With uncertainty at the top of the rotation, can Phillies' other starters step up?

With uncertainty at the top of the rotation, can Phillies' other starters step up?

There was a lot of talk over the winter and into the spring about the Phillies having a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation.

Rightfully so. 

The Phillies handed free agent Zack Wheeler a five-year, $118 million contract in December to slide into the second spot in the rotation behind established ace Aaron Nola. With Nola and Wheeler at the top of the rotation, the rest of the arms could simply fall into place behind them. The Phillies had every right to think their pitching staff would be vastly improved in 2020, significantly better than the unit that struggled throughout the 2019 season.

Times have changed.

As the Phillies ramp up "summer camp" at Citizens Bank Park to prepare for an abbreviated 60-game season, there is suddenly plenty of uncertainty pertaining to their top two starting pitchers. 

Nola missed the first three days of camp before reporting on Monday. He was kept away from the team due to COVID-19 protocols — Nola didn't test positive for the virus but he was in contact with someone who did (see story). It's certainly good news that Nola surfaced at camp and threw a bullpen session. But 18 days out from opening day, it's a stretch to think the Phillies will have the best version of Nola out of the gates this season.

Then there's Wheeler, who admitted on Sunday that he has reservations about playing this season with his wife set to deliver the couple's first child at the end of July. Wheeler mentioned he could reconsider his decision whether to play after the baby arrives. 

The combination of Nola's late arrival and Wheeler's uncertain status has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the rotation. Will the other starters step up? Let's examine that question on a case-by-case basis. 

Jake Arrieta

The 34-year old Arrieta enters the final year of a three-year, $75 million contract he signed prior to the 2018 season. The Phillies have not gotten their money's worth out of that deal — Arrieta is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA in 55 starts during two injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia. He pitched through a knee injury two years ago, then had his 2019 season cut short due to an elbow injury. 

In one of our "Phillies Return to Play'"shows last week, Jim Salisbury identified Arrieta as perhaps the biggest X-factor in this 2020 Phillies season. 

Can he resemble the Arrieta that won a Cy Young in 2015 and helped the Cubs to a World Series title in 2016? The Phillies sure hope so, particularly with the question marks surrounding the two guys ahead of him in the rotation.

Zach Eflin

Eflin is poised to have a breakout 2020 season, even if he only makes a maximum of 12 starts. At 26 years old and entering his fifth MLB season, Eflin has shown the potential to be a very good big-league starter. He just needs to prove he can perform at a high level consistently.

He had a 4.13 ERA in 32 games (28 starts) last season. There was plenty of good (a pair of complete game victories) and bad (a late-season demotion to the bullpen). 

Eflin should benefit greatly from the presence of new pitching coach Bryan Price. Eflin is at his best when he's throwing his sinker down in the zone, not trying to get hitters out with high fastballs as former pitching coach Chris Young instructed him to do. 

Look for Eflin to pitch to his strengths this season. It could translate into a career year, albeit an abbreviated one. 

Vince Velasquez/Nick Pivetta

It's easy to lump Velasquez and Pivetta together due to their many similarities. Both guys have terrific stuff and have looked dominant at times in their careers. But they both have struggled mightily to find any type of consistency. 

Both Velasquez and Pivetta have been used as relievers. Is that how they will be used this season? Time will tell, but for now they are competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. If either of them can finally harness all of their natural talent, it will be a major boost to the Phillies pitching staff.  

Spencer Howard

Initially, the 23-year old Howard was expected to start his 2020 season in the minor leagues. He was also expected to have an innings limit and eventually be shut down late in the season. Due to the events of the last four months, plans have changed. The organization's top pitching prospect will have every opportunity to crack the opening day roster and perhaps the starting rotation. 

Howard threw off the mound at CBP to live hitters on Monday. If he impresses over the next two weeks, don't be surprised to see him play a prominent role right from the outset of the regular season. 

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Phillies’ season resumes tonight with major challenge against Gerrit Cole at Yankee Stadium

Phillies’ season resumes tonight with major challenge against Gerrit Cole at Yankee Stadium

The only pitcher last offseason who joined a new team on a contract richer than Zack Wheeler’s was Gerrit Cole, the ace the Phillies face tonight at Yankee Stadium. 

