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.