts last season and went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA. The right-hander had strong years in 2013 and 2014, where he had a 2.82 ERA in 49 starts. He relies on location because he only strikes out 6.4 batters per nine. He’d be placed right behind Aaron Nola in the rotation.
Because Cobb has had elbow surgery twice in the last three years, he may not break the Phillies’ bank with a long-term deal. If he’s good and healthy enough when the Phillies are ready to compete for a pennant, Cobb might stick around. But by that point, he’ll be 32 or 33. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Cobb could absolutely help the Phillies over the next couple of years for a reasonable price.