Phillies

The biggest question(s) facing each young Phillies starting pitcher

The biggest question(s) facing each young Phillies starting pitcher

The Phillies have learned some things this season. 

They've learned they have an improving, upper-tier offensive catcher in Cameron Rupp. 

They've learned just how deadly Hector Neris' splitter can be, and they've learned that in him they have a legitimate late-inning bullpen piece. 

They've learned Tommy Joseph can hit some homers at the highest level. 

They've learned Freddy Galvis is only getting better defensively at shortstop, and that Cesar Hernandez is getting better at the plate. 

But they wanted to learn a lot more about their starting pitching staff than they have. For all the progress made in 2016, both on the 25-man roster and down on the farm, the Phillies are still in wait-and-see mode with their young arms. When the season ends and the Phils head into the winter, they'll face just as many rotation questions as last year, if not more.

Let's go one by one:

Aaron Nola — Health, confidence, stuff
We'll start with Nola because he was the perceived "No. 1" on this staff entering the season. Nola will face the most questions of any of the Phillies' starting pitchers. He ended his season on about as low a note as possible, allowing 39 runs in his final 33 innings before going on the DL with a season-ending elbow injury.

The final 171 hitters Nola faced this season hit .367 with a .965 OPS. Now he has an entire offseason to wonder whether that was some two-month fluke we'll all look at with befuddlement years from now, or if it was a sign of the league's catching up to him. All Nola can do for the next few weeks is sit and think. That's not a great thing when you've been hit around and your confidence is shaken.

Nola, 23, was diagnosed with a strained ulnar collateral ligament and a sprain in his flexor pronator tendon. Both can be precursors to Tommy John surgery. There's no indication yet Nola will need that surgery, but it's a possibility any time a pitcher suffers an elbow injury. And Nola, with a right elbow that flares out during his whip-like delivery, has long looked like a guy who might eventually pay the price.

Pitchers don't always need Tommy John surgery to correct elbow issues. Masahiro Tanaka has pitched through an elbow issue the last two seasons. Just like Tanaka, Nola recently received a PRP injection (platelet rich plasma). Tanaka has adjusted his repertoire slightly since suffering the injury in 2014, and his opponents have hit 27 points higher the last two seasons than they did in '14 against his best pitch, the splitter.

Will Nola have to adjust his own repertoire? Keep in mind he had the highest curveball frequency of any starting pitcher in the National League this season, throwing that pitch 33.8 percent of the time. Wear and tear on the elbow could force him to throw fewer curves and that's his money pitch. In two years in the majors, Nola's opponents have hit .176 with 119 strikeouts against his curve. They've hit .348 against his changeup, .305 vs. his sinker and .276 against his four-seam fastball.

Phillies fans will be content simply if Nola is ready to go next spring training. But if he's healthy enough, he will still need to show he can be effective, and that's something Grapefruit League games won't teach us. We'll really have to wait until the end of next April, assuming Nola has a chance to make four or five starts in the first month of the 2017 regular season, to know which direction his career is headed.

Jerad Eickhoff — Upside
Nola faces the most questions; Eickhoff faces the fewest. Of all the Phillies' young starting pitchers — majors and minors — Eickhoff has been the most solid, durable and consistent in 2016.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin made note last week of Eickhoff's "bulldog mentality." Apt way to describe it. The 25-year-old has been a workhorse on a staff starved for them, pitching at least six innings in 16 of his 25 starts this year. He's 8-12 with a 3.91 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.1 walks.

Eickhoff is on pace to pitch 194 innings this season. Even if he does so with an ERA of 4.00, there is value in that. Eickhoff could be a solid No. 4 starter long term, and that is only more valuable when the pitcher is making the minimum salary.

The question with Eickhoff is whether this is his ceiling or there is still room for improvement. He made genuine strides this season with pitchability, learning to mix in sliders to enhance the effectiveness of his top pitch, the curveball. With Eickhoff, it will always come down to fastball command. When he has command of his fastball and one of the two breaking balls, it's going to be a decent night. When he has all three pitches, it's going to be a very good night for him.

If things keep progressing for Eickhoff, he could be a John Lackey-type — 200 innings per year with a mid-to-high-3.00s ERA. In a way, Eickhoff is the opposite of the other young arms the Phillies have stockpiled, who have unquestionable upside but lack consistency.

Vince Velasquez — Durability, length, consistency, pitching IQ
When he's right, Velasquez has the best stuff in the Phillies' rotation and some of the best stuff in the NL. He's proven that with a 16-strikeout game, three double-digit K starts and seven outings with seven or more whiffs.

