Jerad Eickhoff

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

ap-phillies-jerad-eickhoff.jpg
AP Images

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jerad Eickhoff is an important man in this Phillies season. He needs to be closer to the guy who pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 197 1/3 innings in 2016 than the one who had a 4.71 ERA in 128 innings last season.

It all starts with good health. Eickhoff, 27, missed time with an upper-back strain and a nerve issue near his right shoulder last season.

He is healthy now and has made a tweak in his mechanics to ease pressure on his shoulder. He made his spring debut with two hitless, scoreless innings in a 6-0 exhibition win over the University of Tampa on Thursday (more on the game here). Eickhoff threw 17 pitches, 14 of which were strikes. He struck out two, walked none and hit a batter. 

“No matter what game it is that you pitch in, you get that intensity, there’s a hitter in the box, you still get butterflies being back at it,” Eickhoff said. “Today was a big day, facing some competition. The live batting practice was checking off the first box. A game setting was kind of the second box, so I think the sky is the limit from here. I feel great.”

Eickhoff developed a mechanical flaw last season as his body would often fall toward first base after delivering the ball. That put pressure on his shoulder. He has tried to correct the flaw this winter by holding his glove a little higher before he releases the ball. That helps him get going toward home plate.

If healthy, Eickhoff will be in the starting rotation. (Former bench coach Larry Bowa is high on him). But he’s taking nothing for granted.

“I try to approach every spring like I’m trying to win a job,” Eickhoff said. “I have something to prove every year.”

Notes
• Andrew Knapp caught and batted leadoff. He worked a walk to lead off the game and that impressed manager Gabe Kapler. Kapler advised not to read into batting order positions this early in camp. 

“These are practice settings,” he said.

• The Phillies play their Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. Rotation candidates Nick Pivetta and Mark Leiter Jr. are expected to get some work. Non-roster invite Francisco Rodriguez, he of the 437 career saves, could also get an inning.

Phillies committed to rebuild, won't go for quick fixes

Phillies committed to rebuild, won't go for quick fixes

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies upgraded their bullpen this winter with the signings of Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

They bettered their offense with the signing of Carlos Santana, the injection of J.P. Crawford’s on-base percentage. And a full season of Rhys Hoskins won’t hurt.

The glaring area of need for this team remains the starting pitching rotation.

The team added to its inventory of starters when it signed veteran right-hander Drew Hutchison to a minor-league contract on Thursday. The former Toronto Blue Jay will join a long list of candidates to win a spot at the back end of the rotation.

“It’s a good depth move for us but it doesn't end our search for additional starting pitching,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

Klentak had been looking to add starting pitching all winter. There is enough of it available as Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and others remain on the slow-moving free-agent market.

Arrieta is a former National League Cy Young award winner, but the time does not seem right for this rebuilding team to make a run at him. The right-hander will pitch at 32 this season and is said to be seeking a deal of six years or more. Length of contract is a serious consideration for this team. When Santana hit the free-agent market in November, he was said to be seeking a six- or seven-year deal. The Phils had no stomach for that. When he came down to three years, they pounced.

If the (length of) contract demands of the remaining free agents come down, the Phillies could add another pitcher in the coming weeks. If they don’t, Klentak is comfortable with the group that has been assembled.

“We’re open to adding a starter if it makes sense for us, but even if we don’t, we are confident that this starting pitching group is going to take a step forward because they are really talented and they’re healthy,” Klentak said. “We’re watching them here and they look great.

“The starting pitching market being as slow to develop as it has been has allowed us to get to Clearwater and watch our guys and evaluate them and see the look in their eye and see the electricity in their pitches and regain that confidence in our young starting pitching.”

Aaron Nola lines up to start on opening day. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez will be in the rotation. Nick Pivetta seems to have a good shot after making 25 starts last season. Ben Lively made a good showing last year. He’s a tough competitor and will make a strong run at winning a spot, but so will Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Mark Leiter, Tom Eshelman and Hutchison.

As much as new manager Gabe Kapler would love a top starter dropped in his lap, he, like his bosses, remains committed to the development process that has gone hand in hand with this rebuild.

“You’re always looking to upgrade,” he said. “But there has to be a balance. If you bring in someone, a young arm might not get an opportunity.”

Not long ago, the Phillies had some of the top payrolls in the game. From 2012 to 2014, they spent over a half-billion on payroll (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more in the time) and did not make the playoffs in any of those seasons. That led to the current rebuild, which has been marked by disciplined roster construction.

