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March 22, 2019

Phillies season preview: Beyond Aaron Nola, just how good can the starting rotation be?

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Aaron-Nola-Phillies_032219_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola during the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla.

Over the last two weeks of spring training, the Phillies turn their prep work to get ready for the regular season into overdrive.

We'll do the same thing here at PhillyVoice. As the March 28 season opener against the Braves approaches, we'll break down everything you need to know to get ready for one of the most anticipated Phillies seasons ever.

Let's take a look at the starting pitching...


The Phillies underwent a ton of change this offseason, but the one area that remains the same from a year earlier is the starting rotation. 

There was some speculating that Matt Klentak and the Phils would target a big-name starter this offseason, as they were rumored to be one of the teams interested in still-unsigned Dallas Keuchel. While they could still make a move to add firepower before the season begins next week, it appears the Phillies are ready to enter the 2019 season with their current crop of starting pitchers — and considering it's led by a 2018 Cy Young Finalist in Aaron Nola and a former Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta, things could be much worse. 

Furthermore, the additions made behind those starter should help as well, whether that's in the form of more run support or a stronger bullpen (more on that tomorrow). Nola is a year older; Arrieta is healthy once again, and the rest of the Phillies young rotation, just like the team as a whole, appears poised to take a step forward in 2019. 

Here's a closer look at the Phillies rotation...

Scouting report

Throughout our season preview series, we've been able to take a deeper look at each position, but with five starting pitchers to break down in this post, let's get right into the numbers.


2018
W-L
2018 season
stats
2019 projected
stats*
Career
WAR
Aaron Nola (25)
17-62.37 ERA, 0.975 WHIP
224 K, 54 BB, 212 IP
3.15 ERA, 1.098 WHIP
197 K, 53 BB, 183 IP
16.6
Jake Arrieta (33)10-113.96 ERA, 1.286 WHIP
138 K, 58 BB, 172.2 IP
3.81 ERA, 1.252 WHIP
146 K, 57 BB, 163 IP
23.1
Nick Pivetta (26)7-144.77 ERA, 1.305 WHIP
188 K, 51 BB, 164 IP
4.76 ERA, 1.323 WHIP
170 K, 54 BB, 155 IP
2.0
Zach Eflin (24)11-84.36 ERA, 1.305 WHIP
123 K, 37 K, 128 IP
4.47 ERA, 1.282 WHIP
116 K, 38 BB, 131 IP
1.8
Vince Velasquez (26)9-124.85 ERA, 1.343 WHIP
161 K, 59 BB, 146.2 IP
4.50 ERA, 1.336 WHIP
149 K, 55 BB, 140 IP
4.8

*Stats and projections via baseball-reference.com

As you can see, there's a pretty steep drop between the top two starters, Nola and Arrieta, and the other three, which currently consists of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez, the last of which could find himself out of the starting rotation following a poor showing this spring. 

In just three starts down in Florida (6.1 innings total), Velasquez has allowed nine earned runs on 11 hits, including three home runs, but the 26-year-old righty has shown flashes of brilliance before, which is likely why the Phillies have been so hesitant to move on from him despite past struggles. After an injury-plagued 2017 season, VV started 30 games in 2018 and posted his best FIP (3.75) since joining the Phillies, while also posting a career high in strikeouts with 161 in 146.2 innings. If he's unable to improve on his terrible spring training numbers, Velasquez could find himself fighting to hold on to that final starting spot, as Jerad Eickhoff, who currently appears to be the odd man out, tries to work his way back into the rotation. 

As for Pivetta and Eflin, they seem to be locked into their spots in the Phillies rotation. Both players are still in their mid-20s, and both are still growing as MLB pitchers, with a combined 104 starts between them. Eflin, who came over from the Dodgers in the Jimmy Rollins trade, was originally a first-round pick by the Padres back in 2012. The young righty made huge strides in 2018, improving in nearly every meaningful statistical category while posting a positive WAR (2.2) for the first time in his career. Pivetta, meanwhile, is about to embark on his third season as a Phillies starter and has already seen his numbers improve from Year 1 to Year 2. If he can simply keep those stats trending in the right direction, he can be a solid third starter for the Phillies, who acquired him when they traded Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals.

When it comes to the back end of the Phillies rotation, it appears they're putting a premium on youth, and relying on the fact that their young pitchers will all improve after having a chance to get some legit major league experience while the rest of the organization was undergoing a rebuild.

But where the Phillies will really make their money is at the top of the rotation, where they have a former Cy Young winner in Arrieta and a potential future Cy Young winner in Aaron Nola. 