The main issue with Velasquez is that only twice in 22 starts with the Phillies has he recorded an out in the seventh. He's had nine starts where he didn't record an out in the sixth. The Phils need him to be able to go deeper into games and the only way that will happen is if he figures out a better plan of attack.

Eickhoff said last week that he's learned how to strategize against lineups this season, in terms of location, pitch selection and aggressiveness. With Velasquez, it seems a lot of the time like he just goes out and throws. That doesn't mean he's throwing all fastballs, but he's not changing eye levels, keeping hitters off balance or altering swing planes enough.

The raw talent with Velasquez is there, no question. He has a mid-90s fastball that can hit 97 mph to go along with a curveball that can be devastating. But he needs to take a big step forward next season. Right now, he's just a pitcher who shows flashes of brilliance. The upside is there for him to be a No. 2 starter.

The Phillies will give Velasquez many more chances to prove he belongs in the rotation. Even if he doesn't, he has the look and stuff of a guy who could be a very good closer. Maybe that fastball reaches 99 mph if he's throwing several hundred fewer pitches per year.

Zach Eflin — Health, swinging strikes
Eflin, like Nola, is out for the season. Eflin has a foot fracture and a chronic condition in both knees he's dealt with since he was 11 years old. Eflin had surgery on his right knee last week and could have surgery on his left knee before the offseason ends. 

The first and most pressing question with Eflin is whether or how long he can keep pitching. You don't often hear about a pitcher having two bad knees, especially by age 22. Pitching can add wear and tear to the knees. If you're a right-hander, your right knee is feeling the brunt of the weight because it's your lift-off leg. The left knee is the one you're coming down on each time you finish a pitch.

Beyond health, Eflin showed at times this season why many considered him a back-end starter despite his impressive Triple A numbers. Despite having a fastball that can hit 94-95 mph, Eflin doesn't miss many bats. There are times he doesn't miss any bats. Having the ability to induce groundballs like Eflin does is important, but at times in the majors you just need a swing-and-miss. If you look back to his last start at Dodger Stadium, Eflin couldn't throw a single fastball by a Dodgers hitter in the first inning and the result was a long, ugly opening frame filled with deep counts and solid contact.

Eflin also had several terrific starts in the majors as a rookie. He pitched two complete games, one a shutout. When a pitch-to-contact guy with solid control is humming and/or facing a scuffling lineup, that can happen. 

Jake Thompson — Stuff, control
Through three starts, Thompson hasn't looked like a big-league pitcher. It's still early. He's 22. 

We're working off what we've seen at the major-league level so far, though. And so far, Thompson has evaded contact, fallen behind in counts constantly when pitching out of the stretch, and not shown enough bite on his sinker or slider to get out of precarious positions.

Thompson would seem to have more talent and stuff than Eflin. But Thompson will need to use these final five or six weeks of the season to show that he can work ahead of hitters and challenge them when need be.

Thompson went from having a 1.21 ERA over his final 11 starts at Triple A to allowing 14 runs in his first 14 innings in the majors. It's an example of how once you reach a certain point, there is little left that can be proven in the minors.

Mark Appel — Health, stuff
It was not a good first year in the Phillies' farm system for Appel, the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft. He made eight starts, put 61 men on base in 38⅓ innings, saw his fastball velocity dip and eventually had season-ending right elbow surgery.

Appel is going to turn 26 next July. The clock is ticking. He hasn't yet shown much in the minors that would make you confident he could get outs in the majors. If he wasn't the first overall pick so recently, he wouldn't have so many chances to prove it. But he was, and he will have another one with the Phils in 2017.

Adam Morgan — 4A 
Morgan had a good start his last time out, allowing one run over six innings to the Cardinals. But he's allowed 100 hits and 17 home runs in 75⅓ innings this season. He has a 6.21 ERA, and both lefties and righties have hit over .300 against him.

And yet when Morgan faced Triple A hitters this season, he dominated. He went 6-1 with a 3.04 ERA with Lehigh Valley, striking out 52 and walking just 10 in 50⅓ innings. 

There are 4A players all over the league — guys with enough skill to succeed at the minors' highest level but not enough to thrive in the majors. Based on Morgan's repertoire, this just might be who he is. It's not the worst thing in the world. Plenty of pitchers make careers out of being a spot starter who otherwise serves as organizational depth.

