The Philadelphia Phillies showed how strongly they believe in new pitching coach Chris Young this offseason, when they parted ways with former pitching coach Rick Kranitz to assure that Young wouldn’t leave the organization.
Young was promoted from assistant pitching coach to pitching coach, with Kranitz ultimately being named pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves, a sign that the Phillies decision to move on from Kranitz spoke more about their belief in Young than a dissatisfaction in the job Kranitz had done.
As it turns out, Young thinks just as highly of the Phillies current crop of starting pitchers, one that hasn’t seen any additions this offseason.
“I just feel so strongly about the group we have,” Young told Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer on the team’s starting pitchers. “I understand why people ask that question [about whether more external additions are needed], but I love our guys.”
Aaron Nola posted a 2.37 ERA and 5.6 fWAR in 2018, allowing him to finish third in National League Cy Young Award voting. However, the trio of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez proved unready to come of age in the second-half of the 2018 season, as the Phillies playoff hopes dwindled. Jake Arrieta’s $30 million salary accounted for 31.5 percent of the Phillies payroll in 2018 – the largest amount in the league, per MLB Network – but his ERA was 5.04 after the All-Star Break.
Nola will get the ball for the Phillies on Opening Day against the Atlanta Braves. Arrieta, simply by virtue of his $25 million salary, will be in the Phillies rotation, likely starting on the second day of the season. The Phillies remain extremely high on Pivetta, who will turn 26 next month. Pivetta’s highs were very high – he recorded 31 strikeouts across two starts against the Baltimore Orioles and one against the St. Louis Cardinals – and the Phillies expect him to take a significant step forward in 2019.
After that, there’s a bit of a grey area.
Zach Eflin, coming off arthroscopic surgery on both knees, was superb in the first-half, posting a 3.15 ERA in 12 first-half starts. However, he saw his ERA spike to 5.79 after the All-Star Break, with his SO/BB dropping from 4.79 to 2.43.
In his third season with the Phillies, Vince Velasquez posted a 3.75 FIP across a career-high 146.2 innings. If you’re still evaluating him as someone that once seemed to have a chance to be a front-line starter, you may be disappointed. But he was a serviceable back-end-of-the-rotation starter for much of 2018. However, he went 0-3 in September with a 10.70 ERA, a disastrous month by any standards.
An 8-20 month of September sunk the Phillies chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2011. It prevented them from posting their first winning record since 2011 or first .500 record since 2012. The youth in the Phillies starting rotation played a fairly significant part in that, but Young says it will make the trio of young starters slated to fill out the final three rotation spots better moving forward.
“You’re pitching into September, for a lot of them it was the first time, it’s taxing. It’s a hard thing to do,” Young said. “I think that played a factor into the performance. They know now what that’s like. They’ve learned how to train themselves for it. I think you’ll see guys make adjustments with the way they go about their in-season throwing. Guys will be wanting to make adjustments so that they’re strong and ready to go.”
Depending on how the seemingly never-ending Bryce Harper/Manny Machado sweepstakes play out, the Phillies could still make a major addition to the starting rotation in the form of Dallas Keuchel. The 31-year-old lefty is still an effective pitcher – he posted a 3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 3.6 fWAR across 204.2 innings in 2018 – but it would seemingly take his price falling to a range like Arrieta’s did last offseason for the Phillies to make a serious push for his services. Like Arrieta, Keuchel won a Cy Young Award in 2015. Also like Arrieta, Keuchel has seen his strikeouts per nine drop fairly significantly since winning the most prestigious pitching award. It makes you wonder if the Phillies will be leery of Keuchel even on a shorter-term deal. Former Phillies farmhand Gio Gonzalez could make more sense.
In the end, much of the Phillies success in 2019 will be dependent on whether at least two out of three of Pivetta, Eflin and Velasquez can take a major step forward. One X-factor could be the health of Jerad Eickhoff, who made just one start at the major league level in 2018. The 28-year-old has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, but was very reliable in 2016, posting a 3.65 ERA and 4.19 FIP across 197.1 innings.
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