Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Day 5: The rotation

Starting pitching is probably the most tangible area of progress in the Phillies’ rebuild.
Don’t misunderstand. When it comes to a starting rotation, these Phillies aren’t the Mets or Nationals. And they’re certainly not the 2011 Phillies.
But through a series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by predecessor Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects, the Phillies have built some solid starting pitching depth in recent years.
The depth will be on display next Tuesday when mitts start popping and pitchers and catchers hold their first official workout in Clearwater.
The Phillies have 15 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster and 10 of them have come to the organization in trades since the rebuild started after the 2014 season. Eight of 15 starters on the 40-man roster made at least five starts with the big club last year. Some of these pitchers could eventually end up making a conversion to the bullpen, maybe as soon as this season. In fact, manager Pete Mackanin has already hinted that lefty Adam Morgan, who made 21 starts last season, could get a look as a reliever this spring. But as camp begins, all 15 are starters and the club will adjust from there.
On paper, the Phillies’ season-opening five-man rotation looks to be set. Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are all penciled into spots and all Aaron Nola needs to do to fill out the rotation is prove his health.
But over and over in this game, history has taught us that a team can never have enough starting pitching. The 1997 Phillies remain an example of that. During the final week of camp, the team sent Calvin Maduro to Triple A. A few days later, the club put five pitchers on the disabled list and Maduro was brought back from minor-league camp not just to pitch in the rotation but to hold down the No. 2 starter's job behind opening day starter Curt Schilling.
So guys like Morgan, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson will all be major factors in camp, though Thompson might be a little behind the others in early workouts because of what is said to be some mild soreness in his right wrist. Eflin is coming back from a pair of surgeries to repair tendinitis in both knees. The right-hander turns 23 in April and could be set to break out now that he’ll be pitching on healthy knees for the first time in his career.
The quartet of Morgan, Eflin, Asher and Thompson made 47 starts in the big leagues last season and will almost surely get time in the Philadelphia again this season. 
“With Hellickson, Buchholz, Eickhoff, Nola and Velasquez, the rotation is pretty solid when you think about it,” Mackanin said. “And with the inventory we have behind those guys, it’s not like you’ll be bringing up guys and crossing your fingers. They have some experience. And all this creates good competition.”
Other young starters who will get a look in big-league camp include Ben Lively, an 18-game winner in the minors last season, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Mark Appel, Drew Anderson and Elniery Garcia. All project to open at Double A or Triple A.
The projected big-league rotation is a blend of experience and youth. Hellickson, who turns 30 in April, returns to the club after recording a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts last season. Buchholz, 32, was acquired from Boston in a salary dump. He pitched his way in and out of the Red Sox rotation last season and is looking for a rebound season to carry him into free agency. The Phillies hope both veterans pitch well and become July trade chips, bringing back young talent and opening spots for younger pitchers to rise from Triple A.
Eickhoff, 26, could be poised for a breakout season in 2017. He emerged as a mid-rotation rock last season, delivering 20 quality starts and becoming just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling.

Velasquez needs to improve his economy of pitches to stay in games longer, but there’s no doubting the power stuff that helped him strike out 10.4 batters per nine innings last season.

Mackanin’s decision on an opening day starter will be an interesting spring storyline. He could give the nod to Hellickson for a second year in a row or go with Eickhoff, who led the staff in starts (33), innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season.

If Hellickson and Buchholz pitch well in their walk years, if Nola is healthy and Eickhoff and Velasquez continue to improve, the Phillies stand a good chance to stay in games for six innings most nights. This isn’t the Mets’ or Nationals’ rotation and it surely isn’t the 2011 Phillies, but, with a sprinkle of veterans, some developing talent and more percolating in Triple A, it ain’t bad.

Next: Day 6 – A look at how the bullpen shapes up

Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

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Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta earlier this week.

That's probably going to be the extent of their pitching additions for now.

Jerad Eickhoff is out until at least May with a strained right lat muscle and that creates a sizable hole in the Phillies rotation.

