Zach Eflin

Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

Interested in reading something Phillies-related that doesn't pertain to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

There are about 40 other players who could make an impact for the Phils in 2019 beyond the two superstars. And several of them are facing crucial, perhaps career-altering seasons.

In no particular order...

Vince Velasquez

It's definitely make-or-break time for Vinny Velo. In his three seasons with the Phillies, Velasquez has a 4.63 ERA and below-average rates of allowing walks and home runs.

The biggest source of frustration with Velasquez has been the high pitch counts and early exits. In his 69 starts as a Phillie, he has averaged 5.05 innings per start.

In 23 of those starts — so exactly one-third of the time — Velasquez hasn't been able to complete five innings. In 39 of the 69 starts, he hasn't completed six.

Velasquez will turn 27 the first week of June. He's no longer a very young starting pitcher with tons of unrealized potential. This is the year he needs to definitively show the Phillies he can go deeper into games and be more than a strikeout artist. 

Velasquez has struck out 381 batters in 350 innings as a Phillie, but this is an era when velocity and strikeouts are more common than ever before. He needs to take a step forward this season, and that step forward would involve getting closer to an average of six innings per start ... if he is indeed in the rotation to open the season.

It's also an important season for Nick Pivetta, but Pivetta is a bit farther along, has more weapons in his arsenal and commands more confidence from Phillies decision-makers.

Hector Neris

Phillies president Andy MacPhail said at the end of the season that the 2018 Phillies were the most inconsistent team he's ever been associated with. 

No player exemplified that in 2018 more than Neris, who had a 6.90 ERA from March 29 until being sent to the minors after his meltdown on June 29. Over those 33 appearances, Neris allowed 11 home runs in 30 innings and his opponents had a .981 OPS. He couldn't command his splitter, and his fastball was being launched with regularity.

Then Neris went down to the minors, regained confidence in the splitter, came back to the majors and was lights-out.

Over his final 20 appearances, Neris had a 2.04 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average. He struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced.

This isn't a make-or-break season for Neris' MLB longevity but it could be for him as a trustworthy late-inning reliever. Relievers in high-leverage situations simply cannot allow as many home runs as Neris did this past season. So many mistakes cannot be left over the middle of the plate. 

The Phillies have a host of late-inning options next season — Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano and Neris. If Neris can replicate that second-half success, it would do wonders for the Phillies' bullpen and could keep him in the mix in the years to come.

Neris turns 30 in June and has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season.

Jerad Eickhoff

Following a season lost to a nerve issue in his wrist/arm, Eickhoff is looking to reestablish himself as a capable major-league starter in 2019.

With the numbness and tingling gone from his right hand, the hope is that Eickhoff and that equalizing curveball can provide quality innings for the Phils. He sure did in 2015 and 2016, when he posted a 3.44 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 41 starts. 

In those 41 starts, Eickhoff averaged 6.1 innings, struck out 7.8 batters per nine and walked just 2.0. Those are the stats of a low-end No. 2 starter or high-end No. 3. 

Which is exactly what the Phillies need.

Eickhoff's fastball has been a concern through the years. There isn't a ton of bite or movement to it, and at around 90 mph, it gets hammered when it catches too much of the strike zone. Seven times in Eickhoff's career, his fastball has averaged between 92.0 and 92.9 mph in a game. But it's happened just once in his last 47 outings. We will see if a healthier arm and more normal throwing schedule lead to increased velocity.

There is no convincing reason why Eickhoff, who turns 29 the first week of July, cannot be a more reliable starter for the Phillies than Velasquez or Zach Eflin. Eickhoff's curveball is every bit as effective as Velasquez's fastball or Eflin's sinker and probably more so.

He also has the intangible traits that organizations and teammates love — a bulldog mentality, a desire to work and a willingness to hold himself accountable. 

The Phillies need at least one young starter to step up in 2019, especially with how much the division has improved. Not just for five starts in April or a few starts in June, but for a stretch that lasts closer to two months.

Later in the week, we'll take a look at Phillies position players facing equally important 2019 seasons.

