Countdown to Clearwater: 5 questions about Phillies pitchers

Countdown to Clearwater: 5 questions about Phillies pitchers

The Phillies open spring training in Clearwater, Florida next week. In preview, we take a look at five storylines:

Tuesday — Five new faces to watch 

Wednesday — Five questions on the position side 

Thursday — Five questions on the pitching side

Friday — Five prospects to watch

Saturday — Five people with something to prove

 Earl Weaver used to say the only thing that matters is what happens on that little hump out in the middle of the field. With that, we examine five pitching questions facing the Phillies as they head into camp:

Will they designate a closer?

With Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris and David Robertson, the Phillies have closer candidates, and it would not be a complete surprise to see someone take hold of the role as the season unfolds. But heading into camp, it seems as if the Phils will stay flexible, avoid hanging the label "closer" on any one guy, and play the matchup game in the late innings. That includes the ninth.

“We are likely to continue to use guys in a variety of roles late in the game,” general manager Matt Klentak said on the day he signed Robertson, who has three 30-plus save seasons in his career.

Nine different relievers recorded a save for the Phillies last season, led by Dominguez with 16. He certainly has the stuff to close, but he also has value as a kill shot when the game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning. Neris had a few difficult months last season and ended up in the minors. But he was a beast after rediscovering his splitter and his confidence and struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced over the final six weeks of the season.

Will Aaron Nola’s arbitration case cause problems?

Probably not. There were similar worries when Ryan Howard went to court over salary in 2008 and he ended up signing two long-term extensions with the club. Of course, he won his high profile, $10 million arbitration case after an MVP award and 105 homers and 285 RBIs the previous two seasons.

Nola's case will be heard on Feb. 14, the second day of official workouts, and he is expected to attend the hearing. The pitcher, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, and his representatives are seeking $6.75 million. They will build their case around the pitcher’s third-place finish in the Cy Young voting last season. If that doesn’t convince the arbitration panel that he is worth the money, maybe these stats will: Nola finished fourth in the majors in ERA (2.37) and quality starts (25) and fifth in innings (212 1/3) and WHIP (0.97) in 2018.   

The Houston Astros paid Dallas Keuchel $7.25 million in his first arbitration year after he won the AL Cy Young in 2016 and Nola’s side sees that as a legitimate comparable. The Phillies’ offer of $4.5 million seems to be more in line with what Matt Harvey ($4.35 million) and Jacob deGrom ($4.05 million) got in their first year of arbitration.

This is business: A player looking to capitalize on a big year and a team trying to toe the industry line. It’s difficult to see there being a lot of fallout from a process that both sides understand so well. And, either way, the team is likely to explore a long-term extension with Nola in the near future and the pitcher would be very interested in that.

Are they done adding?

Clearly, the team thought it needed more starting pitching, hence the offers it made to lefty starters Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, both of whom signed elsewhere. The Phils could still look to fill their lefty void by signing someone like Keuchel to a short-term deal. The team has also continually monitored the market for closer Craig Kimbrel. Even if the Phils don’t add another reliever, they may have to subtract from a crowded bullpen before the spring is over. Tommy Hunter has been shopped for a deal. The construction of this pitching staff will continue through July and you’ll hear the name Madison Bumgarner a lot if the Phils are within striking distance.

Whither Eick?

Jerad Eickhoff was the team’s best starting pitcher in 2016, but he’s been plagued by injury the last two seasons. Off-season surgery to address a condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome has Eickhoff back on track and ready to challenge for a rotation spot.

Who will step forward?

Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are all talented and they’ve all racked up valuable experience the last couple of seasons. Much of this team’s success will ride on one or two of these guys becoming consistently successful behind Nola and Jake Arrieta.

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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.

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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news


At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon

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