Phillies

With or without Arrieta, Phillies have rotation depth, competition for jobs

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With or without Arrieta, Phillies have rotation depth, competition for jobs

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Phillies might not have that classic No. 1 starting pitcher that opponents fear, but they do have significant rotation depth.

Aaron Nola has been tabbed as the opening day starter (see story). After him, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez will slot in somewhere and Nick Pivetta might have an edge on the rest of the pack for a spot in the rotation. All of this is subject to change, of course, but for the time being, there might be one opening in the rotation — and none if Jake Arrieta decides that he wants to be a Phillie.

The most realistic candidates to fill out the rotation are Zach Eflin, who is healthy and firing, and Ben Lively, but there are plenty more that will get a look, including Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison, Drew Anderson and Tom Eshelman. Beyond that group, the Phils still have a number of starter prospects in camp, including Jose Taveras, Enyel De Los Santos, Cole Irvin, Brandon Leibrandt, Ranger Suarez and Franklyn Kilome. The organization will have no trouble stocking its Triple A and Double A rotations with prospects — and some tough decisions will have to be made on who goes where.

Lively kicked off his candidacy for a spot in the big-league rotation with two scoreless innings against the the Yankees on Monday night. The right-hander, who turns 26 next week, allowed just one hit and struck out three. He did not walk a batter.

Lively made his big-league debut last season and pitched to a 4.26 ERA in 15 starts. He is not a big strikeout guy — he struck out just 5.3 batters per nine innings — but has a bulldog quality that serves him well on the mound. He’s ready to compete for a spot in the rotation.

“Oh, yeah, everyone knows it’s a competition,” he said. “It’s fun to see everyone battle and compete. It’s awesome. It makes everyone better.”

Lively said he realized the importance of getting ahead of hitters and throwing inside last season. He said he learned to slow the game down, pitch to his strengths and not let “the big guys beat you.” He succeeded there on Monday night. One of his strikeouts came against Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 homers last season en route to winning the National League MVP award.

Eshelman also had a nice outing with two scoreless innings. He struck out two and walked none. Eshelman’s control is exceptional. He walked 1.1 batters per nine in 150 innings at Double A and Triple A last season and was the Phillies’ minor-league pitcher of the year. Eshelman is not on the 40-man roster. He lines up to return to Triple A, but could be a quick call-up if a need arises.

The Phillies lost to the Yankees, 4-3, on a solo homer by Miguel Andujar against Suarez in the bottom of the ninth.

Down to their last strike, the Phils tied the game at 3-3 on a solo homer by Scott Kingery in the top of the inning.

Eickhoff will make his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday against the Tigers. Velasquez will start Wednesday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

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

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NBCSP

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



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies