Today we begin going through the Phillies spring training roster. We’ll look at who’s down in Clearwater, where the competitions will be, and what the outlook is for the team.
Let’s start with the pitching staff, an obvious issue for the club, but one they might be able to remedy without adding any big names. At least yet.
As of this writing the Phillies have neglected to add a starting pitcher for spring training, and in every way possible. There isn’t even a guy pitching on a minor league invitation. The signal this sends to the fans is this: We believe in these relatively young starters. Of the seven most likely to challenge for the five rotation spots, we can really only believe in one, Aaron Nola. Jerad Eickhoff has more of a track record than the others, but there’s reason to be pessimistic about his ability to be a top- or even mid-rotation piece going forward. As of the rest: The Phils seem to have the most faith in Nick Pivetta, while Vince Velasquez might be facing his last chance.
Below this group is a second wave led by Tom Eshelman, who will probably get his first crack in the majors during the season. The rest of this group is another step away, more primed for a 2019 arrival than a 2018 opportunity.
Aaron Nola / RHP / 25 / Active / 168 IP, 3.27 FIP, 9.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9
The big test for Nola will be his health. Last year he started 27 games, a great sign after his injury-plagued 2016, but now we’ll want to see him at least copy last year’s innings total, if not eclipse it and approach 200. If that happens, it’s a fair bet that Nola is a top-15 starter with an outside shot at a Cy Young season. One small worry is his slightly rising fly ball rate (31.1%, up from 24.8% in 2016), which isn’t great for Citizens Bank Park. But if he can keep his strikeout rate in that outstanding level above 25%, a fly rate over 30% won’t be a big issue.
Vince Velasquez / RHP / 26 / Active / 72 IP, 5.52 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.3 BB/9
Velasquez saw a big dip in his strikeout rate (21.6%, down from 27.6% in 2016) and a big increase in his walk rate (10.8%, up from 8.2% in 2016). Normally these numbers would mean he’s a No. 5 starter at best, but he also surrendered a bunch of home runs (1.88 per 9). Part of his problem was relying too much on the fastball (66.6%) and not enough on his solid slider (9%). Velasquez is the classic “be a pitcher, not a thrower” guy; if he can turn the corner, he could potentially redeem himself enough to be a mid-rotation piece. Otherwise, he’s looking at a bullpen role by mid-season.
Jerad Eickhoff / RHP / 27 / Active / 128 IP, 4.30 FIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.7 BB/9
Eickhoff wasn’t as bad as you think in 2017. His FIP shows him to be more of a solid No. 4 starter, which we assumed he’d be all along. His .328 BABIP suggests some bad luck (it was .278 in 2016), while his walk rate (9.2%) was far higher than anything he’s ever put up (5.2% in 2016). This isn’t to say Eickhoff is due for a major bounce back, because he still only throws two good pitches (fastball, curveball). If he can figure out that third pitch (where’s the changeup?) he should comfortably stick as a No. 4 with a decent ERA and a walk rate closer to 7%.
Nick Pivetta / RHP / 25 / Active / 133 IP, 4.87 FIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.9 BB/9
The Phillies like Pivetta, and there’s reason: his slider is electric and his fastball hits the mid-90s. That’s enough for Pivetta to be a late-innings reliever, but he also sprinkles in a decent changeup. If he can put all of it together, there’s a mid-rotation starter in there. As it is, however, Pivetta gave up too many walks (9.8%) and home runs (1.69/9). The walks may not change, as Pivetta has never had great control, but the home runs should decrease if he advances his repertoire.
Ben Lively / RHP / 26 / Active / 88.2 IP, 4.97 FIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.4 BB/9
Lively came to the majors and got shocked by the home run ball, putting up his highest-ever rate (1.32/9). There are two reasons why: For one, there are plenty of home runs these days in the majors, and for two, Lively had to pitch in Philadelphia. His home run rate at home was 6.9%, while his home run rate on the road was just 1.6%. The problem, of course, is Lively is a fly-ball pitcher. I’d like to find a silver lining here, but Lively just isn’t enough of a strikeout pitcher to work out. The bottom line is this: Ben Lively isn’t a good fit for the Phillies organization, and Matt Klentak should’ve traded him before last season. In Philly he’s nothing more than a mop-up guy.
Jake Thompson / RHP / 24 / Active / 46.1 IP, 5.92 FIP, 6.8 K/9, 4.3 BB/9
Like, I don’t know, Lively, Thompson suffered from the home run ball in 2017. He also suffered in 2016. Those two years (1.75 HR/9, 1.68 HR/9) were the only times ever that he put up a home run per nine over one. Thompson also couldn’t control the strike zone, walking more than 10% of batters for the second straight season in Philly. Between Lively and Thompson, you could draw other arguments for their problems (bad pitch framing, bad coaching), and while some of this could be true, these guys aren’t groundball artists and haven’t shown to be sufficient at striking out batters. They don’t have what Velasquez or even Eickhoff has shown. They’re not good fits for the Phillies.
