Phillies

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

Former Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz leaves on the high road

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USA Today Images

Former Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz leaves on the high road

When the news broke that he had been let go as Phillies pitching coach earlier this week, Rick Kranitz's cell phone started dinging.

And dinging.

And dinging.

From all over the country and Latin America, stunned Phillies pitchers sent well wishes.

"I heard from all of them," Kranitz said Friday from his home in Arizona. "It meant a lot. It was nice to know they were thinking of me.

"That's the thing I'm going to miss the most, the relationships I've built with these guys. The players are the ones who do it but I was always happy to be able to guide them through the good times, the tough times, the emotional times. I've been in the game for 40 years and the relationships have always been what means the most to me."

Kranitz, 60, was pushed aside in favor of Chris Young. Kranitz had been with the Phillies for three seasons, first as bullpen coach, then as assistant pitching coach and finally as head pitching coach in 2018. Teams don't typically let coaches go in mid-November, particularly after saying seven weeks earlier that the entire coaching staff would be returning. In this case, Young, 37, had received interest from other clubs and rather than risk losing him the Phillies promoted him from assistant pitching coach to head pitching coach. Kranitz was told that he was free to seek employment with other organizations, though the Phillies will still pay him through 2019.

The whole thing seems cold, but Kranitz is taking the high road. He's a big boy. He's been around — he'd previously been pitching coach in Miami, Baltimore and Milwaukee — and understands the business of baseball and these days the business of baseball is more new school than old school. That doesn't mean it's better. It's just the way it is for now.

"I was surprised and very disappointed when I first got the news," Kranitz said. "I'd built a lot of good relationships with this group. I believe in every one of these guys and I believe the future is bright for the Phillies. I wanted to see it through."

The news that Kranitz had been let go broke on Wednesday. That night, Aaron Nola finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. For three years, Kranitz had been influential in Nola's development.

"I was so proud of that young man," Kranitz said. "He deserves everything he gets. He's a class individual and the Phillies are lucky to have such a special young pitcher — not just a pitcher but a person. I could not have been prouder. I'm thankful to have gotten the chance to watch him, grateful to be able to see special times."

Kranitz began his pro career as a pitcher in the Brewers' system in 1979. He would like to continue to work and surely some team will benefit from his wisdom. But in the meantime, he intends to spend his unexpected free time focusing on the people who have always been there for him, his wife Kelly and their four children.

"We have four grandkids and one on the way in March," Kranitz said. "So I'll be around for the birth and that makes me happy. 

"This game has been great to me. The Phillies were great to me. It didn't end great but my experience with the city and the people in that organization was great. Now it's time to shift my focus to my family and give back to them."

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What would spending 'stupid' money look like for Phillies this offseason?

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What would spending 'stupid' money look like for Phillies this offseason?

Phillies owner John Middleton recently reiterated what he's been saying for years: The Phillies will spend aggressively this offseason.

This time, he was a bit more colorful about it.

"We're going into this expecting to spend money," Middleton told USA Today at the owners meetings this week. "And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.

"We just prefer not to be completely stupid."

#LetsGetStupid

You know the usual suspects: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But the Phillies' needs go beyond offense and there is a top-tier left-hander on the market who could boost this rotation (see story).

Harper turned down a $300 million offer from the Nationals, so it's safe to assume he's expecting a deal closer to the $350-400 million range, one with an annual value in the neighborhood of $40 million.

It's hard to gauge where Machado's price tag will be and whether his October comments affected his market. Will he get slightly less than Harper because of it? Will he get more than Harper because of the position(s) he plays?

Including guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration figures and the raises due to pre-arbitration players, the Phillies' 2019 payroll is in the vicinity of $110 million right now. But that figure is cut in half in 2020 and next-to-nothing in 2021, when the only two guaranteed deals on the Phillies' books belong to Odubel Herrera and Scott Kingery.

Aaron Nola will have to be paid sometime before 2022, and Rhys Hoskins before 2024, but the Phils still have so much wiggle room. 

Team president Andy MacPhail has been sure to remind Middleton and others that there is baseball to be played beyond 2019. But it's not often a free-agent class has headliners like this. 

The Phils could feasibly afford both Harper and Machado, but things would get extremely tricky down the road when Harper, Machado, Nola and Hoskins are combining to make about $120 million per year between the four of them. Those are the kinds of long-term issues this front office has to consider and will consider.

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