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July 05, 2020

Could Jake Arrieta be the Phillies' Opening Day starter?

With Nola absent from camp and Wheeler planning to leave for birth of child, the team may have no other choice.

UPDATE [Monday, 12:23 p.m.] — According to multiple reports, Phillies starter Aaron Nola reported to camp on Monday, which is a good sign that he could be ready for Opening Day later this month. There was originally some concern that the time away would put him behind the rest of his teammates when it comes to ramping up for game action.

Nola was also seen throwing in the bullpen at Citizens Bank Park. 


While we still don't know the actual schedule of games for the MLB's proposed start-of-the-season plan — that is likely coming out early this week — we do know that games are likely to begin later this month, reportedly around the 23rd or 24th, giving teams about 3 weeks of training to ramp up for the season after camps opened last week.

And the Phillies, who have already had four players placed on the leagues COVID-19 list according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, may be facing a bit of a problem. In addition to those four players — Scott Kingery, Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez and Tommy Hunter — three other players have been missing from the team's "summer camp" in South Philly, including two more projected Opening Day starters, centerfielder Adam Haseley and starting pitcher Aaron Nola, as well as non-roster catcher Christian Bethancourt.

Unlike Kingery, Neris and the others who the Phillies accidentally outed earlier this week, these three new players are not on the COVID list, but have been kept away for other reasons that could still be linked to the virus. 

According to Salisbury, Nola could also be in danger of missing the Opening Day start, an honor he's had each of the last two seasons, which would then go to prized offseason acquisition Zack Wheeler. 

"He is not here yet," manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "We're trying to work our way through that."

Nola is said to be working out, throwing, locally. It's unclear why he has not worked out with the club, though many things are unclear in the age of COVID-19. Girardi is prohibited from discussing anything related specifically to COVID-19. ...

Given that Nola has been throwing, it's still possible he could make the opening day start in three weeks. But if he's delayed much longer getting into camp, Wheeler could jump in. The right-hander threw to hitters on Saturday and his next outing could come in an intrasquad game, according to Girardi. That could put him considerably ahead of Nola.  []

But that's where things get really interesting. 

If Nola is unable to get ready in time to make the Opening Day start, Wheeler seems to be a solid backup plan. After all, that's the reason the Phillies went after him aggressively this winter. But given the fact that Wheeler's wife, Dominique, is expected to give birth to the couple's first child later this month, the Phillies could find themselves without either of their top two pitchers to start the season.

Previously, Wheeler voiced his concern over the league's plan to restart during a pandemic that still isn't entirely under control, especially the fact that he'd have to basically self-quarantine away from his wife during such an important time in their lives — not to mention the added risk that he could potentially transmit the virus to his wife and newborn child when he does leave the team. Ultimately, Wheeler decided to join the Phillies in camp, but he could disappear at any moment should his wife go into labor. 

And, most critically for the Phillies, he might not come back. At least this season.

Even if Wheeler decides to return immediately, with MLB's protocols surrounding COVID-19 and player safety, it wouldn't be a typical two-day paternity leave absence. Wheeler would have to self isolate and pass several tests before he would be allowed to return to the team, and given that his wife is due later this month, right around the time the season is expected to start, the Phillies have no guarantee that he'll be available to them for Opening Day, let alone any subsequent scheduled starts after that. 

Enter Jake Arrieta, the former Cy Young winner who's been a major disappointment since signing with the Phillies. He was out on the hill on Sunday doing some live BP at Citizens Bank Park.

Expected to be the Phillies third starter this season in the final guaranteed year of his contract — he has two more team options for 2021-22 — Arrieta may now find himself starting the shortened 2020 campaign atop the rotation if both Nola and Wheeler are unable to go. 

In his two seasons with the Phils, Arrieta has posted a 4.26 ERA in 55 starts and has hardly lived up to the three-year, $75 million contract the team handed him back in 2018. But he may get a chance to make a better impression on the fanbase in 2020. 

For starters, he's had plenty of time to heal from any past injury concerns, including from the elbow surgery that ended his 2019 campaign. And, as a veteran, he shouldn't take as long to ramp back up into game shape. On top of that, a shorter season should theoretically help him stay healthier — and expanded rosters (read: bullpens) should prevent him from being forced to throw longer than necessary in any given start. But he's not getting any younger, and after showing his age in recent seasons — like a 4.64 ERA and 1.474 WHIP in 2019 before the surgery — there's not a lot of reasons to think he'll return to Cy Young form at 34 years old. 

Still, the Phillies will need more from him than they've gotten in the past, especially if Nola isn't ready for Opening Day and Wheeler misses an extended amount of time (or possibly the entire season). 

Already entering camp without knowing who will be their fifth starter behind Nola, Wheeler, Arrieta and Zach Eflin puts the Phillies at a disadvantage. Now, they might start the season down their top two starters — and could be without their big offseason signing for the majority of the season. 

Following Sunday's workouts, manager Joe Girardi voiced his support of Wheeler if he decides to take time away from the team to be with his wife, as well as confirmed the idea that the team could be without Nola and Wheeler for the first week of the season (and possibly longer in Wheeler's case).

It's clearly going to be a strange season for baseball. And the Phillies are no exception. 

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