The Philadelphia Phillies will be closing out the Grapefruit League schedule on Monday at Spectrum Field when they host the Tampa Bay Rays.
As the club’s decision-makers have whittled away at the final Opening Day roster decisions over the last week or so, both the starting lineup and starting pitching rotation have solidified.
The regular starting lineup will see Rhys Hoskins, Cesar Hernandez, Jean Segura and Maikel Franco around the infield. Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera and Bryce Harper will start in the outfield. Behind the dish, J.T. Realmuto will see most of the action.
On the mound it will be Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin in the starting rotation. Those are the same five starting pitchers who made 150 of the 162 starts for the team a year ago.
The club should feel confident in the first three of those arms. Nola was a 2018 NL Cy Young Award finalist and is one of the top young pitchers in the game today. Arrieta is a grizzled veteran with a Cy Young already in his trophy case. Pivetta is a strikeout pitcher who is widely considered as one of Major League Baseball’s leading breakout candidates.
The spotlight will be on the two pitchers at the back of that rotation. How Velasquez and Eflin pitch could go a long way towards determining whether this vastly improved Phillies squad can actually contend for the National League East Division crown or an NL Wildcard postseason position.
Eflin had a solid spring. He led the club with 20.1 innings pitched down in Florida, delivering a 1.08 WHIP and .224 batting average against over five starts. Eflin surrendered just 17 hits and produced an 18/5 K:BB ratio.
Velasquez’ performance was less inspiring. He allowed nine earned runs and 11 hits over 6.1 innings across just three starts. Hitters produced a .379 batting average against him despite the fact that Velasquez remained overpowering at times, evidenced by his 15 strikeouts.
There has always been a vocal minority of Phillies followers who have believed that Velasquez would best thrive in a bullpen role. His strikeout stuff could eventually even thrive in the closer role. However, the Phillies are just not ready to give up on his potential as a starting pitcher – yet.
What we did learn during spring training was that, should Velasquez continue to struggle or injuries strike the others, the Phillies have what appear to be reasonable options.
Jerad Eickhoff was re-assigned to the minor leagues. He will open in the rotation for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Eickhoff proved this spring that he was fully recovered from a battle with carpal tunnel syndrome. He held batters to a .206 BAA over nine innings and now needs to stretch himself out, building up innings after tossing just 5.1 last year.
Also at Lehigh Valley will be 25-year-old Drew Anderson, who was perhaps the breakthrough performer here in Clearwater. Anderson allowed just six hits over 12.2 innings with a 12/2 K:BB ratio while holding opposing hitters to a .143 BAA and registering a 0.71 ERA and 0.63 WHIP.
Anderson made 19 solid starts at Triple-A a year ago, and also contributed five appearances with the Phillies, including his lone big-league start July 8 at Pittsburgh.
Others who could get the call for a spot/emergency start at some point depending on when it might be needed and their own availability are right-hander Enyel De Los Santos and left-hander Ranger Suarez, each of whom made their Phillies and Major League Baseball debut a year ago under similar circumstances.
With expectations elevated this year, expect that the Phillies will have little patience with Velasquez. He probably has at least the month of April in the rotation. But if he doesn’t produce, it won’t be long before either Eickhoff or Anderson is replacing him. Both showed over the past month that they are ready for that shot.
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