CLEARWATER, Fla. — It took all of four throws during Wednesday’s first official workout for Phillies pitchers and catchers to know that Jake Arrieta’s elbow wasn’t hurting anymore.
Pitchers and catchers took the field around 11 a.m. and started playing catch. Arrieta paired up with Vince Velasquez.
First toss, nice and easy.
Second toss, nice and easy.
Third toss, nice and easy.
Fourth toss, pffffft!
And then another one.
And another one ...
They weren't thrown from a mound and they weren't thrown in a competitive environment with a hitter at the plate. But the ball continually came out of Arrieta’s hand smoothly, almost effortlessly, and it had life as it branded Velasquez’ glove with a loud thwack!
Truer tests will come over the next six weeks of spring training and beyond.
But on Day 1 — and after a season of not being able to let the ball go without feeling a grabbing sensation in his elbow – this was pretty good look from Arrieta.
“Well, I'm 100 percent healthy, so that's nice,” the soon-to-be 34-year-old right-hander said. “Injuries are frustrating.”
Arrieta signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies two springs ago. In two seasons with the club, he is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA in 55 starts. The Phillies believed they would get more for their money than that, but, as Arrieta said, injuries are frustrating. He pitched through knee soreness that resulted in a surgical cleanup after the 2018 season and had to shut down in mid-August of last season to have a loose body and a bone spur surgically cleaned out of his elbow.
“I was able to have a normal off-season,” Arrieta said. “My throwing progression has been great and has continued to be really good and won't miss a beat. Yeah, I feel great.”
The elbow issues last year prevented Arrieta from getting full extension when he released the ball and that affected location and movement on his pitches. It also prevented him from torqueing his breaking stuff.
“I couldn't use two of my weapons,” he said. “I really didn't use the curveball as well as I could have because of the elbow. Any time I oriented my hand in that position with the cutter, the curveball, it shortened my outing even more because of the swelling and the pain in the elbow. When you go out there with just a fastball and a changeup -- and the changeup's really not even that good at the time -- it's hard to get outs. It's hard to pitch two times through the order and three times through the order was almost undoable. But not having that issue anymore and being able to feel free and easy and not be restricted with my elbow is going to be really good for me.”
Good health has Arrieta motivated to have a strong season. And there’s also the added incentive of pitching for his next contract. He will be a free agent at season’s end.
“I’m doing everything I can to control the way I prepare and take care of myself to the best of my ability,” he said. “If I’m able to do that and stay healthy, the performances will be good.”
Pitching will decide how far this team goes. So the Phillies need a good season from Arrieta and the rest of the starting staff that includes Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin and either Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta. The Phils also need good health in the rotation because there is not much depth. As things stand, Cole Irvin and possibly Ranger Suarez are starting pitching depth. Prospect Spencer Howard is ticketed to open at Triple A – with a season innings limit that will factor into his timetable for arriving in the majors.
“Spencer has an innings limit so we have to think about this because we believe at some point he’s going to play a role for us,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We can’t go wear him out by June so we have to think about that.”
With good health, Arrieta believes the Phillies’ rotation can succeed in an NL East that features some outstanding rotations.
“I’m not really worried about other rotations,” Arrieta said. “I like what we have. Obviously getting to be a teammate with a guy like Nola for the last couple of years and seeing how he works and how much he really puts into his craft; I don’t know if there is a better prepared guy out there. I just love watching him go about his business and prepare for each start in his own way.
"Watching the transformation and the continued growth of guys like Eflin and Vinny and Pivetta, these guys are going to continue to take steps forward. Bringing Wheeler into the mix -- from afar I’ve seen him be really, really good. He has had ups and downs just like all of us have had. I look forward to watching him take another step forward and I look forward to getting to know him a little bit better and see what he’s like as a person.”
All the Phillies pitchers will be working with a new pitching coach in Bryan Price. The organization is counting on him to oversee improvement in the staff. It’s pretty much imperative if this team is going to contend.
And can the Phillies contend?
“Yes,” Arrieta said.
“I believed it the last two years, too. We’ve had great teams, but one team wins it. One out of thirty. Everybody has high expectations and everybody wants to make the playoffs and win the World Series, but over the course of a season you go through a lot of ups and downs and injuries and underperforming and sometimes you get flat-out beat by the other side. It is what it is.
“This year, I believe will be different. Everybody in here does. We’ve got a more veteran presence in here than we’ve had, which is nice, and some really good athletes and players. But we’ll see. I can’t predict the future. I just know the group that we have here is capable of getting the job done.”