Phillies 2017: Rotation Depth a Strength, But There's No Ace
The Philadelphia Phillies have officially begun the six-week spring training process down in Clearwater, Florida.
One of the likely areas of strength for this year’s version of the Fightin’ Phils would appear to be the starting pitching rotation.
A pair of veteran arms on short-term deals, a bulldog surprise, and a handful of talented youngsters give the club enviable depth on the mound.
The numbers and talent potential are the most impressive to don red pinstripes in a number of years. However, the fact remains that the club still does not have a true ‘ace’ caliber starting pitcher.
There are some fans who say that a pitcher who takes the top spot in a given rotation is the ace of a staff. I believe that they are defining the term improperly.
When Phillies fans want to think of a true ace, they don’t have to search very far back in their memory banks. Some of us can slip easily back to memories of Steve Carlton winning four Cy Young Awards. But the Phillies have had a number of true ace-caliber starting pitchers of very recent vintage.
As all but the very youngest fans will remember, the 2011 Phillies team set a franchise record by registering 102 regular season victories. Those wins were largely made possible by the club running four aces out of their rotation. We all remember “The Four Aces”: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.
None of the current Phillies rotation contenders has that kind of consistently excellent talent. Which is not to say that they aren’t good arms. Again, the rotation is likely to be a strength of this team.
Hellickson is being paid $17.2 million this season after the Phillies offered him a qualifying offer last fall, and the rightly, yet somewhat unexpectedly, accepted.
Buchholz was obtained in a trade from the Boston Red Sox just before Christmas. He is owed $13.5 million for the final season of a seven-year deal.
The “bulldog” surprise is right-hander Jerad Eickhoff. The 26-year old who came over from Texas in the Hamels deal during the summer of 2015 has been a consistent competitor ever since being called up from the minors.
For now, Hellickson is likely to pitch at the front of the rotation. He is also the leader at this point for the prestigious Opening Day assignment. But talent-wise, he is more of a #3-type starting pitcher.
“He’s in a great frame of mind,” Mackanin said per Philly.com’s Matt Gelb. “He’s so happy to be back here. I’m sure he would have liked to have a five-year, $100 million deal from somebody, but he’s real happy to be here. So we’re happy to have him.“
THREE MORE ARMS APPEAR TO HAVE ROTATION SPOTS
Those three are not the only pitchers with a spot earned entering spring training. 24-year old righty Vince Velasquez also has a rotation spot. Velasquez led the rotation holdovers and was second only to reliever Hector Neris in K/9 a year ago.
The fifth spot in the starting rotation would normally already be settled, belonging to 23-year old Aaron Nola. However, Nola remains a major question mark as he tries to return from elbow trouble that ended his 2016 season two months early.
Likely to get the first shot at a rotation berth should Nola fail to return healthy or trouble arise with one of the others is 23-year old Jake Thompson, another gem from the Hamels deal.
The Phillies 2017 starting rotation contributions should come from these six arms. Pete Mackanin hopes to rely upon these pitchers for the majority of his rotation innings. If he can, the team could again improve the overall victory total.
Of course, that is not likely to happen. For one, both Hellickson and Buchholz are squarely on the trade block right from the start.
There are a number of solid young arms here now and others near-ready. The two north-of-30 veterans have their days in a Phillies uniform numbered. Those days should run out some time after the MLB All-Star break in mid-July.
Also, as we all know where big league pitching is concerned, stuff happens. Unexpected injuries of both a short and long-term variety. Severe ineffectiveness due to a loss of velocity or control.
OTHER ARMS FIGHTING AND WAITING FOR A CHANCE
Fortunately for the Phillies there are more arms fighting for those likely opportunities. During spring training, these will be some of the most interesting arms to watch.
Righties Zach Eflin (almost 23 years old) and Alec Asher (25) and lefty Adam Morgan (27 next week) lead this group. All have big league experience. Each has struggled, but also experienced some success.
Another on the cusp of an opportunity is Ben Lively, who turns 25 in two weeks. The 2016 Paul Owens Award winner as the organization’s outstanding pitcher, Lively should not be overlooked.
Short of major injuries, Lively is likely to open at AAA Lehigh Valley. Two more arms destined for the IronPigs and battling to stand out this spring will be 24-year old Nick Pivetta and 25-year old Mark Appel.
NEVER ENOUGH PITCHING OPTIONS
I’ve seen pieces written as the club begins their formal workouts that the Phillies may have too many starting pitchers. I find those types of articles extremely naive.
Inevitably, when we look back at the end of a season, we laugh at thoughts that a team had too much starting pitching. For me, there is no such thing.
We all believe that the Phillies will get to the point of contending in the next couple of years. When it happens, they are going to have to either have developed or spend money on at least one of those true aces to lead the rotation.
For now, the Phillies are in a good place where starting pitching is concerned. There are veterans around to eat up innings for a short period. The club has exciting arms full of potential developing at both the big league and minor league levels.
Watching how the rotation plays out is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the 2017 Philadelphia Phillies season.