After Hellickson trade, a rotation reset

phils logoSo much for a lack of trade options.

Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak Saturday dealt pitching prospect Sam McWilliams to the Diamondbacks for starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. Going 9-12 with a 4.62 ERA, 121 strikeouts and 43 walks last season with Arizona, the right-hander tentatively slots into the Phillies’ 2016 rotation as the No. 2 or 3 starter.

Hellickson is average, at best, and often worse, according to his recent numbers. Twelve of his 27 starts were considered “quality” starts, and only once did he pitch into the eighth inning (against … guess who … the Phillies). He’s a stopgap, like Jerome Williams and Chad Billingsley, but there’s a slightly higher reward attached to him. It’s possible Hellickson can still be a very good starter. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

Klentak has repeatedly stated the importance of building good pitching through the development pipeline (and not necessarily free agency). Hellickson hasn’t had numbers that scream “good pitching,” but he is under team control for one year, which means there’s no major commitment here, which means he’s not a drag on Klentak’s strategy of developing pitching from inside the Phillies’ system. A number of prospects can emerge in the next year or two; Hellickson pitching 140 possibly below-average innings won’t get in the way of these prospects.

Thus we’re seeing what Klentak and the Phillies are looking to do in 2016: build a rotation of both young talent and low-risk, medium-to-high-reward veterans. No retreads, no high-priced arms; take some gambles and hope one or two stick.

Here’s the current rotation makeup:

Aaron Nola – RHP – age 22/23
Predicted IP: 180
It’s prefered that Nola would enter 2016 as the No. 2 starter, but if Klentak opts for another starter like Hellickson, Nola will likely take the mound on opening day. At best Nola can be a highly competitive top-line starter, but the hope is he gives the Phillies 180 or so pretty decent innings of pitching.

Jeremy Hellickson – RHP – age 28/29
Predicted IP: 160
For three seasons Hellickson gave Tampa Bay an average of nearly 180 innings, but elbow problems helped to derail him. With Arizona he was a below-average pitcher. The hope is Hellickson can be average in 2016, meaning a healthy amount of quality starts and, according to the Phillies, chances to keep the offense in the game. At best he rediscovers what made him a highly touted prospect and elite rookie arm.

Jared Eickhoff – RHP – age 25/26
Predicted IP: 150
Flashing a 2.65 ERA in his eight starts in 2015, Eickhoff proved a pleasant surprise from the Cole Hamels trade. While we can’t expect Eickhoff to be the same dominant pitcher he was in August and September, we can hope he can contribute several effective starts. A 3.50 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 3:1 would be just fine.

Adam Morgan – LHP – age 25/26
Predicted IP: 150
Morgan, who was called up to the majors on Father’s Day 2015, turned in 84 innings over 15 starts. It’s not a stretch, then, to hope he can hand in 150 innings over a full season. He pitched below average but gave the Phillies a steady presence in the rotation, finishing with a 4.48 ERA while sporting a 49:17 K:BB ratio.

The fifth starter, at this moment, will be decided between Severino Gonzalez, David Buchanan, Alec Asher and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Of these names, Asher and Severino Gonzalez provide the most promise, though there are issues to work through with both players. Prospect Jake Thompson is a dark horse to make the team out of camp, and Zach Eflin is likely a year away from the majors.

I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Klentak deals for or signs another starter. One name that piqued my interest was Mat Latos, who didn’t pitch well in 2015 – but had better peripherals – and thus wouldn’t cost too much. Plus he’ll only be 28 in 2016. That said, Latos has been known to be a disruptive clubhouse force; I can’t think that Klentak – who has stressed good clubhouse chemistry – would go deep for Latos (though yes, Latos did pitch for Klentak’s Angels last year).

Otherwise, a name like Mike Pelfrey could become a reality. That’s not terrible, as he wouldn’t command a big contract and has some potential, however limited. What would be terrible is if the Phils settle for a pitcher like retread veteran Kyle Lohse. No offense to Lohse – he’s just not the kind of arm the Phils should be targeting.

And the Phils shouldn’t target a high-priced arm like David Price or Zack Greinke. The Phils are still a ways from fielding a squad that can compete for a championship; signing a big name like Price or Greinke won’t get them much closer. Moreover, signing a high-priced pitcher in free agency is a high risk. The Phils should be risking high in the draft and international pool to build a foundation. Right now they should opt not take high risks for proven major leaguers (the only exception for me is Jason Heyward, who’s still very young and has superb everyday tools).

Anyway, we can hope the Phillies have about 640 innings in the foursome slated to start the season on the mound (Nola, Hellickson, Eickhoff, Morgan). If the bullpen contributes around 520 innings (last year’s pen threw 543 innings), that means the Phils will still need to find 220-230 innings out there.

How the Phillies choose to fill those 220-230 innings will prove if Klentak and Co. are standing behind their strategy.

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