To get where they want to go, the Phillies know they must close the gap in the starting pitching department, an area where the Washington Nationals and New York Mets have had a significant advantage in recent seasons.
Yes, the Phillies also have other problems that must be fixed – the offense cannot get any worse, for instance – but pitching remains priority No. 1 in every spring-training camp that will open in Florida and Arizona this week. The Phillies are no different and the good news for them is that their starting pitching is the primary reason for optimism as they begin another season that appears to offer little hope of reaching the postseason.
The Phillies have a half-dozen starting pitchers under age 26 who have dipped their feet in the big-league pool with varying degrees of success. None of them will be mistaken for the Nationals’ Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg and you won’t find a power arm that can compare to the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard or Matt Harvey either.
What you will find is a group that is mostly mature beyond its years and experience. Many of them have already faced some level of adversity and come out the other side.
“One of the things that stood out in the short time we’ve seen them is their emotional maturity on the mound,” Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen said recently. “They don’t seem to get rattled. They have an idea. Win or they lose, the majority of them move on and have the mind-set of getting better for the next game.”
The group of six is led by Jerad Eickhoff, the oldest of the bunch at 26 and also the most accomplished after a terrific first full season in the big leagues. The other five are Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Alec Asher.
Eickhoff, acquired in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade with Texas, went 11-14 with a 3.65 ERA in 33 starts last season after going 3-3 with a 2.65 ERA in eight starts the previous season. When it comes to composure, Andersen said Eickhoff is “absolutely the best of them all.”
“He’s a bulldog on the mound,” Andersen said. “He doesn’t want to give in. He knows what he has to do and he’s so prepared. He wants to be the guy who goes nine innings. Eickhoff is one of those rare guys who is not happy with six innings and two runs. He’s not happy with a quality start.”
Eickhoff has a chance to be the opening-day starter in Cincinnati even though the rotation is also likely to include veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. The Phillies’ starting pitchers, by the way, issued fewer walks than any team in baseball a year ago and ranked fifth in the National League in opponents’ on-base percentage. The four teams in front of them – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles – all made the playoffs.
Only three of the six young starters figure to make the team out of spring training, but given the fragile nature of rotations they are all likely to get a crack at the big leagues before the year is over.
The leading candidates to fill the other two spots in the rotation are Nola and Velasquez, both of whom have had their share of encouraging big-league moments during their brief careers.
Nola, the seventh overall pick in 2014, was 11-6 with a 3.12 ERA after his first 25 starts before falling off a cliff in his final eight starts last season. He was shut down after a July 28 start in Atlanta and diagnosed with “low-grade” sprains and strains of ligaments and tendons in his elbow. He never had surgery and spring training will be a huge test to see how he feels.
“I don’t know how severe it is,” Andersen said. “I don’t know if this was bothering Nola for a long time or maybe it just sprung up. Either way, it sends that alert whistle. I would think there is concern there.”
Velasquez, 24, is the power arm among the half dozen as evidenced by his 152 strikeouts in 131 innings. He dominated early last season, going 5-1 with a 2.42 ERA in his first eight starts, but struggled for a variety of reasons after that. He posted a 5.12 ERA in his final 16 starts. Biceps soreness sapped the velocity on his fastball and sent him to the disabled list in June and his inability to command his pitches led to high pitch counts and early exits. He failed to get through six innings in nine of his last 16 starts.
“He’s the one guy who does wear his emotions on his sleeve,” Andersen said. “He got to a point where he didn’t know if he was a pitcher or a thrower.”
Eflin, Thompson and Asher will go into camp as long shots to open the season in the rotation.
A 22-year-old righthander acquired in the trade that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers, Eflin imploded in his big-league debut at Toronto last season, but impressed Andersen with how he immediately bounced back. He went 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA in his next seven starts.
Three awful outings later his season was over in mid-August because of an assortment of leg problems. Initially a stress fracture was diagnosed in his right foot, then doctors discovered he had two bad knees, both of which required surgery. Given those developments, he will be fascinating to watch in spring training. Andersen said Eflin has told Phillies employees he never knew he was supposed to feel as good as he does right now.
Thompson, 23, and Asher, 25, were also acquired in the Hamels trade and both have become intriguing prospects because of their ability to throw strikes.
Thompson was the ace at triple-A Lehigh Valley last season, posting an 11-5 record, a 2.50 ERA and a 1.095 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).
He did not have that same command in 10 big-league starts.
Asher, on the other hand, carried his brilliant command of the strike zone into five big-league starts after also serving an 80-game suspension in the minors last season for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. In 17 games at all levels last season he walked just 14 batters in 92-plus innings, while also sharpening his sinker.
“Is there an ace among them? Yeah,” Andersen said. “To me, they’re not the guys that would first come to your mind as Cy Young winners, but by no means am I saying that none of them could win a Cy Young. Velasquez has electric stuff and Eflin is not far behind. Nola, when he’s healthy and he’s comfortable, can paint and dominate.”
At the very least, the Phillies have six solid rotation candidates under the age of 26 and that’s a great place to start a quest to get back to the top of your division.
Published at Sat, 11 Feb 2017 22:40:52 +0000