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August 31, 2017

Brutal Phillies starters putting increased pressure on front office to act this winter

Perhaps it was fitting that the loss that officially clinched the Phillies’ fifth straight losing season (they haven’t had a winning season since 2011) came on a day when their starting pitcher put a six-spot on the scoreboard and was out of the game before recording an out in the third inning.

For the second time in eight days, a Phillies starter failed to pitch more than two innings on a day that team was playing a doubleheader. This is often the death knell to a pitching staff in any week, let alone during back-to-back weeks at the end of the fifth month of a sixth-month season.

But Jerad Eickhoff, who looked anguished as he grabbed the rosin bag behind the mound after serving up a run-scoring double to Nick Markakis in the third inning of Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Atlanta Braves, joined Nick Pivetta as a pitcher guilty of this offense in the last eight days. He delayed getting back on the mound just long enough for head team athletic trainer Scott Sheridan to jog out to the mound, and after a few words, accompany the 27-year-old right-hander back to the trainer’s room through the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park.

Eickhoff had a “tingling sensation” in his right arm, according to manager Pete Mackanin. After Eickhoff consulted with a doctor, the injury was termed “nerve irritation” in the pitcher’s right hand.

His status for the last four weeks of the season is uncertain. Eickhoff is the second of the Phillies top three young starting pitchers, along with Vince Velasquez (right middle finger “numbness”) to drop in the last three weeks.

It’s been that kind of year for the Phillies, who were on the losing end of the scoreboard five minutes into Game 2 on Wednesday, too, when rookie Mark Leiter Jr. allowed three of the first five batters he faced to reach base.

Aside from Aaron Nola’s ascension to legitimate top of the rotation arm, the summer of 2017 hasn’t produced much (or anything?) to get excited about on the pitching front. As Mackanin ran through a list of positives to take from another rebuilding season recently, he reeled off seven names of position players before someone piped up and asked if there was any pitcher (other than Nola) who stepped forward in their progress this season.

“(Hoby) Milner and (Adam) Morgan have been really good to see,” Mackanin said, naming the two lefties in his bullpen.

He also offered up Leiter, a 26-year-old the Phillies apparently didn’t think much of six months ago, when he went through his spring training in minor league camp. Regardless, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the pitching staff as a whole.

And if the Phillies hope to graduate from rebuilder to contender at some point in the next two seasons (which should be the goal, given that this rebuilding thing began in the fall of ’14), they’re going to need some pitching. A lot more than they have at the moment.

Here is a list of pitchers to start a game for the Phillies in 2017:

Jeremy Hellickson
Aaron Nola
Jerad Eickhoff
Nick Pivetta
Vince Velasquez
Zach Eflin
Ben Lively
Mark Leiter
Jake Thompson
Clay Buchholz

Here is a list of those pitchers who have an ERA above 5.00 this year:

Vince Velasquez
Nick Pivetta
Zach Eflin
Jake Thompson

Here is a list of those pitchers the average Phillies fan is genuinely excited about seeing in 2018:

Aaron Nola

The Phillies entered play on Wednesday just four games under .500 since the All-Star break. But they also entered the day with a 5.73 ERA from their starting pitchers not named Aaron Nola since the break … a number that rose to a ghastly 5.98 ERA in 35 games after Eickhoff’s outing.

But to narrow the focus on the starters to a seven-week period from mid-July to the end of August isn't a fair representation of how bad it’s been in 2017. The nine starters other than Nola had combined for a 5.14 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 108 games before Leiter took the mound late Wednesday afternoon in South Philly.

And while there would appear to be more impact bats at Triple-A, a couple of talented infielders who could follow Rhys Hoskins’ path to changing the shape of the Phillies’ offense in the first half of 2018, the impact pitching prospects are further away. Sixto Sanchez, who turned 19 a month ago, just got to Class A Clearwater where he basically replaced 22-year-old Franklyn Kilome, who has made all of four starts at Double-A Reading.

For all the talk and intrigue of joining the mix of teams interested in taking on Giancarlo Stanton’s massive contract (and getting his massive, attendance-swelling bat, too) through a trade, it’s probably better baseball business to seek out some arms through trades this winter instead. Go buy a bat the following year, during the free agent bonanza of ’18-19 (Harper and Machado and McCutchen, oh my!).

Dropping $120-200 million on a 30-year-old arm (which is how elite free agent pitching often works) is pretty much the definition of risky business. The first two years of those contracts might be fine, but after that, you’re entering the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee Danger Zone.

The better play, as mentioned here in detail before, is to seek out a younger, controllable arm through a trade, one you can continue to build a contender with alongside Nola in 2018. (A guy like the right-hander who started Wednesday afternoon for the Braves, in fact).

Because another year of middling arms that aren’t quite-MLB ready and unwanted veterans on one-year deals is going to lead to a pretty predictable path: the Phillies clinching their sixth straight losing season right around Labor Day weekend in 2018.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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