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Sizing up the Phillies’ 2017 rotation before spring

hellicksonDuring the winter meetings, as he faced the usual barrage of questions about potential trade targets and upgrades, Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak noted that his team is rich in one particular resource that could be useful in acquiring more talent: young starting pitching.

Beyond the big league rotation – which should consist of Jeremy Hellickson, Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Clay Buchholz – the Phillies house a handful of other promising starters on the cusp of being serviceable at the major league level. Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher and Adam Morgan all have major league experience already, and Nick Pivetta, Mark Appel and Ben Lively are rostered starters with experience at triple-A. That’s a lot of arms fighting for a finite number of spots, and other teams have taken notice.

Depth, however, does not guarantee excellence, and many of the names representing depth will serve more to promise that the rotation will have five passable arms at all times than they will to revive the “Four Aces” moniker enjoyed by the 2011 rotation. More to the point, many of them won’t contribute to the rotation in the year ahead in significant enough ways to alter expectations of it.

As a whole, the rotation represents an area of strength for the Phillies. To put it broadly, three of the five starters were average or better by ERA+ in 2016, and the two who weren’t – Aaron Nola and Clay Buchholz – offer tangible reasons to expect improvements in the year ahead.

Greater expectations

Before being shut down at the end of July because of an elbow injury, Nola had been struggling. His season ERA ballooned to 4.78, he had lost velocity on all of his pitches, and his command was lacking. After walking batters at a rate of 1.6 walks per nine innings through May, he averaged 4.26 BB/9 in June and 3.15 in July. Because issues with control and velocity can both be attributed to the elbow injury that sidelined Nola for the final months of last year, all signs point to him returning to the early season form that included a 2.88 ERA in April and May.

Buchholz, a recent acquisition intended to fill out the back end of the rotation, is the weakest of the team’s starting pitchers. His career has been rife with inconsistency, as he seems to fluctuate between good and bad seasons. The superstitious sort, then, will like that last season was so poor for him and hope that oscillation continues, forecasting a better year ahead. Others can place their faith in an adjustment he made in the middle of 2016: altering his release point. That change came in his first July start and corresponds with a sharp upward turn in his results. While he started the year with an ERA of 5.90 and opponents hitting .259 off him, he rode out the season with a 3.43 ERA and .230 batting average against once he fixed where he was releasing the ball. Getting that from the team’s fifth starter would make for a rotation without a glaring weak point.

Although the team might lack an apparent weak link, it also lacks in an apparent ace; the rotation is a group of good starters, but no one performs on the level that Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay once did. Vincent Velasquez is heralded by many as the team’s best shot at growing an ace in the coming year, though, and it’s not hard to understand why: he has great stuff. He led the team in strikeout rate last year by striking out over 10 batters per nine innings and was 15 strikeouts shy of tying Eickhoff for the lead in total strikeouts despite throwing 66 fewer innings.

Velasquez’s issue is with efficiency, not ability. He averaged fewer than six innings per game last season and, even with an improved bullpen heading into next season, he’ll have to get outs faster and go deeper into games to become the ace the Phillies hope he can grow into. The good news is that, even last year, he was a productive performer in the innings he did pitch— his 4.12 ERA would not be unbearable on a developing team with an otherwise solid rotation.

Jeremy Hellickson, once the buy-low, bounce-back candidate type Phillies GM Matt Klentak has sought value in, would have been one of the best starting pitchers on the free agent market this offseason. Instead, he accepted the Phillies’ qualifying offer, staying with the club on a 1-year, $17.2 million deal. Given the brevity of the contract, the team’s lack of other financial obligations, and Hellickson’s performance in 2016, the Phillies could have done a lot worse. For someone acquired as a relative bargain before the season, the 29-year-old impressed in both performance and longevity, pitching to a 3.71 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 189 innings. He showed signs of returning to the form that once made him a promising, highly anticipated up-and-comer in his first few seasons at the major league level, in which he threw to an ERA+ of 113, 128 and 124. Injuries may have interfered with his chance to reproduce that success for several years, but Hellickson showed last year that he’s still a very capable pitcher when he’s healthy.

While the Phillies opted not to move Hellickson at the trade deadline, the reported interest from other teams demonstrates that he’s the kind of mid-rotation starter any team would be glad to have.

Of the five guys locked to begin the year in the starting rotation, Jerad Eickhoff might be the easiest to project, and he’s the only Phillies starter whose 2016 numbers outshine Hellickson’s. Corey Sharp described him as “the most consistent force on the Phils” who, despite lacking the flash and dominance of an ace, “allowed three runs or fewer in 27 starts” of his 33. Things tend to fall apart for him late in the game which, in addition to being something the 26-year-old can still improve on, does little to take away from his consistency. It would be safe to consider him the Phillies’ strongest hurler in 2016, as he led the team in innings pitched, ERA, and BB/9, and was only .01 behind Hellickson in WHIP. He’s another non-ace who can be valuable as a durable mid-rotation starter going forward.

In fact, Eickhoff serves as an illustrative embodiment of the rotation as a whole. He may not be an ace, but he can be counted on to contribute and keep the Phillies in games. Likewise, the rotation is not the best in baseball, nor even the best in the NL East, but it is a solid asset that provides a good foundation on which the team can build. Eickhoff and the rotation may both improve in the years to come but even now will be bright spots on an otherwise middling (at best) team.

J Thompson 2Growth potential

While the Phillies will start the year with a rotation deserving of relatively high expectations, they will likely have to pull from their aforementioned depth before it wraps up. Hellickson was healthy last season but does have an unfortunate injury history that could crop up at any time; even if he avoids the disabled list, he could see himself being moved to a competitive team in need of his abilities. Nola, while certainly unlikely to be traded, has more immediate and specific health concerns in his elbow, which is the most frightening sort of injury among pitchers. Buchholz’s performance early last season had Red Sox fans hoping the team would replace him in the rotation, but repeating his late-season performance could also make him a trade chip if things break right.

In other words, the Phillies will begin the year with a good rotation, but the actual members of it could be fluid throughout the season depending on health and trades— and, of course, player development. If Adam Morgan or Alec Asher are called up and slotted into the rotation for any reason, they are unlikely to be upgrades over the current offerings. On the other hand, Jake Thompson – a highly regarded pitcher who will start the year with the IronPigs – is believed to have a very bright future as a starter. Growth from a player with his potential would allow the rotation to remain sturdy even if someone needs to be replaced.

One quirk of the rotation as it’s currently constructed is that it lacks a lefty starter. Obviously there is reason to expect overall success from the rotation over the course of a full season, but it may become difficult to win series against teams with lefty-heavy lineups if platoon advantages swing in the opponents’ favor. On the bright side, the rest of the NL East had below average results against right-handers last year, with all four teams putting up sub-100 wRC+, and wOBA at or below the league average of .318.

The bad news is that both the Mets and Nationals expect better left-handed production next year. The Nationals added lefty Adam Eaton, who OPSed .812 against righties last year, and the Mets will look for full, healthy seasons from Lucas Duda and Jay Bruce, who combined for 33 home runs in 560 plate appearances against right-handed pitching in 2016.

Starting pitching should be seen as the most presentable part of the 2017 Phillies. If the starters can repeat or build on their past performances – which is a plausible expectation – pitching will not be to blame if 2017 is another dismal season. The largest shortcoming of how the rotation is composed is that it’s missing a dazzlingly good ace, but it may also turn out to be missing a weak-enough link to expect a loss from every fifth day.

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