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Phillies lose 2 players and another game, fall to .500 on the season

Phillies lose 2 players and another game, fall to .500 on the season

BOX SCORE

DENVER – The Phillies have not announced their starting pitching rotation for the final weekend of the season, so there’s no official word on whether ace Aaron Nola will pitch again in 2018. He had been scheduled to make his final start on Friday. It’s possible he could move back a day, picking up some extra rest, and pitch Saturday. It’s possible he could be shut down. It’s possible he stays on turn and pitches Friday.

More will be known in the next day or so.

One guy who will not pitch this weekend is Zach Eflin. He was removed from an ineffective start in the third inning Monday night. After the game – an ugly 10-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies – manager Gave Kapler announced that Eflin was removed from the game because he was experiencing soreness in his left side.

Eflin, who gave up five hits and five runs, said he’d been managing the issue for a couple of starts, but it flared in this game. He will travel back to Philadelphia on Tuesday to be examined by team doctors and it's safe to say his season is over.

Eflin, 24, finishes at 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA in 24 starts. The highlight of his season was the month of June. He was arguably the team’s MVP that month, going 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA in five starts.

The Phillies did not add starting pitching at the trade deadline and the team collapsed shortly afterward. The club is likely to add starting pitching this winter. Nola and Jake Arrieta’s spots in the rotation will be safe. Eflin will come into camp and compete for a spot in the back half of the rotation. He has the tools to be a successful big-league starter, but needs consistency.

Phillies are dropping

Literally and figuratively. 

In addition to Eflin, outfielder Aaron Altherr went down Monday night when he crashed face-first into the left-field wall trying to make a catch. He suffered a sprained right toe and a bruised right knee. He was also being evaluated for a concussion.

With six games left, he is probably done for the season.

Where they stand

The Phillies have lost five in a row. They are 15-30 since being in first place in the NL East on Aug. 5. They were 15 games over .500 then. They are now at .500 with six games to play and a sixth straight losing season is looming.

A bright spot

Roman Quinn continued to audition in center field. He made a long run and a diving catch in Coors Field’s spacious outfield in the first inning and jetted around the bases for a triple in the eighth. Quinn has game-changing speed. If he can stay healthy — a challenge, always — he could be this club’s opening day centerfielder next season.

And speaking of auditions …

Carlos Santana played third base again. Is there something to this? (see story)

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A glimpse of what could make Zach Eflin a complete pitcher

A glimpse of what could make Zach Eflin a complete pitcher

These last six weeks, the Phillies have desperately needed a starting pitcher other than Aaron Nola to step up to keep them alive in the NL East race. 

Zach Eflin has been that guy two starts in a row, allowing one run in 11 innings in victories over the Marlins and Mets. If the Phillies lose one of those games, they lose the series and their already slim playoff hopes reach critical condition. 

The most impressive aspect of Eflin’s night Wednesday in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Mets was his changeup, specifically to the dangerous Michael Conforto. Eflin trusted the pitch vs. lefties and executed it as well as he has all season. 

After retiring him twice (the first time on a swinging strikeout), Eflin faced Conforto in the fifth inning with two on and two outs. The Phils’ lead was on the line in that moment, with the Mets’ best power hitter at the plate two nights after homering and driving in six runs. 

Eflin got Conforto to swing over a 3-2 changeup and the crisis was averted. The Mets didn’t threaten again. 

You don’t want to overemphasize one good start from a young pitcher, but if Eflin’s confidence in his changeup grew Wednesday, it’s a night you’ll think back to as his career unfolds. At various points in the season, all four of Eflin’s pitches — four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup — have looked like plus pitches. 

He has a lot in his toolkit. He can throw a four-seamer by a hitter at 95 up in the zone. He can keep the ball in the infield, as he did Wednesday when just one of 21 Mets put the ball in the air against him. He can use the slider’s movement to complement the opposite movement from his two-seamer. 

If Eflin can effectively throw that changeup to powerful left-handed hitters, he can be a reliable mid-rotation piece for years to come. 

He’s the lone Phillies starter who will not pitch this weekend in Atlanta, but Eflin will indeed face dangerous lefties like Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis in his remaining two starts. 

Blackmon and Freeman are both red-hot, in zones where they’re capable of hitting every type of pitcher they face. Go pull up a clip of Blackmon’s rainmaker off Clayton Kershaw Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

Eflin will likely need that changeup to work against them like it did Conforto. With every remaining game carrying massive importance, the Phillies’ playoff hopes could depend on it. 

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