Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

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Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

The mitts will start popping Wednesday morning when Phillies pitchers and catchers assemble for their first official workout of the spring on the emerald fields of Carpenter Complex in Clearwater.

The group of candidates vying for spots in the starting rotation will look familiar. While the club made upgrades in the lineup (Carlos Santana) and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), the rotation went untouched.

Aaron Nola comes into camp deserving to be Gabe Kapler's first opening day starter. Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin will be looking to bounce back from late-season health issues, and Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively will try to build on valuable experience gained last season. Strike-throwing Tom Eshelman, the organization's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2017, will be someone to watch, as will other prospects, including Drew Anderson and Jose Taveras.

Now, will there be a mystery guest coming to camp?

Quite possibly.

As new manager Kapler said last month, general manager Matt Klentak "is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective. That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation."

Klentak has talked all winter about his desire to add a starting pitcher, but he has made no promises and his quest has come with qualifiers. He has been leery of the price tags attached to top free agents (especially in length of contract) and trade candidates (quality of prospects needed to acquire). Also, Klentak, still steward of a rebuild, has had to balance his desire to add a pitcher with the need to make sure there are innings and opportunities for the current group of young pitchers to improve and reach their potential.

The glacial free-agent pitching market finally began to thaw over the weekend with Yu Darvish reaching agreement on a six-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and others should begin to follow as camps get set to open.

The Phillies have long been speculated as a potential landing spot for Arrieta, mostly because they have deep pockets, loads of room in their budget and a need for a starting pitcher. But Arrieta will turn 32 in March and the Phils are of no mind to go six years for a pitcher that age. If Arrieta decides to go for a shorter, one- or two-year deal then quickly head back out on the free-agent market, the Phils might strike. However, the competition for Arrieta on a short-term deal would be significant and logic dictates he would want to sign with a contender under those terms, not a team in a rebuild.

So, if an addition is made, it seems more likely that it would come from the second tier of available pitchers.

A general manager's quest to upgrade his starting rotation is neverending. That's how important starting pitching is. Klentak's short-term quest to upgrade the staff will intensify in July if his upgraded offense and bullpen has the Phillies poking around wild-card contention.

In the meantime, the Phillies go into camp with what looks like a cast of mid-rotation starters.

Nola leads the group after resoundingly answering health (elbow) concerns in 2017. Not only did the 24-year-old right-hander check out physically, he also took a step forward in his performance and became the reliable starter the team projected him to be when it selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft.

Nola struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings and his 3.54 ERA in 27 starts ranked 20th in the majors. He delivered 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.

While Nola progressed, the balance of the rotation had ups and downs as the staff pitched to a 4.80 ERA (21st in the majors) and allowed an .806 OPS (fourth from the bottom) to opposing hitters.

Pivetta showed big strikeout stuff despite not consistently pitching deep into games. Eickhoff, Velasquez and Eflin struggled with inconsistency and ended the season on the disabled list. The team hopes these pitchers, all now healthy, will step forward this season. For Eickhoff, it's a matter of regaining the health and mechanics that helped him lead the staff with a 3.65 ERA in 2016. For Eflin, it's a matter of staying healthy after a series of issues. Health is also an issue for the electric-armed Velasquez, but so is focus and economy of pitches. 

Given the value placed on starting pitching, it is understandable that the team has been patient in trying to develop the 25-year-old Velasquez. But the time could come, maybe this season, when continued struggles lead to a shift to the bullpen. That certainly could be an intriguing option for Velasquez, though the team hopes it never comes to pass.
The Phillies head into spring training with a new pitching coach as Rick Kranitz has moved up from the assistant's role to replace Bob McClure. Chris Young and former big-league pitcher Jim Gott have joined the staff as assistant pitching coach and bullpen coach, respectively. The Phillies are clearly throwing some depth of instructive personnel at their pitchers.

Hey, it all starts with the pitching and that all starts Wednesday in Clearwater.

Former Phillies prospect Jon Singleton released by Astros

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Former Phillies prospect Jon Singleton released by Astros

During that time period when the Phillies were selling out every night, stacking division crowns and chasing veteran stars who fit, one of their prospects everyone wanted was Jon Singleton.

