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October 12, 2016

The state of the Phillies' rebuild: The Pitching

It’s easy to forget now but five months ago, at about the quarter mark of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Phillies were 24-17 and just a half game behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East standings.

For the first six weeks, the Phillies were a competitive team capable of beating anyone on any given night. And that record came despite beginning the season with four straight losses.

The reason for the Phillies early success was simple: starting pitching.

After Jeremy Hellickson guided the Phillies to a 4-2 win on May 18 over the Marlins, on the night the Phillies moved a half game behind the Nationals, their starting pitchers were sporting a 3.72 ERA through the first 41 games of the season. (They had a 3.55 ERA in April; only the Nationals and the Mets were better among MLB’s 30 teams).

During that 41-game, six-week stretch (again, the first quarter of the season) Phillies starters had racked up 240 strikeouts and walked just 62 in 234 2/3 innings. Their pitching staff as a whole had held the opposition to three runs or fewer in 21 games.

The 4 1/2 months that followed weren’t nearly as impressive, but that was to be expected of a starting staff of 20-somethings with little big league experience. But something kind of remarkable happened in the season’s final month: the sturdy starting pitching returned, except with a unique twist.

The Phillies rotation had their best run from Sept. 1 to Oct. 2, sporting a 3.31 ERA in 29 games. And the twist?

Only two starters that began the season in the rotation, pitching in the majority of the season’s first six weeks, were in the rotation in the season’s final month, Hellickson and Jerad Eickhoff. Just as Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez showed promise early, pitchers like Jake Thompson and Alec Asher jumped into their rotation spots and impressed, too.

On the whole, the 2016 season probably be won’t looked back at as a positive one by the people years from now that will just glance at a 20-games under .500 record, but for a team in the midst of a rebuild (and one general manager Matt Klentak planned to do with “waves of pitching”) the collective promise of a handful of starters showed was more than encouraging.

Area of Need: A Legit No.1 Starter

This is hardly an indictment of a pitching staff with a bevy of young talent. It’s simply a fact, and it might not be one that means a whole lot heading into 2017, when the Phillies are not expected to contend for a postseason berth and when any number of their current young pitchers can eventually rise to this status at some point in their careers.

But the reality is if, somehow, someway, the Phillies did sneak into the playoffs in one of the next two seasons, there isn’t anyone you can easily sit back and say, “Yep, he deserves the ball in Game 1.” Eickhoff was as consistent as any young starter in baseball this season and Velasquez showed flashes of brilliance. But both, at this point in their respective careers, are largely unproven.

While a No.1 starter will come in handy down the road (and could be essential to getting John Middleton his bleeping trophy back) the Phillies have plenty of time to acquire one. The Phillies traded Cole Hamels, in part, because having a $20 million-plus starter in his 30s on your roster in the middle of a rebuild doesn’t make a ton of sense, or at least isn’t as effective as having a handful of promising youngsters around as an alternative.

Just look at the Kansas City Royals. They traded Zack Greinke in December of 2010, 13 months after he’d won the American League Cy Young Award. Two years later, when the formerly rebuilding Royals saw a window to contend beginning to open, they traded for James Shields.

Kansas City’s management was crushed for the latter trade, when they surrendered a lot of young talent, but, in retrospect, they actually got more for Greinke than they gave up for Shields. When they were a rebuilding team that didn’t need an ace, they restocked. And when they were ready to contend, they traded for one pretty easily.

Flash forward to the present and it’ll be interesting to see if Toronto can bash their way to their first World Series title since 1993. They don’t have an obvious No.1 in their rotation (and come to think of it, neither did last year’s Kansas City Royals). So perhaps the idea of a legit No.1 starter is overrated if you have an effective ‘pen and a great everyday lineup.

Area of Strength: Starting Pitching Depth

Quick trivia question: name the only team in baseball to have five different pitchers in their 20s make at least 20 starts in 2016. Yes, that team was the Phillies.

