Though Aaron Nola had a down year in 2021 and Zach Eflin will be sidelined to start the 2022 regular season, the strength of the Phillies' roster is still starting pitching. It's their most reliable unit, with all five pitchers capable of performing like a No. 2 starter or better when they're on.
Zack Wheeler, the National League Cy Young runner-up to Corbin Burnes, went 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP last season. He led the majors with 213⅓ innings pitched.
Nola had a 4.63 ERA, his worst over a full season. His ERA the prior three years was 3.13 and his peripherals remained intact in 2021, so it's too early to say whether or not it was a fluke. Nola was at his worst last season with runners in scoring position -- his opponents hit .290 with a .904 OPS -- and had difficulty getting the final out when in a jam. Sequencing and two-strike command are major keys for him next season.
Ranger Suarez was a revelation in 2021, pitching to a 1.36 ERA over 106 innings in a variety of roles -- long reliever, closer, starter. He almost certainly won't post a sub-2.00 ERA as a starter again in 2022 but could have major value as a mid-rotation piece capable of consistently delivering six innings of two-run ball.
Kyle Gibson was performing at a career-best level with the Rangers before the deadline deal and then pitched more like his old self with the Phillies. His 5.09 ERA here was similar to his marks in 2020, 2019, 2017 and 2016. He is still one of the better No. 4 or No. 5 starters in a rotation given his ability to eat innings and typically keep his team in the game.
Eflin is a big question mark. He is coming off of September surgery to repair the patellar tendinitis he was experiencing in his right knee. The operation was expected to sideline Eflin until early May, and from there he'll have a ramp-up period. The ZiPS projection system forecasts him pitching 127 innings in 2022.
Because of Eflin's early-season absence and every team's perpetual need for more starting pitching, the Phillies will need rotation depth. Last season, they had so little depth that bullpen games became a regularity down the stretch of a division race. A reliever started for the Phillies nine times and that doesn't even include the consistently short outings from Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, Chase Anderson or Spencer Howard.
Beyond the Phillies' four healthy starting pitchers, Hans Crouse, Bailey Falter and Cristopher Sanchez are in the picture, as is lefty Scott Moss, a November waiver claim from Cleveland.
The Phils could use at least one more starting pitcher who has done it before at the big-league level. That doesn't mean going out and signing a Carlos Rodon or Clayton Kershaw, especially with more pressing needs in center field, left field and in the bullpen.
It does mean keeping an eye on the lower tiers of the starting pitching market. Last offseason, the Phillies signed Anderson and Moore to one-year deals worth a total of $7 million and both failed to do the job, combining for a 6.47 ERA in 121 innings.
So far this offseason, Corey Kluber has signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Rays, Michael Wacha signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Red Sox and Dylan Bundy signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Twins.
Others who may be signable to a similar contract include Danny Duffy, Johnny Cueto, Drew Smyly, Kwang Hyun Kim, Zach Davies, Chris Archer, Jose Ureña and Steven Brault.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Phillies take care of their pressing needs when the lockout ends and then sift through the remaining free-agent starting pitchers during spring training in hopes of a team-friendly contract. They could again use two more veteran arms, but those veteran arms need to perform better than the Moore-Anderson duo to give the Phillies a viable option early in the season or in case of injury. It may be a difficult sell to some of the available starters, though, since the Phils can't guarantee that spot would be open for even half of the season.