There was a lot of talk over the winter and into the spring about the Phillies having a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation.
The Phillies handed free agent Zack Wheeler a five-year, $118 million contract in December to slide into the second spot in the rotation behind established ace Aaron Nola. With Nola and Wheeler at the top of the rotation, the rest of the arms could simply fall into place behind them. The Phillies had every right to think their pitching staff would be vastly improved in 2020, significantly better than the unit that struggled throughout the 2019 season.
Times have changed.
As the Phillies ramp up "summer camp" at Citizens Bank Park to prepare for an abbreviated 60-game season, there is suddenly plenty of uncertainty pertaining to their top two starting pitchers.
Nola missed the first three days of camp before reporting on Monday. He was kept away from the team due to COVID-19 protocols — Nola didn't test positive for the virus but he was in contact with someone who did (see story). It's certainly good news that Nola surfaced at camp and threw a bullpen session. But 18 days out from opening day, it's a stretch to think the Phillies will have the best version of Nola out of the gates this season.
Then there's Wheeler, who admitted on Sunday that he has reservations about playing this season with his wife set to deliver the couple's first child at the end of July. Wheeler mentioned he could reconsider his decision whether to play after the baby arrives.
The combination of Nola's late arrival and Wheeler's uncertain status has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the rotation. Will the other starters step up? Let's examine that question on a case-by-case basis.
The 34-year old Arrieta enters the final year of a three-year, $75 million contract he signed prior to the 2018 season. The Phillies have not gotten their money's worth out of that deal — Arrieta is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA in 55 starts during two injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia. He pitched through a knee injury two years ago, then had his 2019 season cut short due to an elbow injury.
In one of our "Phillies Return to Play'"shows last week, Jim Salisbury identified Arrieta as perhaps the biggest X-factor in this 2020 Phillies season.
Can he resemble the Arrieta that won a Cy Young in 2015 and helped the Cubs to a World Series title in 2016? The Phillies sure hope so, particularly with the question marks surrounding the two guys ahead of him in the rotation.
Eflin is poised to have a breakout 2020 season, even if he only makes a maximum of 12 starts. At 26 years old and entering his fifth MLB season, Eflin has shown the potential to be a very good big-league starter. He just needs to prove he can perform at a high level consistently.
He had a 4.13 ERA in 32 games (28 starts) last season. There was plenty of good (a pair of complete game victories) and bad (a late-season demotion to the bullpen).
Eflin should benefit greatly from the presence of new pitching coach Bryan Price. Eflin is at his best when he's throwing his sinker down in the zone, not trying to get hitters out with high fastballs as former pitching coach Chris Young instructed him to do.
Look for Eflin to pitch to his strengths this season. It could translate into a career year, albeit an abbreviated one.
Vince Velasquez/Nick Pivetta
It's easy to lump Velasquez and Pivetta together due to their many similarities. Both guys have terrific stuff and have looked dominant at times in their careers. But they both have struggled mightily to find any type of consistency.
Both Velasquez and Pivetta have been used as relievers. Is that how they will be used this season? Time will tell, but for now they are competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. If either of them can finally harness all of their natural talent, it will be a major boost to the Phillies pitching staff.
Initially, the 23-year old Howard was expected to start his 2020 season in the minor leagues. He was also expected to have an innings limit and eventually be shut down late in the season. Due to the events of the last four months, plans have changed. The organization's top pitching prospect will have every opportunity to crack the opening day roster and perhaps the starting rotation.
Howard threw off the mound at CBP to live hitters on Monday. If he impresses over the next two weeks, don't be surprised to see him play a prominent role right from the outset of the regular season.
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