Zach Eflin / RHP / 24 / Active / 64.1 IP, 6.10 FIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9
Eflin seems like the forgotten pitcher, but he did throw 107 innings between Philly and Lehigh Valley last year. But forget it – let’s stop the optimism and come down to earth with Eflin: He’s basically the same kind of pitcher as Lively and Thompson. He has had a low strikeout rate with the Phillies (hovering around 12%) and a high home run rate (an average of 2/9 in his Phils career). He’s also, get this, a fly-ball pitcher (40.3% in 2016, 38.3% in 2017). He’s like Lively and Thompson. Ruben Amaro Jr. didn’t get the right pitchers in these deals.
Ranger Suarez / LHP / 22 / Active
Suarez’ strikeout rate jumped up in 2017 (27.8% in Lakewood, 23.6% in Clearwater) while his walk rate has steadily decreased (7.4% and 6.8%, respectively). His BABIP in Clearwater was extremely high at .382 despite having a 3.82 ERA. The home runs will probably jump in Reading when he gets there around mid-season (most likely), but he has enough of a fastball (mid-90s at best) and secondary stuff (decent slider, working changeup) to be a dark horse relief candidate in the future.
Jose Taveras / RHP / 24 / Active
Yes it’s weird to talk about Thompson and Eflin, both 24 in 2018, as if they’re done, while Taveras only recently reached triple-A and is also 24. But Taveras’ profile is much more suited to the Phillies. He has four pitches and no true out pitch, but he can work them well to get strikeouts (hovering around 23% across three levels in 2017). The walks will have to come down (9.2% in limited time in Lehigh Valley), but if they do and he’s consistent getting outs in triple-A, he’s a possibility to make the rotation by mid-season and contribute a decent No. 4/5 profile.
Franklyn Kilome / RHP / 22 / Active
One of the top pitching prospects in the system, Kilome saw his strikeout rates decrease and walk rates increase in 2017, both in going to Clearwater (20.3% K and 9.1% BB) and being promoted to Reading (16.3% K and 12.2% BB). He’ll have time to work on those things in double-A in 2018. Don’t expect him until 2019 earliest, and even then he could be a reliever.
Tom Eshelman / RHP / 23 / Non-roster
Superb control has driven Eshelman’s rise thus far. His 4.4% walk rate in Reading and 2.8% walk rate in Lehigh Valley give him some margin for error, which is necessary because his strikeout rate has declined with each level, coming in at 17.2% in triple-A. If he can have similar command in the big leagues, Eshelman can be a reliable back-end guy, but probably never overpowering. Think of it this way: The Phils can shuffle everyone else in and out to see if they got it, but once they put Eshelman in there, he can stick in the No. 5 slot.
Enyel De Los Santos / RHP / 22 / Non-roster
De Los Santos’ strikeout rate came back up in 2017 (22.4%) while keeping a manageable walk rate (7.8%). His grounder rate also came up into the mid-40s, but that will need to climb a bit more if he is to have success in Philadelphia. He has a strong mid-90s fastball with a good changeup and little else, so he’ll need to work on that third pitch if he wants to be in a rotation by 2019.
Cole Irvin / LHP / Non-roster
With slightly better strikeout rates and slightly worse walk rates than Eshelman, Irvin is close to ready as a starter. Since he’s the closest thing to a major league lefty starter, the Phils probably want to see if he’s ready to be promoted when in a jam.
Brandon Leibrandt / LHP / Non-roster
Liebrandt’s walk rate was threatening to hit 10% last year. Luckily his 19.6% strikeout rate in Lehigh Valley is workable. He’s probably nothing more than a emergency spot starter, maybe a relief option.
Outlook: If the Phillies make no additional moves this offseason, you can write Nola, Velasquez, Eickhoff and Pivetta down as your first four starters in 2018. A battle between Lively, Thompson and Eflin will determine the No. 5 starter. It seems uninspiring, but the Phils are probably hoping that one of Velasquez, Eickhoff and Pivetta take a step forward in 2018. That, plus a No. 5 like Eshelman, sets the Phils up for a 2018 where they’re one great starter and one good starter away.
That said, there’s still time. Say the Phils add Alex Cobb – you now basically hope to add one great starter between now and opening day 2019. And that can be done. But make no mistake, there should be no expectation for Lively, Thompson and Eflin.
We won’t get too deep with relievers. For one, the fungible nature of the position means we shouldn’t waste much time anticipating things. But for two, the bullpen is relatively closed up for 2018. Sure there’s competition, but unless there’s disaster out there, we know nearly everything the Phils are going to do for opening day.
Hector Neris / RHP / 29 / Active
Neris’ 26.9% strikeout rate was outstanding thanks to that split-finger fastball. He’ll be closer to start the year in one of the more comfortable closer situations in baseball.
Pat Neshek / RHP / 37 / Active
It’s hard to imagine Neshek improving or returning to his 2017 rates (30.4% K, 3.4% BB), but we’ll take half that if it means he’s getting some middle relief work.
Tommy Hunter / RHP / 31 / Active
His 28.1% strikeout rate may look like an anomaly, as he has typically kept it around 17-18%. But he made a real change in 2017, turning up the cutter while turning down the fastball. If he’s this crafty in 2018, he could probably effectively keep that K rate in the low 20s. That’s damn good enough for a late-innings guy.