Eickhoff, Hellickson, Velasquez, Nola, and Adam Morgan all made at least 20 starts and two more 22-year-olds, Thompson and Zach Eflin, made at least 10 each. Only two other teams in baseball had even four pitchers under 30 make at least 20 starts, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Of course having youth doesn’t necessarily mean that you have talented youth. While the majority of the Phillies arms are unproven (Eickhoff may be the only that’s crossed that threshold) they showed enough in the season’s first and last six weeks (as illustrated in the opening to this story) for management to feel good about the state of the staff as a whole.

With their current depth, the Phillies can probably let Hellickson walk as a free agent and not have to pursue an expensive veteran to fill the void, even with the uncertain injury statuses of Nola and Eflin. If everyone is healthy, Asher and Morgan likely begin the season at Triple-A, with rising right-hander Ben Lively, the organization’s Paul Owens Award winner in 2016.

But the line doesn’t stop there, either. Nick Pivetta (Jonathan Papelbon trade) finished a promising first season in the Phils organization at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Left-hander Elniery Garcia was promoted to Double-A Reading for a postseason start last month and shined. Twenty-one-year-old Franklyn Kilome, the Phillies top pitching prospect, had a 2.19 ERA in his final 10 starts at Low-A Lakewood. Adonis Medina, Edgar Garcia, and Gulf Coast League star Sixto Sanchez (5-0 with a 0.50 ERA in 11 starts) are further away but are fun names to watch as they continue to climb up the minor league ladder.

Player in the Crosshairs: Hector Neris

First, let’s point out the most overrated statistic of the 2016 Phillies season. The Phils relief corps had a 7.88 ERA in the season’s final month (the same time their starters had a 3.31 ERA).

Why is that overrated? Sure guys like Hector Neris (who finished fourth in baseball in appearances) and Jeanmar Gomez may have run out of gas, but the influx of September call-ups with an expanded roster also meant a lot of appearances by pitchers who probably didn’t have a lot of business being in the big leagues. But at least they helped save some arms.

Why is Neris in the crosshairs? Aaron Nola and Mark Appel, two former top 10 picks who are currently rehabbing from elbow injuries, could just have easily been selected for this distinction, but we’d rather go with a healthy pitcher coming off a breakout season, one with the ability to take his game to an even higher level in 2017.

Neris should spend the majority of the 2017 season as the Phillies closer, as we wrote the other day. After collecting 102 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings, the second most strikeouts by a reliever in franchise history, he deserves the opportunity to be challenged to get the game’s most important outs. (You can argue those don’t always come in the ninth, and you’d probably be right. We’re just saying Neris deserves the “promotion” to the role that’s more prominent in name, and more lucrative in salary, eventually).

And should Neris succeed as a closer, it’s win-win for everyone: he increases his value to himself, his team, and as a possible piece a contending team might call on before the trade deadline.

The Phillies 2017 Opening Day Rotation

Jerad Eickhoff
Vince Velasquez
Jake Thompson
Zach Eflin*
Aaron Nola*

*Both of these projections are admittedly bullish. Eflin has undergone two knee surgeries in the last two months, but is expected to recover and be healthy at the start of spring training. Nola was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon in late July and is in Clearwater rehabbing. He hadn’t thrown off a mound in two months entering this week.

As it stands now, Eflin would seem to stand a better chance to be ready to go in April. Perhaps Nola will, too, but it’s too early to make that leap. Expect the Phillies to trade or sign for a useful but inexpensive veteran for insurance purposes related to both of these rehabbing pitchers. Would Charlie Morton re-sign as a free agent without a guarantee for a rotation spot but as a guy who could win that job, or at worse, be a swingman on the staff?

The Phillies 2017 Closer

Hector Neris (See above).

The Phillies 2019 Opening Day Rotation

Aaron Nola
Danny Duffy
Jerad Eickhoff
Franklyn Kilome
Elniery Garcia

The Phillies 2019 Opening Day Closer

Mark Appel

Quotable: Jerad Eickhoff on being a reliable cog in rotation

"It's very important to me, this is my job. You get paid a lot to do it and I take a great pride in that. It's a great responsibility. You have to do it 100 percent, and that's what I have tried to do and will continue to do. There's no doubt in my mind that I've done everything that I could do before every start to be prepared, so I am just very, very lucky and fortunate to be a part of this."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21