The hole is likely to be filled internally, according to general manager Matt Klentak. The team is not likely to make a run at Alex Cobb, who remains on the free-agent market.

"I doubt it," Klentak said when asked if he would look outside the organization to fill Eickhoff's spot. "I don't think we have to. I think a lot of our guys have shown very well in camp. They have gotten their pitch counts up, they're getting to the point of being fully stretched out.

"More than anything, I think we're going to have some tough decisions on figuring out who is in the rotation, who is in the bullpen, who goes into the Triple-A rotation, who goes into the Double-A rotation. We've got a lot of tough decisions to make on that front, but I don't think we're in a position where we have to go outside. We have a lot of candidates to take the ball at the big league level so we'll be fine."

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. Arrieta will be in the rotation, though he might need an extra week or so to get ready. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta are likely to hold down spots. That leaves Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Tom Eshelman in the running for the final spot in the five-man rotation. Eshelman, strike-thrower extraordinaire, was the Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year last year and projects to be in Philadelphia before long. However, it might not be at the outset of the season because he is not on the 40-man roster. Neither is Hutchison.

The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 11 so they could employ some creative roster construction until then. They could go with four starters and an extra reliever or bench man. Or they could bring an extra starter and "piggyback" him with Arrieta, a move that would allow Arrieta to make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season.

"There's a decent chance we open the season with somewhat of a non-traditional 25-man roster, not because we're trying to be cute but because we don't need the fifth starter until the 11th," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."

The Phillies made one transaction on Friday. They added utility man Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster. He had a provision in his minor-league contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't on the 40-man roster by March 15. Florimon is a candidate for a spot on the Phillies' bench. The move doesn't guarantee that Florimon will win a spot, but it gives the team more time to evaluate him. To make room for Florimon, the Phillies designated infielder Eliezer Alvarez for assignment.

Florimon homered in the Phillies' 6-4 loss to Toronto in Clearwater Friday. Cam Rupp and Cesar Hernandez also homered. Velasquez gave up five hits and a run in 2⅔ innings. He struck out five.

In Lakeland, Pivetta allowed two runs over five innings as the Phils and Tigers played to a 6-6 tie. J.P. Crawford and Ryan Flaherty both homered.

Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

USA Today Images

Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies' pitching staff has suffered a setback.

Jerad Eickhoff, projected as a member of the season-opening starting rotation, has been shut down with a strained right lat muscle, the area behind his shoulder. He will open the season on the disabled list and be sidelined into May, based on the team's six- to eight-week timetable for treatment and recovery.

Eickhoff, 27, spent time on the disabled list with a similar injury last season. That injury was technically called an upper back strain.

Manager Gabe Kapler said Eickhoff injured himself on one of the final pitches he threw during his last start.

Eickhoff led the Phillies' staff in ERA (3.65) while making 33 starts in 2016. He was limited to 24 starts and had a 4.71 ERA last year while making two trips to the DL. His second trip to the DL, which ended his season, was for a nerve irritation in his right hand. Eickhoff is in Philadelphia being checked by doctors.

"We want to ensure, and we're pretty confident, that it's not related in any way to the (nerve) stuff he was dealing with last year," manager Gabe Kapler said.

Kapler added, "It's a mild lat strain. There might be a blessing in disguise here. We're always thinking about keeping guys healthy and strong and limiting their total innings count. Those are things that are always on our mind so it's possible the innings are limited on the front end and then in September, October, he's strong and healthy and prepared to go through a full season."

With Eickhoff down, the Phillies suddenly have some openings in their rotation. Jake Arrieta, who signed with the Phillies on Monday, believes he can be ready for the first week of the season, but nothing is official. Aaron Nola will be the opening day starter and Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are good bets to be in the rotation. The final spot could go to Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr. or Tom Eshelman.

It is not known whether the Phillies would pursue free agent Alex Cobb. On Monday, general manager Matt Klentak said his offseason moves were likely complete.