Outwardly, Gabe Kapler’s future as Phillies manager appears uncertain.
But that hasn’t stopped Kapler from talking like he’s going to skipper the team again in 2020.
The conversation before Saturday night’s penultimate game of the season centered around starting pitching and Kapler essentially anointed Zach Eflin as a member of the team’s 2020 rotation.
“The net of his last two seasons looks like an established major leaguer,” Kapler said. “I personally think Eflin has established himself as a dependable piece of a major-league rotation.”
Eflin sure looked like an established big-league starter Saturday night.
He’s looked like one off and on for the last two seasons and especially over his last seven starts this season.
He finished an up-and-down 2019 season with 7 2/3 innings of three-run ball in leading a 9-3 win over the Miami Marlins. Eflin had given up just one run until Neil Walker hit his 108th and final pitch over the wall in right for a two-run homer.
The home run did not diminish the good work that Eflin did.
“It was a proud moment for him walking off the mound,” Kapler said. “He knew that he had a great outing and his teammates congratulated him. Feel good moment for Zach, I’m sure.”
The Phillies backed Eflin with three homers, including Bryce Harper’s 35th, a three-run shot in the sixth.
The victory ensured at least a .500 season for the Phillies. A win in Sunday’s season finale would give them their first winning season since 2011.
“Gotta do it,” Harper said. “Gotta go out there and win tomorrow. That's huge for us. We can go 82-80. Of course that's not where we want to be, but winning seasons are good. It's a steppingstone into next year.”
It remains to be seen who will be leading next year’s team. Kapler’s future is up in the air. Pitching coach Chris Young is likely to be let go.
The perpetually upbeat Kapler has not allowed his uncertain job status to drag him down. He’s already thinking about next season and where Eflin fits into the rotation somewhere behind Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta and Cole Hamels. (Oops, sorry, too early for that.)
Eflin was one of four youngish pitchers that the Phillies banked on to take a step forward this season. Nick Pivetta and Jerad Eickhoff did not. Vince Velasquez made progress, but certainly not enough to be considered a lock for a spot in the rotation next season.
“I think the conversation about Vince needs to continue and Nick, I think, has some work to do this offseason,” Kapler said.
Eflin started off the year nicely, spun his wheels in the middle, lost his spot in the rotation then regained it down the stretch. He finished the season with a 2.83 ERA over his last seven starts. That success coincided with his re-finding himself as a pitcher. Team game plans had called for him to throw four-seam fastballs up in the zone, but he struggled with that approach in the middle of the season. When he returned to the rotation in mid-August, he went back to his comfort zone and featured sinking, two-seam fastballs. He started getting quicker outs and pitching deeper into games. His confidence grew and the team’s confidence in him also grew.
“I think at the end of the day I just wanted to go out there comfortable and that’s what I did these past six starts,” Eflin said. “Whether that means fastballs up or sinkers down, you know, really whatever is working in the bullpen is kind of what we’re going for in the game. Having a game plan to go off that is huge. Being able to execute pitches is huge. But for the most part in these last six starts, I think it was more gaining my confidence by executing pitches by using my curveball more, my changeup more and really just feeling comfortable out there.”
Not all of Eflin’s struggles this season were the result of game-planning that might not have fit his preferred style of pitching.
The lanky right-hander is not as physically strong as he could be. He wore down at times. He needs to get stronger this offseason. He doesn’t turn 26 until April so Mother Nature will take care of some of that. But he also plans to work hard in a conditioning program this winter.
“The most important thing would be to get on a pretty good workout routine and really kind of try to make some gains this year,” Eflin said. “Maybe increase my weight a little bit, lose a little body fat and be more conditioned going into spring training. Not that it affected me at all this year, but just getting on top of that. I’ll start throwing in December. I won’t change too much with what I did last offseason because I was pretty healthy the whole season. But really just staying locked in in the offseason and really just gearing up for 2020 and making sure I come to spring with all five pitches and I’m ready to go.”
Kapler believes a little more strength — “body armor,” as he called it — will help Eflin build durability.
“Zach is a strong, athletic guy,” Kapler said. “He can become even stronger and more athletic. I think that will come with physical maturity, with devotion and dedication to his off-season and in-season preparation in 2020. I think that’s an area of development for Zach that will make a big difference in his career.”
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