Last season, Nola was a revelation, while Arrieta was a bit of a disappointment, especially after he was one of the Phillies biggest additions of last offseason. Sure, Arrieta ultimately put up some solid numbers for the Phillies, but it wasn't what fans were hoping for when they signed him to a three-year, $75 million deal last March. In his four full seasons with the Cubs, Arrieta posted an average WAR of 4.8, but last year with the Phillies, that number dropped to just a 1.6 WAR. His ERA, WHIP, FIP and SO/9 were all his lowest since 2013, the season he was traded from the Orioles to the Cubs. 

Of course, some of those struggles could be attributed to the fact that Arrieta pitched with a knee injury through the better part of 2018. Hopefully, with a repaired meniscus, Arrieta will return to form in 2019.

And then there was one — Aaron Nola, the Phillies' ace and arguably the team's best player. Yes, that includes Bryce Harper, who has never posted a season with a WAR as high as Nola's 10.5 last season, not even when he won the N.L. MVP back in 2015. And, if you think that's cherry-picking, Nola's last two seasons have produced 15 wins above replacement; Harper has never had back-to-back seasons with a 15 WAR, and in his last four seasons combined, Harper's 17.4 WAR is still only slightly better than Nola's last two seasons. 

But enough comparing a pitcher to a position player, because Nola isn't just the best pitcher on the team, he's one of the best in all of baseball. Nola finished 2018 ranked in the top 5 in baseball in WAR (1st), ERA (4th) and WHIP (5th), and in the top 10 in strikeouts (9th) and FIP (10th). 

With more run support, a better bullpen and (hopefully) a stronger defense behind him, perhaps Nola (and the rest of the starting rotation) can improve on those numbers in 2019.

NL East ranking

Comparing starting rotations is a bit more difficult than it seems, and is certainly tougher than comparing one player to another, as we've been doing throughout this preview, so we've decided to break it down a bit differently. Here's a look at each team's "ace," how he performed in 2018, and what to expect in 2019... 

We've already looked at the Phillies staff, so let's take a look at their competition around the National League East... 

Washington Nationals

Rotation: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Joe Ross

With Scherzer and Strasburg at the top of their rotation, the Nationals packed a deadly 1-2 punch in 2018. But that apparently wasn't enough for Washington, who went out and added one of the top free agent pitchers of the offseason in Patrick Corbin, a name that was linked to the Phillies this winter. When it comes to starting rotations, the Nats are the class of the division, and you don't even have to go beyond their intimidating trio of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. So we won't...

New York Mets

Rotation: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas

The Mets have a solid, proven rotation, especially at the top. They boast the reigning NL Cy Young winner in deGrom, who led the league with a 1.70 ERA in 2018 and helped the Mets starting rotation be one of the best in the NL, posting the fourth-lowest ERA (3.54). The problem for the Mets staff in recent years has been the injury bug, something they were largely able to avoid last season, but it's always worth keeping an eye on as they weren't able to avoid it entirely. Syndergaard missed some time with various ailments, but if they can all stay healthy in 2019, the Mets rotation could be right up there with the Nationals in terms of the best in the National League. 

Atlanta Braves

Rotation: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, TBD

The Braves haves some questions heading into opening day with injuries to All Star Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman, which means Julio Teheran will start against the Phillies on Opening Day. Beyond the names listed above, the Braves have a handful of young prospects jockeying for the final starting spot in the rotation once the pair of injured Braves return to the lineup (neither is expected to miss a ton of time. Still, if we're comparing this to the Phillies' rotation, I'm still taking the home team, even after the Braves have their full complement of starters. 

Miami Marlins

Rotation: José Ureña, Dan Straily, Wei-Yin Chen, Trevor Richards, Sandy Alcantara

If we're comparing these to the Phillies rotation, let's just go ahead and say Philadelphia has the edge here...

Phillies future

One of the most important moves the Phillies made this offseason — signing Nola to a four-year extension — kind of flew under the radar due to all the other big-name signings the team made, but its impact should not be overlooked. Having a guy like Nola under team control until he's almost 30 is huge for the Phillies. Not only does it give them security at the top of the rotation, but it gives Nola some peace of mind now that he doesn't have to worry about arbitration or negotiating a new deal, but it also gives the Phillies a Cy Young candidate on a relatively team-friendly contract. 

Beyond Nola, the Phillies still have Arrieta under control for another year beyond this, plus they have two team options (at $22.5 million) for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Eflin will be up for arbitration for the first time next offseason, but won't be free-agent ready until 2023, and Pivetta is a year behind Eflin, meaning his first arbitration year won't be until 2021. Velasquez, on the other hand, is a year ahead of Eflin, and will again be eligible for arbitration in 2020, with his first year of free agency coming in 2022. 

As you can see, the Phillies definitely have a good deal of control over their starting rotation, and won'y be forced into making any changes any time soon. Unless, of course, they decide they want to.


Phillies season preview
C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | RF | CF | LF | SP | RP | Coach


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