TAMPA, Fla. — The Phillies might not have that classic No. 1 starting pitcher that opponents fear, but they do have significant rotation depth.
Aaron Nola has been tabbed as the opening day starter (see story). After him, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez will slot in somewhere and Nick Pivetta might have an edge on the rest of the pack for a spot in the rotation. All of this is subject to change, of course, but for the time being, there might be one opening in the rotation — and none if Jake Arrieta decides that he wants to be a Phillie.
The most realistic candidates to fill out the rotation are Zach Eflin, who is healthy and firing, and Ben Lively, but there are plenty more that will get a look, including Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison, Drew Anderson and Tom Eshelman. Beyond that group, the Phils still have a number of starter prospects in camp, including Jose Taveras, Enyel De Los Santos, Cole Irvin, Brandon Leibrandt, Ranger Suarez and Franklyn Kilome. The organization will have no trouble stocking its Triple A and Double A rotations with prospects — and some tough decisions will have to be made on who goes where.
Lively kicked off his candidacy for a spot in the big-league rotation with two scoreless innings against the the Yankees on Monday night. The right-hander, who turns 26 next week, allowed just one hit and struck out three. He did not walk a batter.
Lively made his big-league debut last season and pitched to a 4.26 ERA in 15 starts. He is not a big strikeout guy — he struck out just 5.3 batters per nine innings — but has a bulldog quality that serves him well on the mound. He’s ready to compete for a spot in the rotation.
“Oh, yeah, everyone knows it’s a competition,” he said. “It’s fun to see everyone battle and compete. It’s awesome. It makes everyone better.”
Lively said he realized the importance of getting ahead of hitters and throwing inside last season. He said he learned to slow the game down, pitch to his strengths and not let “the big guys beat you.” He succeeded there on Monday night. One of his strikeouts came against Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 homers last season en route to winning the National League MVP award.
Eshelman also had a nice outing with two scoreless innings. He struck out two and walked none. Eshelman’s control is exceptional. He walked 1.1 batters per nine in 150 innings at Double A and Triple A last season and was the Phillies’ minor-league pitcher of the year. Eshelman is not on the 40-man roster. He lines up to return to Triple A, but could be a quick call-up if a need arises.
The Phillies lost to the Yankees, 4-3, on a solo homer by Miguel Andujar against Suarez in the bottom of the ninth.
Down to their last strike, the Phils tied the game at 3-3 on a solo homer by Scott Kingery in the top of the inning.
Eickhoff will make his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday against the Tigers. Velasquez will start Wednesday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.