The Phillies teased fans to start the 2016 season, going 24-17 out of the gate. At the time, the entire rotation was thriving behind the efforts Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez who looked like a great one-two punch. Nola had a run of nine straight quality starts that left him a sub-three ERA. Velasquez was mowing hitters down with an ERA in the mid-two’s before a biceps injury sidelined him on June 8th. It’s been a tale of two seasons for Jerad Eickhoff in which earlier in the year was very up-and-down. He has now seemed to settle in over the last month mixing in his changeup and slider more often. Adam Morgan was called up to the big club when Charlie Morton‘s season ended in April. Morgan has not pitched particularly well this season, but will sprinkle in a nice outing occasionally to make us wonder if he’s for real. The elder statesman of the staff, Jeremy Hellickson, has been mostly inconsistent this season but has thrown a number of quality starts that helped the team early in the year. Zach Eflin is the newest arm to the scene, taking over for Vince Velasquez. After the Jays welcomed Eflin to the show by scoring nine runs off him, he’s bounced back in two good outing versus Arizona and potent San Francisco lineup.
It’s been an interesting year for the starting staff as we reach the halfway point of the season. Our own Tim Malcolm has already described the regression of the Phils rotation. The continued struggles of the starting staff could signal uncertainty over the next couple of years. For 2017, the pitchers that will compete for spots in the rotation include: Nola, Velasquez, Eickhoff, Eflin, Morgan as well as IronPigs standouts Jake Thompson and Ben Lively. This, of course, excludes any pitchers the Phils could acquire in the offseason either through trades or free agency (those potential players will be covered in a future article). It’s no secret that the Phillies have one of the best minor league systems among baseball, with talent in all affiliate levels. Jake Thompson and Ben Lively look to be closest to knocking that door down. Some other fifth starter long shots for the 2017 rotation could also include Mark Appel and David Buchanan.
The 22-year old Thompson (acquired in the Cole Hamels trade) sports a record of 6-5 this season with an ERA of 2.88. After allowing six earned runs on May 31, Thompson has thrown five straight quality starts – three 0f which were scoreless. This being his first year at the Triple-A level, the Phils might be more cautious with the right-hander – allowing him to find a groove and not to be rushed up.
Ben Lively (acquired in 2014 in the Marlon Byrd deal), sits in the same boat as his teammate Jake Thompson. The 24-year old from Pensacola, Florida has split time this year with Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Lively dominated Double-A with a 7-0 record while carrying a 1.87 ERA in nine starts. Since Lively’s promotion to the IronPigs, he has continued his dominance with a 3-0 record that sports a 2.45 ERA. Lively has thrown at least 6 innings in nine straight starts (including both AA and AAA) and has allowed just 55 hits in his 93.1 innings this season. Hitters are managing a paltry .168 batting average against the right-hander. With Lively starting the year in Double-A, it’s unlikely we’ll see him in pinstripes in 2016.
Throwing Thompson’s and Lively’s numbers out there, there is a good possibility that the starting rotation could look different for 2017. There’s a good chance Hellickson will be dealt at the trade deadline this season which would leave open a spot in the rotation – but will likely be filled by Adam Morgan, getting his last chance to plead his case for a spot in 2017.
In terms of players on the current roster, Aaron Nola may be the most concerning with his recent struggles. With four straight disastrous outings, Nola looks like a deer in headlights on the mound. He has lost command of his curveball which was so dominant early in the year. Nola admitted in his postgame interview against the Giants that this is the longest stretch in which he has been knocked around to this extent. If it was two bad starts in a row, it wouldn’t be as concerning, but four poor outings is the start of a trend. The start that was most baffling was against the Twins. Minnesota is the worst team in baseball but they didn’t read that memo when they faced Nola. Either Nola is hurt or as he’s approaching his first full season in the majors, the league has caught up to him. If he doesn’t figure it out, it could lead to a demotion.
Are we all sold on Vince Velasquez? If only he could face the Padres every night and strikeout 16 0f them every time out. Velasquez showed signs of vulnerability before his injury as he was lit up by several teams. During his professional career, Velasquez has suffered from a multitude of injuries that includes: strained back muscle, strained groin, Tommy John surgery, and a strained bicep that has all led to time on the DL. That has always been the knock on Velasquez, proving he’s unreliable.
Jerad Eickhoff must show more consistency to be thought as a top of the line starter. He’s had a strong run over the last month as he’s shied away from being a two-pitch pitcher. He’s throwing his slider and changeup more often to keep hitters of balance, which has been working as of late. Let’s see if he can keep it up for an extended stretch of time.
One thing worth reporting on Zach Eflin: I’m impressed with how well he rebounded from his torching against the Jays. Most guys would want to curl themselves in ball and not show their face again. The fact that Eflin didn’t let his debut phase him, is an encouraging indication that shows not much bothers the kid.
The irony of this season is how we’re so concerned about Nola and Velasquez right now. In the first two months, both looked like number one pitchers. We seem to be optimistic about Eickhoff’s new approach and Eflin’s demeanor, more so than we were in the beginning of the year, which proves that the rotation is still up-in-the-air, especially with more talent under the current crop of Phillies’ starters.