Here’s the good thing about the 2017 Phillies pitching staff: It looks better.
We saw glimpses of better early in 2016, as Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez stormed out of the gate with high-strikeout, low-walk outings, capped by Velasquez’s 16-strikeout performance against San Diego. Meanwhile, the bullpen fell quickly into place, with David Hernandez settling in and providing setup for Hector Neris, whose high-strikeout stuff paved the way for Jeanmar Gomez’s unlikely successful closing.
Then came obstacles. Velasquez had a minor setback and, for a long time, couldn’t get past a sixth inning. For a few weeks Nola couldn’t get out of any inning, then he was shut down with an elbow injury. Newcomer Zach Eflin provided a few sparks until a knee injury shut him down. Top prospect Jake Thompson never really looked comfortable.
And the bullpen began to leak. Gomez wasn’t so sure after a while. Neris hit some roadblocks. Beyond that, there was no depth, with the Phils running through a cadre of mediocre talent for much of the second half.
But, on paper, 2017 looks better. The starting staff won’t be injured and has more experience. There’s also plenty of experience in the bullpen thanks to a couple savvy offseason moves.
So, again, pitching should be better. Let’s go deeper to understand what we could expect:
The only sure things with the 2016 staff were Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson, and both will be back – the former because he’s still pre-arbitration, the latter because he accepted the Phils’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. They’ll join the returning Nola and Velasquez, barring any issues heading into spring. A fifth spot is still up for grabs, but that’s nothing new.
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
2016: 12-10, 3.71 ERA, 154 K, 45 BB
Hellickson had as good a return from elbow surgery as a pitcher could hope, making 32 starts and finishing with an ERA under 4.00. He did so thanks to a devastating changeup thrown 25 percent of the time. He also threw a relatively successful curveball, which has only improved in three years.
The good season doesn’t look like a mirage. His BABIP wasn’t exceptionally low, and while he’ll get hit around a little, his change and curve – plus his solid command – are good enough to make him a better-than-average arm.
Early prediction: 11-11, 3.66 ERA, 147 K, 40 BB
RHP Jerad Eickhoff
2016: 11-14, 3.65 ERA, 167 K, 42 BB
Solid as solid can be, Eickhoff used his great curveball, along with an improving slider, to generate a solid strikeout rate (7.62 per 9) in 2016. Coupled with that was a low walk rate (1.92 per 9). His ground ball rates increased while his line drive and fly ball rates decreased.
Again, Eickhoff isn’t necessarily a mirage, and he hasn’t yet struggled for long stretches. His calling card is his ability to go six innings, the mark of a good third or fourth starter. That’s just what Eickhoff is, and 2017 likely won’t change that. His 2017 will look a lot like his 2016, maybe a little better, maybe a little worse.
Early prediction: 11-12, 3.79 ERA, 159 K, 49 BB
RHP Vince Velasquez
2016: 8-6, 4.12 ERA, 152 K, 45 BB
On three occasions in 2016 Velasquez pitched more than six innings – the 16-strikeout game, a July start against Miami, and his final start, a five-hit, no-walk performance against Atlanta. It’s encouraging that Velasquez only walked six batters in his final 28.1 innings, but he also surrendered 35 hits in that stretch. That’s not good.
We know that Velasquez has the ability to shut down an opponent, but he also has the ability to claw and scrounge for six innings, often giving up a hit per inning with a few walks sprinkled in. That isn’t good enough, and there’s no evidence yet that it’ll be better in 2017 (except that he’ll have a year of experience in his belt and more time to learn). So while the 2017 rotation should be better, and Velasquez may be better, it’s just not apparent yet.
Early prediction: 7-10, 4.39 ERA, 155 K, 60 BB
RHP Aaron Nola
2016: 6-9, 4.78 ERA, 121 K, 29 BB
We have to start with his first 12 starts, before the fastball suddenly went flat and he couldn’t get outs and ultimately was shelved with an elbow injury. In those 12 starts, Nola went 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA. He had a 9.81 K/9 and 1.73 BB/9. He pitched seven innings seven times. Only once did he only go five. He looked like an ace. And it was a logical extension of his very good debut in 2015.
Nola should look more like that in 2016. There’s little indication that his fastball will remain flat – which hitters pounced on while allowing them to lay off anything breaking – and everything about Nola’s makeup and past history screams this was injury related. Let’s be really optimistic for Nola, who looks to be the Phils’ best homegrown arm since Cole Hamels.
