Updated: 8 p.m.
There's no question about who is No. 2 in the Phillies' rotation hierarchy this season. It's Zack Wheeler, the Phils' $118 million man.
Wheeler signed that five-year, $118 million contract in December, which feels closer to nine years ago than nine months ago. His Phils debut comes tonight against the Miami Marlins, a team he totally dominated throughout his five-year career with the Mets. In 14 starts against the Marlins, Wheeler was 7-3 with a 1.91. He's struck out 10.0 batters per nine innings and held the Fish to a .197 batting average.
And that was before he dominated the Fish on Saturday, allowing just a run over seven innings while inducing a career-high four double plays. Wheeler threw more pitches 98 mph or faster in the first inning Saturday than the Phillies got a from a starting pitcher all of last season.
Zack Wheeler has hit 98 mph three times in his first 9 pitches. A Phillies starting pitcher hit 98 once last season, Velasquez on April 19— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) July 25, 2020
You'll recall that last season, the Phillies were in bad shape most nights when Aaron Nola wasn't pitching. They tried to rectify that this offseason by signing Wheeler to be the No. 2 starter Jake Arrieta hasn't been here. Having two very good starters is much different than having one, and having three is worlds different than having one. By the middle of this 60-game season, we could be watching a promising 1-2-3 each time through the Phillies' rotation rather than wondering whether 80% of the rotation is capable of completing six innings. Since 2014, Phillies starting pitchers have a 4.50 ERA, third-worst in the National League, ahead of only the Rockies and Reds. Remove Nola from the equation and they have a 4.67 ERA over that span.
This year, with Wheeler and with top prospect Spencer Howard looming, it could be as talented a Phils rotation as we've seen since the Golden Era ended after 2011.
Once the service time considerations vanish after the first week of the season, Howard is a good bet to be added to the Phillies' 40-man roster and to their active roster. The Phillies will carry 16 pitchers for the first two weeks of the season and Howard is certainly one of their 16 best arms.
And once he joins the Phillies' rotation, Howard could quickly move ahead of Arrieta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez in the imaginary Phillies rotation power rankings. He has the stuff, he has the maturity, seems to have the poise and will also be facing major-league hitters unfamiliar with him, a temporary advantage. In our 2020 season predictions, Jimothy Von Ballscribe had Howard winning NL Rookie of the Year.
The expectations are high for Howard, who turns 24 on Tuesday. He has a big fastball with rise that can miss bats at the top of the zone, and his curveball and changeup are both plus pitches at times. The command is there, too, which isn't always the case for hard-throwing, highly touted pitching prospects.
And if/when Howard does eventually shift Velasquez to the bullpen with Pivetta, it would give the Phillies two power-armed right-handers in a suspect bullpen devoid of them. That side effect could prove to be just as important.
There is still baseball to be played until the Phillies reach that point, though, and tonight Wheeler looks to extend his mastery over Miami in his new uni.