Klentak: If change in rotation makes sense, we’ll explore it

Zach Eflin had a disappointing second-half of the 2018 season. (Ian D’Andrea)

The 2018 Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation, just as the rest of the team, had their highs and lows. Those lows leave numerous questions as the Phillies head into the offseason, with general manager Matt Klentak attempting to answer some of those questions on Monday. At the top of the list was whether the Phillies plan to make any additions to the rotation for 2019:

“[It’s] way too early to say that. The five starting pitchers that were in our rotation for most of the year delivered really quality work overall. I know there were some ups and downs for some of them, but from a general matter they were really good. It’s very possible that we could do that [enter 2019 with the same five starters]. But, I’m not going to sit here today before free-agency opens and before the trade markets open and say that we wouldn’t consider a change. We have a valuable commodity in this organization not only at the major league level but throughout the system in that we have a lot of starting pitching. Sometimes that can be used as a currency in this game to address other areas. I don’t know how those trade conversations are going to go. I don’t know which free-agents may be available to us at an attractive price. We’re gonna play all that out, and if it makes sense for us to make a change in the rotation, we will explore that.”

The five starting pitchers Klentak is referring to are Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin. Nola pitched like a Cy Young Award and MVP candidate in 2018, finishing the year with 17 wins, a 2.37 ERA and a 10.5 bWAR. The rest of the rotation delivered mixed results, with Arrieta posting a 3.96 ERA and the trio of Velasquez, Pivetta and Eflin all having ERAs above four.

There are many positive takeaways from the rotation. Nola’s emergence as an ace has already been well documented. All the starters managed to avoid any major injuries, with the five primary starting pitchers posting a combined total of 823.2 innings. That’s especially important when considering Velasquez’s injury history. Eflin had a fantastic June, when he went 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA, and finished the season with 11 wins. Arrieta still managed a 3.0 bWAR, even in a down year. Pivetta finished eighth in the National League with 188 strikeouts.

Klentak: Gabe Kapler learned this year that perception matters

The major concern is how the rotation finished out the year. From the All-Star break to the end of September, four out of the five starters in the rotation had ERAs over five. A reason for this could be usage. Velasquez is 26, Pivetta is 25 and Eflin is 24. All three pitched the most innings in their respective careers this past season. That excuse doesn’t fly for Arrieta, who the Phillies were counting on to deliver them quality starts down the stretch when they signed him to a $75 million deal. Of course, no team should have to make excuses for poor pitching performances. Regardless of whether or not the decline in the second half was due to fatigue, the performance of the back-end of the rotation at the end of the season is an issue the Phillies have to closely examine, and determine whether or not it will play into their offseason plans.

When looking at the “valuable commodities in the system” that Klentak mentions, two pitchers fit the bill: Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina. Sanchez – who was ranked 25th in the top 100 prospects rankings by Baseball America and 13th by Baseball Prospectus going into 2018 – missed a large amount of the season due to injury. However, when healthy, Sanchez projects as an ace in a rotation. In the eight games pitched for Single-A Clearwater this season, Sanchez had a 4-3 record and a 2.51 ERA. He also averaged eight strikeouts every nine innings. Medina – who was ranked 84th by Baseball America and 46th by Baseball Prospectus – pitched to a 4.12 ERA in Clearwater, with a 10-4 record. Medina was rumored to be the headliner in a possible package for Manny Machado over the summer. Of course, the deal never came to fruition and Medina is still with the Phillies. Neither seem likely to reach the majors in 2019. Other prospects include JoJo Romero, who had a 3.80 ERA in 106.2 innings with Reading and sits at number five in’s Phillies top 30 prospects list.

If the Phillies were to make an upgrade, there are options abound externally. Looking at upcoming free agents, Clayton Kershaw (if he opts out), Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin represent top-of-the-rotation pitching. Less costly options include former Phillie J.A. Happ, who pitched to a 3.65 ERA this year with the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees. Philadelphia showed interest in acquiring Happ over the summer. Happ will be 36 in 2019 and could provide a strong veteran presence to a young rotation. Middle-to-back-end rotation options could possibly include Nathan Eovaldi (6-7, 3.81 ERA), Trevor Cahill (7-4, 3.76 ERA) and Tyson Ross (8-9, 4.15 ERA). Philadelphia has also shown interest in bidding on Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, per Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports. The 27-year-old Kikuchi has a career ERA of 2.81 in Japan to go along with 73 wins and a 1.176 WHIP. Looking at the trade market, Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers could be an interesting name, who was a frequent flyer in trade rumors this past summer. While the 25-year-old had a rough season with a 4.69 ERA, he pitched to a combined 3.45 ERA in his first two seasons.

Internally, there are a number of players the Phillies could look to. Jerad Eickhoff, who only appeared in three games in 2018, could be an option in 2019 if healthy. Eickhoff pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 197.1 innings in 2016. Enyel De Los Santos, acquired in the Freddy Galvis trade, pitched to a 2.63 ERA at Triple-A Lehigh Valley with a 10-5 record. De Los Santos appeared in seven games with the Phillies this season, starting two. Ranger Suarez could also make a push for a rotation spot. Suarez pitched to a combined 2.72 ERA in Reading and Lehigh Valley this year and made four appearances in the majors this season.

If the Phillies hope to break their playoff drought, their starting pitching needs to be better and more prepared for heavier workloads. They now know what the have in Nola, which is a franchise star. Arrieta is contractually guaranteed to be in the rotation in 2019. The other three spots could be filled by Pivetta, Eflin and Velasquez, though those three spots could very well see some shake-up after a disappointing second-half to the 2018 season.

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