“We’re open to anything,” Klentak said. “But the dollars and the years and the player fit would have to be right. We’re not going to compromise on our evaluation and where we see the franchise right now. We’re not going to do something that doesn’t make sense for this organization."

That will continue.

“We’ve gone through this rebuild and acknowledged that it was going to be painful for a few years," Klentak said. "It has been. We’re not going to do anything to compromise the future of that. We’re going to continue to do this right. If there’s something that makes sense, I know the owners will support it economically. It’s up to us to bring that to them if we see fit. And if we don’t, we’re excited about the group we have here. We have ways we think we’re going to help this group continue to improve. Either way, it’s going to be a fun year.”

Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

usa-jerad-eickhoff-aaron-nola-vince-velasquez-phillies.png
USA Today Images

Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

The mitts will start popping Wednesday morning when Phillies pitchers and catchers assemble for their first official workout of the spring on the emerald fields of Carpenter Complex in Clearwater.

The group of candidates vying for spots in the starting rotation will look familiar. While the club made upgrades in the lineup (Carlos Santana) and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), the rotation went untouched.

Aaron Nola comes into camp deserving to be Gabe Kapler's first opening day starter. Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin will be looking to bounce back from late-season health issues, and Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively will try to build on valuable experience gained last season. Strike-throwing Tom Eshelman, the organization's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2017, will be someone to watch, as will other prospects, including Drew Anderson and Jose Taveras.

Now, will there be a mystery guest coming to camp?

Quite possibly.

As new manager Kapler said last month, general manager Matt Klentak "is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective. That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation."

Klentak has talked all winter about his desire to add a starting pitcher, but he has made no promises and his quest has come with qualifiers. He has been leery of the price tags attached to top free agents (especially in length of contract) and trade candidates (quality of prospects needed to acquire). Also, Klentak, still steward of a rebuild, has had to balance his desire to add a pitcher with the need to make sure there are innings and opportunities for the current group of young pitchers to improve and reach their potential.

The glacial free-agent pitching market finally began to thaw over the weekend with Yu Darvish reaching agreement on a six-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and others should begin to follow as camps get set to open.

The Phillies have long been speculated as a potential landing spot for Arrieta, mostly because they have deep pockets, loads of room in their budget and a need for a starting pitcher. But Arrieta will turn 32 in March and the Phils are of no mind to go six years for a pitcher that age. If Arrieta decides to go for a shorter, one- or two-year deal then quickly head back out on the free-agent market, the Phils might strike. However, the competition for Arrieta on a short-term deal would be significant and logic dictates he would want to sign with a contender under those terms, not a team in a rebuild.

So, if an addition is made, it seems more likely that it would come from the second tier of available pitchers.

A general manager's quest to upgrade his starting rotation is neverending. That's how important starting pitching is. Klentak's short-term quest to upgrade the staff will intensify in July if his upgraded offense and bullpen has the Phillies poking around wild-card contention.

In the meantime, the Phillies go into camp with what looks like a cast of mid-rotation starters.

Nola leads the group after resoundingly answering health (elbow) concerns in 2017. Not only did the 24-year-old right-hander check out physically, he also took a step forward in his performance and became the reliable starter the team projected him to be when it selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft.

Nola struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings and his 3.54 ERA in 27 starts ranked 20th in the majors. He delivered 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.

While Nola progressed, the balance of the rotation had ups and downs as the staff pitched to a 4.80 ERA (21st in the majors) and allowed an .806 OPS (fourth from the bottom) to opposing hitters.

Pivetta showed big strikeout stuff despite not consistently pitching deep into games. Eickhoff, Velasquez and Eflin struggled with inconsistency and ended the season on the disabled list. The team hopes these pitchers, all now healthy, will step forward this season. For Eickhoff, it's a matter of regaining the health and mechanics that helped him lead the staff with a 3.65 ERA in 2016. For Eflin, it's a matter of staying healthy after a series of issues. Health is also an issue for the electric-armed Velasquez, but so is focus and economy of pitches. 

Given the value placed on starting pitching, it is understandable that the team has been patient in trying to develop the 25-year-old Velasquez. But the time could come, maybe this season, when continued struggles lead to a shift to the bullpen. That certainly could be an intriguing option for Velasquez, though the team hopes it never comes to pass.
 
The Phillies head into spring training with a new pitching coach as Rick Kranitz has moved up from the assistant's role to replace Bob McClure. Chris Young and former big-league pitcher Jim Gott have joined the staff as assistant pitching coach and bullpen coach, respectively. The Phillies are clearly throwing some depth of instructive personnel at their pitchers.

Hey, it all starts with the pitching and that all starts Wednesday in Clearwater.