A first baseman, Singleton was blocked by Ryan Howard, and the Phillies eventually included him in one of their blockbusters, trading him along with Domingo Santana, Jarred Cosart and Josh Zeid to the Astros for Hunter Pence.

Houston saw a lot of potential in Singleton, who showed power and routinely had huge walk totals in the minors. The Astros took a unique chance on Singleton in 2014, signing him to a historic contract that guaranteed $10 million, even though he had yet to see a major-league pitch at that point.

The deal evoked strong reactions on both sides, with Cardinals pitcher Bud Norris tweeting that week: "Sorry but this Singleton deal is terrible. Wish the Jon listened to the union and not his agent."

Turns out, that deal was the right call for Singleton, who was released Monday night by the Astros.

Singleton is currently serving a 100-game suspension for a third positive drug test. The first two were marijuana-related.

Singleton is still just 26 years old, so he probably will resurface once his suspension is up. But his is one of many cautionary tales of why you shouldn't overvalue most prospects when you have an opportunity to add a star.

Pivetta's emergence, Alfaro's cannon, and what 27-18 means

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Pivetta's emergence, Alfaro's cannon, and what 27-18 means

At 27-18 after winning the first of a crucial three-game series against the Braves, the Phillies have the second-best record in the National League and the third-fewest losses in the majors, behind only the Yankees and Red Sox.

Seriously ... who would have thought the first 45 games would play out this way? Certainly not Vegas, where most books set the Phillies' over-under at 75½.

Let's take a look at some of the most interesting Phillies-related developments of the last week, starting with the word on everyone's mind:

Last season, only five teams — the Astros, Yankees, Nationals, Diamondbacks and Rockies — had this strong a start, record-wise.

All five of them made the playoffs, winning at least 87 games.

Going back two seasons, 11 of the 13 teams to start this fast made the playoffs, and going back another, it's 15 of 20.

The Phillies have not arrived at this record with dumb luck. They've outscored their opponents by 38 runs. They're fourth in the NL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. 

"Yeah, but they beat up on bad teams."

That's not even really true. The Phillies are 17-15 this season against teams .500 or better, including 8-3 in their last 11.

Perspective on Pivetta
After another gem last night, Nick Pivetta has a 3.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Those are ace-like numbers nearly identical to 2017 Zack Greinke's (3.20 ERA, 1.07 WHIP).

Over his last three starts, Pivetta has pitched 19 innings and allowed one run on 12 baserunners while striking out 25. 

Pivetta is the only pitcher in the National League this season with at least 60 strikeouts and no more than 12 walks. In the AL, only Corey Kluber and Rick Porcello have done it.

And keep in mind, this is a guy who four starts ago allowed six runs in an inning. Take away that game at Nationals Park — which, I know, you can't — and Pivetta has a 2.25 ERA.

In a perfect world, the Phillies wanted Pivetta to become a reliable No. 3 starter this season. So far, he's been much more.

Alfaro's arm
When he first saw Jorge Alfaro in spring training, former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Alfaro may have the strongest throwing arm he's ever seen from a catcher.

Last night, Gabe Kapler compared Alfaro favorably to Pudge Rodriguez.

If it seems like Alfaro has an uncommon cannon behind the plate, it's because he does. Alfaro's throws this season have averaged 90.5 mph, by far the fastest in the majors among catchers. J.T. Realmuto is next at 87.6 mph.

Alfaro had two base-stealers nabbed last night but caught only one because the throw was bobbled on Freddie Freeman's attempt. Still, Alfaro has thrown out 30 percent of would-be base-stealers, which is better than the league average.

Clutch off the bench
The Phillies already have three pinch-hit home runs this season after totaling just four in each of the past two seasons.

Two of the homers were from Nick Williams, and Aaron Altherr answered with his own last night. These guys are just in perpetual competition.

Williams, by the way, has hit .313 with a .405 OBP in his last 15 games.

Finally, a home-field advantage
After posting the worst home record in all of MLB from 2014-17, the Phillies have the majors' best home record this season at 17-6.

The Phils have outhomered their opponents, 32-19, at Citizens Bank Park and outhit them .258 to .220.

While most would be inclined to attribute this to fans packing the park to finally see a winner, that really hasn't been the case so far. The Phillies' attendance is improved from the last few seasons, but they're still at just 58.3 percent capacity at CBP.