Luis Garcia / 31 / RHP / Active
Garcia’s 8.8% walk rate was slightly high, but his fastball velocity averaged at 97 last year. That’s good news, priming him to be the kingpin setup man or, at least, one of four solid middle-to-late relief options behind Neris.
Edubray Ramos / 25 / RHP / Active
He walks slightly too much (10.9% in 2017) but he also strikes out enough (29.3%), making him a good late innings option who could have us biting nails a bit. It’s necessary to acknowledge that the strikeouts and walks were higher than usual, so he’s either going to normalize or be a boom-or-bust type going forward. The Phils should proceed, but with a little caution.
Adam Morgan / LHP / 28 / Active
Morgan had that great second half, but hey, his overall rates were terrific (27.5% K, 7.9% BB). He still gives up far too many home runs despite the better ground ball profile, but you got to be excited about the fastball hitting the mid-90s while the changeup sits low-80s. Watch for a big year in 2018.
Hoby Milner / LHP / 27 / Active
The peripherals aren’t great news (including against lefties – 16% K, 8% BB), and that 91% left-on-base rate feels like great luck. Milner will get every shot to be the top lefty out of the pen, and heck, he could make the roster out of spring. But the Phils should take great caution.
Mark Leiter Jr. / RHP / 27 / Active
For the number of innings he threw in 2017, Leiter put up great rates (21.3% K, 7.9% BB). He actually profiles as a better starter than some of the guys in the running for the rotation, but he doesn’t have any out pitches. He could be a decent No. 5, but he’s more likely a really good mop-up dude.
Victor Arano / RHP / 23 / Active
Great strikeout ability with a fastball-slider combination. He should be helping to shut down games late in 2018. Early in the year he may have to start in Lehigh Valley.
Ricardo Pinto / RHP / 24 / Active
Pinto probably doesn’t have enough to hack it as a reliable middle reliever. Fastball and changeup guy amounts to mediocre walk rate and not enough stuff to get guys out.
Yacksel Rios / RHP / 24 / Active
Rios is a big fly-ball pitcher, and his mid-90s fastball might not be enough to get him past that issue as a Phillie.
Drew Anderson / RHP / 24 / Active
Another big fly-ball thrower. He could be a starter, but it’s hard to believe he’d be anything more than a mop-up guy.
Zac Curtis / LHP / 25 / Active
Strikeouts haven’t translated to the majors yet. He’s here to push Milner and Morgan, but I’d imagine Curtis is an early exit from camp.
Seranthony Dominguez / RHP / 23 / Active
Dominguez is a stud fastball-slider guy who’s going to the bullpen for 2018. He could be a late-innings fireballer, but he won’t be in the majors until next year, at the earliest
Pedro Beato / RHP / 31 / Non-roster
Had a great year with Lehigh Valley, but he’s really a quad-A arm who will challenge the kids this spring.
J.D. Hammer / RHP / 23 / Non-roster
Hammer had ridiculous strikeout numbers before coming to the Phils organization, and he only put up better numbers in his month and change with the Phils in 2017. He’ll start in Reading but could find himself in Lehigh Valley by mid-season and Philly by September.
Francisco Rodriguez / RHP / 36 / Non-roster
The Phils want to see if K-Rod has anything left in the tank. The fastball is below 90 now, but he mixes in at least three other pitches, including his changeup. Hard to imagine he’ll dink and dunk his way to a roster spot, but stranger things have happened.
Outlook: Neris, Neshek, Hunter, Garcia and Ramos are locks. Morgan is pretty close to a lock. After that it’s a bit of a race for the final one to two, with front-runners being Milner and Leiter. But don’t be surprised if Arano is the preferred choice out of spring. The others have more of an outside shot.
But here’s what the Phils have done – they now have, with Neris, Neshek, Hunter, Garcia and Ramos – a group of guys that can start pitching in the seventh every night. If you’re stretching one of those guys out frequently, and sprinkling in one of Milner, Leiter or Arano, you now can go five with a starter and four with your pretty darn good bullpen.
The point is this: The Phillies don’t have a good rotation for 2018. Duh. But Nola should be good for seven-inning outings. Velasquez and Eickhoff can get through the lineup twice and turn the ball over after five. Pivetta is a wild card, but he should at least be good for five himself. Put that stacked bullpen behind those guys, and it’s possible the Phils win a few more games simply because they’re prioritizing the bullpen over the rotation. Going with an eight-man pen would help, too, as it limits the amount of work everyone has to endure.
So say the starters typically give up three runs in five innings (giving them all ERAs around 5.40, which is terrible but doable here), and the bullpen gives up 1.5 runs every four innings. That’s 4.5 runs against per game, which in 2017 would’ve put the Phils 12th in baseball (they were actually 17th with 4.83 runs against). That’s a slightly improved pitching staff. And considering the front office made very little change here, that’s actually pretty good.
Maybe the Phillies have a plan for this group in 2018, or at least one that’s beyond “let’s just see these guys one more time.”