Aaron Nola concerns you, Vince Velasquez thrills you, Jerad Eickhoff soothes you. The young Phillies pitching brigade established themselves last season, but still early in their big league exposure for the Phillies, they’ll have the chance to redraw the lines. With veterans still here (Jeremy Hellickson) and newly arrived (Clay Buchholz), the greenhorns will be able to draw from experience, even if that experience is a little greasier than you’d like to see (Buchholz). Meanwhile, in the minors, several young arms are just waiting for their chances or to get healthy...
Overall, it’s been a pretty encouraging spring for Velasquez, who has 25 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings pitched. He’s had a couple of those Vince Velasquez type starts, and he’ll have a few of them this year, where he inevitably goes 5 2/3 innings while striking out 10 but needs 110 pitches to do so. For Velasquez, pounding the strike zone is the key. He allowed 9 walks this spring and struggled to find his spots at times, but on the whole, Velasquez is coming into the season strong and healthy, which is always the goal coming out of a long, arduous spring training. Velasquez finished with 131 innings in 2016, so getting to 180 would seem to be the goal for 2017. Another goal: Developing the curve or slider into a go-to out-pitch. Nobody would mind seeing this again at some point, either.
Eflin has been working his way back after surgery late last year to repair tears in his patellar tendons. He’s been dealing with knee pain for quite some time but had always used a "pitch through it" mentality. Thankfully, you get pretty good medical attention and care in the Major Leagues, and the Phillies got to the root of the issue as soon as they could. Eflin had some early hiccups this spring in terms of knee swelling, but he has been able to get some work in during minor league action. He won’t begin the year with the big club, but he should be able to help the Lehigh Valley staff once action starts down there. Eflin had a rocky start and a rocky finish in Major League action in 2016, but there was some promise shown in many of his starts, including two complete games. Should Eflin’s knees hold up, he’d be on the shortlist of guys to come up in case of injury.
Jeremy Hellickson suggested that the "honor" of the Phillies' 2017 opening day start not go to him, but to this 26-year-old with the curve ball that makes Phillies Twitter fan itself.
Mm. Getting a little saturated just thinking about it.
Anywho, fluids aside, Eickhoff felt like, by the end of 2016, the sole survivor of the Phillies rotation, beyond the grizzled vet getting the soggy start in Cincinnati on April 3. He made 33 starts, never succumbing to any sort of misstep or malady, and put up the sort of numbers over 197.1 IP that make you say, "That young starter may have a career in Major League Baseball, I believe:" 3.65 ERA, 7.6 SO/9, 3.98 SO/W, and 3.5 WAR - the second most on the team, behind only all-star Odubel Herrera. That's what we call a foundation to build off of - or at least what I'm calling it now, in this paragraph of words. There's a reason people - well, us, on this web site, but still - are murmuring about Eickhoff becoming the next young Phillies all-star in 2017.
I just have to keep reminding myself that Buchholz is the Phillies 5th best SP and everything is fine— Matt Winkelman (@Matt_Winkelman) March 31, 2017
On March 24, Thompson was sent away from Clearwater in the same swamp boat as Tyler Goeddel. Goeddel was headed to Double A, and he was not pleased about it, though organizationally it made sense. Thompson, on the other hand, is spending the summer in Lehigh Valley - though hopefully not the whole summer. Part of Buchholz and Hellickson's jobs are to fill up space while a fringier hurler like Thompson throws all of his bad pitches in the minors, which he will do after suffering from what I'm just going to call a "wonky wrist" early in spring training. He showed up on the Phillies last year in early August, was decimated for 6 ER in 4.1 IP, but stuck around, and increased his number of poor-looking starts from one to four. But, during the magic of an 0-6 home stand, Thompson book ended the toxic baseball with a pair of strong starts, going 7 IP in each, and logging a combined 9 SO and 5 BB (4 in one of the starts). He didn't go very long for the rest of the season, but also didn't suffer through any very hideous disasters. His MLB debut had been preceded by 129.2 innings of Triple A ball, through which he amassed a 2.50 ERA, so it seems like he's got Triple A down and you can bet after some fine-tuning that this 23-year-old is going to be back for another taste of the big leagues.
This poor man has been asked to re-live a particularly unpleasant day in Cincinnati, where last year around this time he made the opening day start for the Phillies on a soggy midwestern afternoon. Some of the events of that day were recapped in the inaugural episode of The Dirty Inning, and tragic though they were for anyone who had been inexplicably looking forward to baseball, Hellickson made the start. He will make it again this year, as fans hope he stays healthy, hungry for innings, and keeps honing that change-up/fastball regiment that worked so occasionally for him last year. Also returning is his trade chip status, so in an ideal role, he will impart knowledge on any young hurlers who request it, eat innings, and be swapped at the deadline for more valuable assets. But hey, we've been wrong before.
The road behind Aaron Nola comes from the Bayou, but features its share of time-consuming. Drafted by the Blue Jays as a high schooler in 2011, he attended LSU and was drafted by the Phillies three years later in stead. He clawed his way up from Clearwater to Reading and from Reading to Lehigh Valley, places where his stats fluctuated but never spiked hard enough to warrant concern. His 9.1 SO/9 at Triple A were easy to watch, so the Phillies brought him up for some guest appearances in 2015-16, where he was thrilled and worried fans ever since. The 23-year-old kept big league hitters stifled at .212/.252/.329 in his first 12 starts, but then he strained his elbow and Tommy John surgery was on the table. Plus the Phillies briefly tried to market him as "The Big Easy," which probably didn't help his confidence. The point is, we may never know a time when in Nola's early career years we aren't worried about his health. The road ahead is hopefully full of hitters being forced to make weak contact and continued avoidance of the operating table.