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Analysis

While its potential is high, the Phillies’ 2022 starting rotation has plenty of question marks


Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin will be key parts of the Phillies’ rotation in 2022. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

For a roster as littered with holes as that of the Philadelphia Phillies, it would be nice for the club if their biggest strength didn’t come with its own litany of question marks associated. 

Alas, it does.

The starting rotation is heralded as the Phillies’ most put-together position group as things currently stand, and it’s a well-deserved designation. It appears that the staff heading into the 2022 season (whenever that might be) is set, with Zack Wheeler frontlining a rotation that also includes Aaron Nola, Ranger Suárez, Zach Eflin and Kyle Gibson.

The optimistic outlook is a promising one. If Wheeler replicates his dominant 2021 season that saw him finish second in National League Cy Young Award voting; Nola can bounce back and regain even a portion of the success he found in 2018 or 2020; Suárez limits the natural regression he’s expected to experience after posting a 1.36 ERA last year; Eflin returns from knee surgery quickly and Gibson resembles the pitcher he was in 2021 before heading from Texas to Philadelphia, the rotation can excel.

It’s not even a completely unrealistic scenario; it’s very possible that all or most of those outcomes occur. 

Still, it’s not a guarantee that any do, because each of the Phillies’ presumed 2022 starters carries — to varying degrees — his own red flags. 

Wheeler just led Major League Baseball with 213 ⅓ innings pitched — 142 ⅓ more than he threw the previous season. There’s no telling what impact that might have on his health or effectiveness moving forward. 

Nola is an enigma. Peripherals such as a 3.37 Fielding Independent Pitching indicate that his 4.63 ERA in 2021 was somewhat fluky, but the Phillies will need dramatic improvement for him to serve as a legitimate No. 2 starter in a playoff-caliber rotation. The extent of the leap Nola might take in 2022 — if such a leap even exists — is hard to predict.

Ranger Suarez figures to be the No. 3 starter for the Phillies to oppen the season. (Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire)

Suárez is much the opposite of Nola. His 2.72 FIP suggests he might have benefitted from some good fortune last season, and it’s nearly impossible to expect him to replicate 2021’s effectiveness. In fairness, Suárez could take a noticeable step backward in 2022 and still be more than a viable No. 3 or 4 starter for the Phillies — that’s how good he was last season. However, as is the case with almost every pitcher in the sport, Suárez’s workload is cause for concern. He threw 106 innings last year to just four in 2020. 

Eflin’s injury concerns are well-documented, and he might not be ready to return to the rotation until May. Even once healthy, it’s far from a sure bet that the righty will enjoy the breakout year Phillies fans have anticipated each of the last couple seasons. 

And, finally, after joining the Phillies at the trade deadline, Gibson was a shell of the pitcher he was with the Rangers in the first half of the season (or, quite possibly, he just ran out of good luck). His 5.09 ERA with the Phillies — which a 7.31 mark in the season’s final month sent trending in the wrong direction — won’t cut it, even for the No. 5 role he figures to occupy.

The other issue in the Phillies’ rotation picture is depth — or, rather, the lack thereof. When one of those five is inevitably sidelined (as Eflin likely will be to start the season, barring a significant opening day delay), the options are limited. Bailey Falter, Cristopher Sánchez and Hans Crouse filled in at various points in 2021, but each might be better suited for bullpen roles or Triple-A. Adonis Medina and Francisco Morales could fit the bill, but the Phillies might prefer more Major League experience out of any prolonged spot-starter.

That means the Phillies’ best options for rotation depth might come from outside the organization. Of course, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski only has so much money to work with, assuming the luxury tax threshold doesn’t significantly increase in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement and ownership opts not to exceed it. But while the front office won’t focus primarily on the starting rotation once the lockout ends — nor should it — it would behoove the team to at least consider investing some funds in that area.

The options, admittedly, aren’t particularly thrilling. The Phillies won’t realistically be signing Zack Greinke or Clayton Kershaw, and beyond those two, the free agent market is relatively uninspiring. Here’s a list of some possibilities, from Spotrac:

Again, not much grabs the eye. Perhaps the Phillies would rather stick with the aforementioned arms already in the organization, hope the need for spot-starts is limited and bank on more of their starters approaching their ceiling as opposed to their floor. 

It’s hard to deny, though, that the Phillies’ starting rotation — despite its appropriate labeling as the team’s biggest strength heading into 2022 — brings plenty of variability. In the best-case scenario, the group could be a top-5 unit. In the worst case, it could fall into the bottom 10. That could be said about any starting rotation ahead of any season, sure — but it feels especially true for these Phillies. 

It’s an old baseball adage that you can never have too much pitching — particularly, starting pitching. The Phillies certainly don’t, and come the middle of the season, that reality might prove not just increasingly true, but also costly. 

The Phillies would be wise to avoid that outcome. Because if the team’s most promising asset instead becomes a weakness, it will find itself in a world of trouble.

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