The Phillies did not invite pitcher Aaron Nola to big-league camp this spring, a move that seemed to raise the eyebrows of many. In reality, it shouldn't have been wildly surprising, as the Phillies have historically been cautious with young talent.
Nola's current case is a chance to handle things differently for an organization (and fanbase) starving for young talent to jump to the Majors to help out a struggling roster. While nobody should have expected Nola's ascent to bring him to Philadelphia to start 2015, it is already quite clear by studying the team's current rotation that Nola could easily slide in by July or August if things go well in Reading (and maybe Lehigh Valley) for Nola over the next three months.
Nola has two key things working to his advantage: The Phillies are not a good baseball team, which was plainly obvious going into the season, and the rotation is sub-par, which, well, seems to go hand in hand, eh?
Aaron Harang has actually been a bright spot thus far, but it was known from the moment he signed that he had about a 100% chance to be Fausto Carmona'd and flipped at the deadline. Jerome Williams is still a guy who had a 6.04 ERA in Houston and a 9.90 ERA in Texas last season before joining the Phils midway through the year. David Buchanan has been somewhat erratic. Sean O'Sullivan has a... nice... beard? And you already know about that tall, lanky left-hander from San Diego.
If there was just one instance where the Phillies should consider throwing all caution to the wind, say "screw it, we're doing it", and aggressively promote a minor leaguer, it should be Nola, provided his time in the minors this season is fruitful.
So, what exactly, does fruitful look like? It's hard to say right now, but if there is an open slot in the Phillies' rotation come July and Nola has an ERA in the 3.20-3.40 range, a WHIP around 1.20, and has shown control of all of his pitches with a decent strikeout rate, it's going to be hard avoiding a call-up to Philadelphia.
How have recently drafted college pitchers fared, just for comparison's sake? Jon Gray, the Rockies' first-rounder in 2013, pitched well last season in the minors. He was a close cut this spring for the team, and has struggled a little bit to begin 2015 as he has started in AAA. But he'll be there soon enough.
Mark Appel, the first overall pick in 2013, begins this season at AA Corpus Christi. He'll be 24 in July, and the Astros will be trying to move him along as soon as possible.
Kevin Gausman, the Orioles' first-round pick in 2012, has thrown 165.1 Major League innings thus far, to the tune of a 4.30 ERA, with 7.7 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. He's currently mired in a bit of a numbers game in Baltimore, but should be in a rotation that features Ubaldo Jimenez at the moment. Gasuman will be tough to deny for much longer.
The college pitcher, as a whole, has become a more popular pick in recent years. We will probably see the likes of Nathan Kirby, Kyle Funkhouser and Carson Fulmer high on draft boards come June. (We would have seen Michael Matuella on there, too, before Tommy John sadly got the best of him.)
For every projectable high schooler like Cole Hamels, there is that seemingly awesome safe nature of someone like Nola. Six teams passed on UNC's Matt Harvey before the Mets got him. Gerrit Cole? UCLA pride. Trevor Bauer? Another Bruin.
It's hard to look into the crystal ball and know exactly where this Phillies front office will be one calendar year from now. Ruben Amaro, Jr. may be no longer. Pat Gillick could still be here, or could be back into that "retirement" phase of things in Seattle. New scouting director Johnny Almaraz might just be a temporary name in the media guide if a new regime doesn't see him as "their" guy.
Regardless, Marti Wolever's last stand as Phillies scouting director was to draft Nola, a projectable yet still young college-aged pitcher that the team thought could advance quickly.
While this rebuilding process may take a few years to play out, and while that young 18-year-old is often so easy to dream about come June draft time, the Phillies should not be ashamed to go a bit older and draft a guy in his 20s.
Nola's advancement this season does hinge on what he does over the next few months, but anything short of a disaster from now until mid-season should set him up for a call-up when the dog days of summer kick in. After all, at this time, there's nothing to lose.