Cole, who's won his first two starts this season, is a major challenge on any night but particularly when his 98 mph fastball and filthy breaking ball are being thrown to hitters who haven’t seen live pitching in eight days like the Phillies. The Phils’ bats likely need to shake off some rust. Good luck with that tonight. 

Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract in December just days after the Phillies signed Wheeler for $118 million over five years. The other big-name pitcher on the market was Stephen Strasburg, who followed a historic postseason by re-upping with the Nationals for $245 million over seven years. Cole’s AAV is $36 million, Strasburg’s is $35 million and Wheeler’s is $23.6 million. It will be interesting to see which starting pitcher gives his team the best bang for its buck over these next five years.

While Cole’s deal is for $11 million less than Bryce Harper’s in total, his AAV is much higher than Harper’s $25.4 million. Given that a position player plays five times more games in a normal season than a starting pitcher, Harper could end up providing his team more value during the life of his contract than Cole ... but let’s talk again in a decade.

If Cole indeed helps the Yankees win their first World Series since 2009 and second this millennium, nobody will question whether he was worth the money. Think back to that offseason before ‘09 when the Yankees committed $423.5 million to free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. 

Teixeira hit just .248 with the Yankees with an .822 OPS, far below expectations. But he also was the AL MVP runner-up in 2009 and the Yankees won it all his first season. 

Burnett had a 4.79 ERA in 98 career starts with the Yankees. But he also dominated the Phillies in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series to prevent his team from falling behind, at home, 2-0.

Big picture, both were worth it simply for the result of that season. The Yankees’ expectation with Cole is to win more than once, but even one title would probably make the deal worthwhile. 

The Phillies, with Harper, are a lot farther away, both because they haven’t acquired and/or developed young talents like Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, but also because the Yankees have probably the best bullpen in baseball and the Phillies might have the worst. Pay close attention to that in the four games this week. The Yankees have elite lefties Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, devastating righty Adam Ottavino and flamethrowing Tommy Kahnle. All four would be, by far, the best pitcher in a Phillies bullpen that has only one somewhat proven late-inning reliever: Hector Neris.

The Yankees have been ahead of the curve over the last handful of years building deep and uber-talented bullpens. And while it’s been more than a decade since they won it all, their GM Brian Cashman has done a remarkable job of building a major-market powerhouse that develops as well as it spends.

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Have any Phillies considered opting out of MLB season after Yoenis Cespedes, Lorenzo Cain, Francisco Liriano?

Have any Phillies considered opting out of MLB season after Yoenis Cespedes, Lorenzo Cain, Francisco Liriano?

Left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano, a surprise cut by the Phillies days before the regular season began on July 24, has opted out of the 2020 MLB season, according to Robert Murray.

The 36-year-old Liriano looked poised to win an important spot in the Phillies' thin bullpen but was granted his release on July 18. The Phillies cited a desire to look at younger arms, though there also appeared to be financial matters at play regarding guaranteed money in this altered 60-game season.

Even at 36, Liriano could still have been a capable left-handed specialist in someone's bullpen this season. According to Murray, Liriano had multiple guaranteed offers but decided not to play.

The timing of his opt-out comes the same weekend that Brewers centerfielder Lorenzo Cain opted out of the 2020 season. The Brewers-Cardinals series has been postponed all weekend as numerous Cardinals have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

The Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes also opted out Sunday after no-showing his team’s game against the Braves. He went 5 for 31 with two homers the first week of the season. The Phillies and Mets are set to meet 10 times, the first series coming in mid-August at Citizens Bank Park with the other seven games in September.

The Phillies had all seven of their games postponed this week. They're set to make up all four against the Yankees this Monday through Thursday, and they could make up the Blue Jays series later in the season with doubleheaders when the teams meet Sept. 18-20.

Asked over the weekend if he knew of any Phillies players considering opting out, manager Joe Girardi said this:

"No, that has not happened in our clubhouse. The chatter I hear is guys saying, 'Let's go, we're ready to go, let's go.' That's the chatter I've heard so far. And again, if a player chooses to opt out, I fully support him because playing this game is hard enough and if your mind has concerns in other places, it's really gonna be hard."

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