Jeremy Hellickson — Contract status
Hellickson has rebuilt his free-agent value by having his best season since 2011, when he won AL Rookie of the Year. In 25 starts with the Phillies, he's 10-7 with a 3.60 ERA, and he's posted the best strikeout (7.6 per nine) and walk rates (1.98) of his career.

At this point, the Phillies wouldn't mind having Hellickson back next season. He turns 30 in April, so he's not ancient. And he could continue to provide innings, stability and an ear for the Phils' younger, more inexperienced arms. 

The Phillies will almost certainly extend Hellickson a qualifying offer this offseason. If he accepts it, the Phillies would pay him approximately $17 million on a one-year deal. If he declines it and signs elsewhere, the Phils would pick up a high draft pick (in between Rounds 1 and 2) next June.

Jean Segura hustles when he needs to and that's OK with Jake Arrieta

Jean Segura hustles when he needs to and that's OK with Jake Arrieta

PITTSBURGH — Jean Segura has jogged into the crosshairs of Philadelphia fans a couple of times this season for not hustling down the first base line. One of his infractions was magnified because it came on the play in which the highly respected Andrew McCutchen suffered a season-ending knee injury back in early June.

So it was all a little ironic that Segura helped the Phillies win an important ballgame Friday night in the very ballpark where McCutchen won the 2013 National League MVP award while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Segura beat out a potential inning-ending double play ball in the seventh inning and that set the table for Bryce Harper’s tie-breaking hit in the Phillies’ 6-1 win over the Pirates.

An inning after extending the seventh for the red-hot Harper — he has five two-hit games and eight RBIs since the All-Star break — Segura entertained everyone in the ballpark with a grueling 13-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off nine pitches. The at-bat ended with his legging out an infield hit with the bases loaded to turn what was a one-run lead into a two-run lead. The Phillies poured it on after that.

After the game, everyone from manager Gabe Kapler to starting pitcher Jake Arrieta was buzzing about Segura’s at-bat and his hustle.

“You can summarize the game by that at-bat, really,” Arrieta said. “Against a bullpen guy (Kyle Crick) that's got a really, really good slider and a mid- to upper-90s fastball.

“Look, Segura strained his hamstring early in the season. He's our everyday shortstop. The hustle thing, I think, is a little overblown because you hit a routine groundball to the infield, guys in the big leagues make that play. So, what's the point of being out by two steps versus three or four steps? That doesn't concern us here. He has the understanding and the awareness to know when to really get after it. That at-bat tonight, that groundball is one of those times. I don't want to see him running 100 percent to first base every time. None of the other guys in here do. But in the right situation, like tonight, he does it and it paid off for us.”

It was pointed out to Arrieta that Philadelphia fans don’t always approve of the type of selective hustle he spoke about.

“But the fans also want him on the field every night so you have to understand the guy at shortstop on the other team is making a ton of money and if the ball's hit to him, he fields it cleanly, he's out,” Arrieta said. “I don't care who's running, if it's Billy Hamilton or Roman Quinn or Scott Kingery. The out is usually made. I think people need to understand that. It might not look great, but big-league shortstops, big-league infielders, they field the ball cleanly and they record the out 99 percent of the time. Segura’s got a really good feel for the game and he knows when he needs to really get after it.”

The Pirates challenged the bang-bang call on Segura’s infield hit in the eighth. He beat it by a hair.

“Segura just grinded and grinded and grinded,” Kapler said. “The hustle was off the charts. Both beating out the double play ball and he broke right out of the box, never hesitated, smelled the hit, gave us everything he had, and beat it out. It was a huge play in the game.”

Segura has been playing in recent days with a bruised left heel.

“I do my best,” he said. “I’m still sore a little bit. At the end of the day, I had to hustle and get down the line because the bases are loaded and we’re up only 2-1 in the eighth inning. That’s huge for us. It got us a couple more runs.

“That’s baseball. You play through injuries. You play through pain. It made me feel even better because I know my teammates are behind me and they see that.”

Arrieta is also playing through some discomfort. Pitching with a bone spur in his right elbow, he was able to give his team 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. He lobbied Kapler to stay in the game with the bases loaded and the game tied in the sixth inning. Kapler won the debate, Juan Nicasio doused the threat and Harper gave the Phils the lead in the seventh.

The Phillies are 4-4 since the All-Star break.

The Pirates are 1-6.

The Phillies, still trying to right themselves after six weeks of hell that dropped them from first place to third in the NL East, need to continue to pour it on Saturday night behind Zach Eflin and an offense that is starting to warm again.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies

Phillies 6, Pirates 1: Jake Arrieta, Bryce Harper and Jean Segura's hustle lift Phillies to win

Phillies 6, Pirates 1: Jake Arrieta, Bryce Harper and Jean Segura's hustle lift Phillies to win

BOX SCORE 

PITTSBURGH — Bryce Harper had another big hit. Jean Segura had the at-bat of the season. Adam Haseley stood out on both sides of the ball. Jake Arrieta and the bullpen got it done on the mound.

The Phillies made it two wins in a row and improved to 4-4 since the All-Star break with team-effort, 6-1, win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Friday night.

Harper, who tied the game with a hit in the seventh inning of Thursday’s win over the Dodgers, this time had the go-ahead hit with two outs in the seventh.

Harper is heating up. He has had two hits in five of the eight games the Phils have played since the All-Star break. In those eight games, he has four doubles and eight RBIs.

The Phils are 51-47.

The Pirates are 1-6 since the break.

Arrieta’s night

Though he did not pitch deep into the game, Arrieta did a solid job with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. In two starts since it was confirmed that he is pitching with a bone spur in his right elbow, Arrieta has pitched 10 2/3 innings and allowed just two runs.

Arrieta threw 87 pitches and got just four swinging strikes. He was able to throw his curveball, a pitch that had previously aggravated his elbow, with some success.

Bad clutch early

The Phillies had the bases loaded and one out in the first inning and got nothing. They ran into an out on the bases after a one-out double in the fourth and left runners on the corners in the sixth when Maikel Franco went down on a disputed 0-2 check-swing.

The Phils finally got a big hit with men on base when Harper laced a first-pitch single to left-center with two outs in the seventh to score Brad Miller (one-out pinch-hit single) with the tie-breaking run.

And then in the eighth …

Segura turned in what may have been the Phillies’ best at-bat of the season when he went toe-to-toe with reliever Kyle Crick for 13 pitches — Segura fouled off nine of them — before stroking an RBI infield hit to the right side to give the Phils a 3-1 lead.

Huge out

Manager Gabe Kapler lifted Arrieta for Juan Nicasio with the bases loaded and two outs in a 1-1 game in the bottom of the sixth. Nicasio then retired dangerous Kevin Newman on a bouncer back to the mound to end the Pirates’ threat.

Arrieta had gotten the first two outs of the frame before allowing a walk and a ringing double to Colin Moran. It was a good thing Moran hit the ball hard off the wall — and a good thing centerfielder Scott Kingery made such a quick retrieval of the ball off the wall — because Josh Bell, the runner at first, had to hold at third. Arrieta then intentionally walked the bases full before Kapler went to Nicasio.

An underappreciated pickup

The Phillies swapped relievers and sent Luis Garcia to Anaheim for lefty Jose Alvarez in the offseason. Alvarez has been a nice pickup. He protected a one-run lead with a scoreless frame in the bottom of the seventh. Eleven of his last 12 appearances have been scoreless, including his last seven.

Cole Irvin got the final six outs.

Hey, Haseley

Rookie outfielder Adam Haseley returned for his second stint in the majors six days ago when Sean Rodriguez went on the IL. Haseley, who turned 23 in April, is a developing player who needs to be on the field. The injury to Jay Bruce has allowed him that time in left field.

Haseley had an impressive game on both sides of the ball. He made a nice play in left field to gun down Moran as he tried to stretch a single into a double in the fourth inning.

In the fifth inning, he showed off his power with a game-tying solo homer to center. Pirates starter Jordan Lyles challenged Haseley with a 93-mph fastball on an 0-2 count and Haseley crushed it 402 feet for the second homer of his big-league career. He hit his first in Thursday’s win over the Dodgers.

Haseley added an RBI double as the Phils turned it into a rout in the ninth.

Health check

Reliever David Robertson (elbow injury) continues to make progress toward a return. He will face hitters in a live batting practice session in Clearwater on Saturday and then again on Wednesday, if all goes well. The Phils hope to have Robertson for most of the final two months.

Up next

Zach Eflin (7-9, 4.16) will oppose right-hander Joe Musgrove (6-8, 4.31) on Saturday night. Trevor Williams was the Pirates’ scheduled starter, but he has been scratched with what the team called “severe flu-like symptoms.”

Drew Smyly, whose signing will become official Saturday or Sunday, will start for the Phillies on Sunday afternoon.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies