Nick Pivetta struck out 14 Buffalo Bison in his second start for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs Sunday afternoon. That wasn’t lost on some of the decision-makers at the major league level.
But the discussion around Citizens Bank Park early this week didn’t center around the idea of recalling Pivetta to join the starting rotation. Instead, Phillies brass apparently is at least open to the idea of recalling the 26-year-old right-hander as a reliever.
“We talked a lot about that yesterday,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told the collective media, which included Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, ahead of Tuesday’s tilt with the Detroit Tigers. “It’s something we’ll consider.”
Pivetta, who the Phillies acquired from the Washington Nationals in the July 2015 Jonathan Papelbon trade, had high expectations entering the 2019 season. In starts against the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals in 2018, the Canadian-born righty flashed front-of-the-rotation potential. While a 4.77 ERA didn’t reflect that, Pivetta’s spin rate and FIP suggested he had a chance to take a major step forward in 2019. He also touched 99 MPH on the radar gun in Spring Training, causing some to wonder if he had a Charlie Morton-type breakout in store.
Instead, Pivetta posted an 8.35 ERA and 6.38 FIP in his first four starts in 2019, leading to his demotion to Triple-A. He has a 3.75 ERA in two starts for the IronPigs, so the Phillies may ultimately elect to recall him at some point to rejoin the starting rotation. But Jerad Eickhoff, who replaced him in the starting rotation, has a 1.64 FIP in 17 innings in 2019. Even after a disappointing start Tuesday night, Vince Velasquez has a 2.75 ERA in 26.1 innings in 2019. General manager Matt Klentak is also expected to make a major addition to the starting rotation before the July 31 trade deadline as well.
If the Phillies feel like Pivetta is able to make an adjustment at Triple-A that will allow him to break-out as a starter when he returns to the major league level, then so be it. But if they come to the conclusion that in 2019, he’ll be a back-end-of-the-rotation arm, well, they don’t really need another pitcher with that profile.
Pivetta’s Spring Training showed what he could potentially be when he’s able to just let things go for a few innings until he runs out of gas. You don’t want to read too much into one game, but Kapler did give into Pivetta’s request to come into an extra-inning game out of the bullpen last July against the Washington Nationals. Pivetta pitched a scoreless top of the 13th inning, which set up an Andrew Knapp walk-off home run in the home-half of the inning.
“I guess my personal take on it, just being open with you, is I don’t think there’s a whole lot of risk to seeing him out of the bullpen,” Kapler said Tuesday. I don’t think it stunts his development as a starting pitcher to see him out of the bullpen. But I think there are a lot of stakeholders who need to be involved in this discussion.
Kapler’s bullpen, which many thought would be a strength heading into the season, hasn’t been particularity reliable thus far. David Robertson, who the Phillies signed to a two-year/$23 million deal in January, got off to a slow start and is currently on the injured list with a sore right elbow. 24-year-old righty Victor Arano is also on the injured list, as he looks to rebound from right elbow inflammation. Tommy Hunter is yet to pitch in 2019, as a right flexor strain has held him back. Seranthony Dominguez, after looking dominant at times during his rookie season of 2018, has a 4.76 ERA in his first 13 games in 2019. And though Hector Neris has a respectable 2.70 ERA in his first 13 games of the season, his outings have continued to be an adventure.
Though it’s unclear exactly what Pivetta would be out of the bullpen, the Phillies, as Kapler said, seemingly don’t have much to lose in trying him in a different role. If Pivetta spent a bulk of 2019 as a relief pitcher, only to return to starting in 2020, he could be looking at a major jump in innings, which is often correlated with arm injuries. But it’s also possible that he could spend a bulk of 2019 as a reliever, master that role and stay in the bullpen moving forward. Come to think of it, there are some similarities between Pivetta and Boston Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who the Phillies reportedly tried to convince to close for them this past offseason before he re-signed in Boston as a starting pitcher.
The Phillies, almost certainly, would start Pivetta in lower-leverage relief situations before pitching him in the eighth and ninth innings. How he fared in those situations, of course, would determine how they proceed with him. That’s assuming the organization does elect to use him out of the bullpen at some point.
Pivetta is scheduled to start Friday, once again against the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
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