Early prediction: 14-10, 3.18 ERA, 166 K, 38 BB
RHP Alec Asher – 2-1, 2.28 ERA, 13 K, 4 BB
RHP Zach Eflin – 3-5, 5.54 ERA, 31 K, 17 BB
RHP Jake Thompson – 3-6, 5.70 ERA, 32 K, 28 BB
Considering his late success and health, Asher is the most likely of the three younger starters to have a rotation spot out of spring. Still, I think Eflin will win the job, though Thompson can certainly do his part by cutting down walks.
It’s hard to pin down a projection for the uncertain spot right now, but I’d imagine whoever takes it should be able to contribute an ERA around 4.00 with close to a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
Neris and Gomez are likely to return to the majors in 2017, along with righty Edubray Ramos, who in 42 games proved he belongs in the show. Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit should join them, along with a lefty and a long man.
RHP Hector Neris
2016: 80.1 IP, 2.58 ERA, 102 K, 30 BB
Barring injury, Neris shouldn’t be too far off from 2016, though there’s room for movement in both directions. His batting-average-against in 2016 was a great .202; one could see that rising once again. At the same time, he walked a few more than expected (9.2 percent walk rate), and that could drop a little. Chances are he’s not as effective as 2016, but he’s still good.
Early prediction: 72 IP, 2.89 ERA, 89 K, 30 BB
RHP Jeanmar Gomez
2016: 68.2 IP, 4.85 ERA, 47 K, 22 BB
Gomez shouldn’t be asked to get big outs late in games, but he probably isn’t as poor as he finished in 2016. His ground ball rate was about normal (1.14 GB/FB), as was his strikeout rate (15.8 percent). In short, with less of a reliance on Gomez, he should revert back to a steady ground-ball-centric arm that’ll get pulled quicker in tough situations.
Early prediction: 53 IP, 4.02 ERA, 38 K, 15 BB
RHP Edubray Ramos
2016: 40 IP, 3.83 ERA, 40 K, 11 BB
Ramos is a solid strikeout arm (25 percent) who kept a high BABIP in 2016 (.301 to a .243 BAA). If that BABIP normalizes a little into the .270 range, he’s suddenly a close-to-outstanding middle-to-late-innings arm. One small problem: the ground ball rate is too low (0.61 GB/FB). Still, Ramos is in that stage of his career where he should baffle more hitters before he hits obstacles.
Early prediction: 62 IP, 3.19 ERA, 67 K, 19 BB
RHP Pat Neshek
2016: 47 IP, 3.06 ERA, 43 K, 11 BB
Neshek has been an above-average reliever since 2012, and that should continue in 2016, especially as he returns to the National League, where he last posted a 1.87 ERA for St. Louis. His strikeout potential is declining, though he can still fire nearly one per inning. What’s more impressive is he doesn’t walk too many.
Early prediction: 59 IP, 3.01 ERA, 48 K, 13 BB
RHP Joaquin Benoit
2016: 48 IP, 2.81 ERA, 52 K, 24 BB
Benoit was great with Toronto but terrible in Seattle. He should land somewhere in the middle in Philadelphia, though we should err with caution as he isn’t getting any younger (40 this season). The walk rate is climbing, but not so much that it’s a true flag. I’d imagine the Phils use him as a late option early, but slowly phase him down the ‘pen as the year progresses.
Early prediction: 51 IP, 3.34 ERA, 50 K, 28 BB
Of the three lefty options currently out there, Rodriguez has the best shot of earning a long-term spot since he shined late in 2016. Rollins is on the 40-man roster, so he has a leg up on Burnett, who has only an invite to Clearwater.
It’s impossible to gauge what we get out of the lefty spot, but if it holds and, say, Rodriguez does earn it, we could hope to expect around 40 innings with an ERA around 3.20. Maybe better. Hopefully not worse. That’s as good as we can say right now.
So that’s the early look. Right now here’s what we have, with predicted 2017 trend:
Jeremy Hellickson – EVEN
Jerad Eickhoff – EVEN
Vince Velasquez – EVEN
Aaron Nola – UP
Alec Asher / Zach Eflin / Jake Thompson – UP
Hector Neris – EVEN
Jeanmar Gomez – UP
Edubray Ramos – UP
Pat Neshek – EVEN
Joaquin Benoit – DOWN
Joely Rodriguez / Sean Burnett / David Rollins – EVEN
As we know, this almost never happens. Only 2008 and 1993 featured relatively stable Phillies pitching, and we know what happened in those years. Otherwise it’s a never-ending cycle of uncertainty and surprise. But, on paper, the 2017 staff looks better.
Here’s hoping the Phils don’t have to trot really bad arms out there in August and September next year. That’s really the best we can hope for in 2017.