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Phillies’ starting pitchers feature a lot of maybe’s

What if the Phillies—stay with me here—wind up with too MUCH solid starting pitching?

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Nola’s not part of the problem
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

“You can never have too much pitching,” is how the old saying goes, but the Phillies may be challenging this adage for 2019. They have as many as eight starting pitching candidates and they only need five. Typically, they could either make a trade, or just cut a guy or two, but in this situation, the pitchers both don’t really have any trade value and they’ve shown enough that the team wouldn’t want to just cut them, either. The minors is an option, but that could lead to more problems, mainly with the roster.

Jerad Eickhoff, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, Enyel De Los Santos, Ranger Suarez, Cole Irvin and Ben Lively should all be candidates for the rotation.

It’s really great to have depth at any given position. But we’re headed down two paths: the younger players show that they definitively can be effective big league pitchers, or no, it turns out that they’re just not good enough. Either of those situations afford a team a clearer understanding of exactly where they stand and what their long-term needs are.

The Phillies know that at least Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta will be at the top of the rotation; Nola because he’s an amazing pitcher and Arrieta because he’s paid like an amazing pitcher, but behind them, it’s anyone’s guess.

Last season it was Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin and each one did exactly what teams don’t want: be good for a stretch, be great for a stretch, be bad for a stretch, and be really bad for a stretch. They have neither proven they’re good enough to stick, nor were they so bad to be moved. They’re ridiculously great for six weeks, and then they can’t make it out of the third inning for five games straight. At some level, that inconsistency is something on its own, but on another, level the notion that they may overcome that inconsistency is extremely tantalizing.

Pivetta was among the 2018 major league leaders in K’s per 9. It’s hard to give up on a guy who displayed the proficiency in striking guys out that he displayed this season. The ability to strike guys out at a heavy clip is unbelievably valuable but Pivetta’s value is offset by other issues.

Velasquez can at times be unhittable. The whiff rate on his four-seam fastball this year was the sixth highest in the Majors - higher then Justin Verlander. Only Jacob deGrom, Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer had higher rates in the National League. He had an 11-game stretch this season where he posted a 2.77 ERA; it included a seven game spell with a 1.35 ERA. Should the Phils give up on that?

And Eflin? Well he had a two-month run in the middle of the season where he flat out dominated. Seven games with a 1.91 ERA, walking only eight batters and striking out 34. Was it his new knees; did the knees get tired after that; are they now stronger and he’ll be able to repeat it? Who knows? But the possibility of having a guy pitch like that every fifth day can’t be abandoned.

Then there’s Jerad Eickhoff. He was out with injury for almost all of last season but his history prior to that was very promising. Eickhoff came over as an extra in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade and since then he has an ERA of 3.89 in 66 starts for the Phils. For comparison, Jon Lester has started 64 games since the start of 2017 season and his ERA is 3.83. Because of that injury and because he was never really supposed to be that good in the first place, people (mostly media) forget that he even exists.

That right there is four guys for three spots. No big deal, right? Put one in the bullpen. The only problem with that is that the bullpen is already pretty full and there’s more to the story. Those four guys are the starters who’ve actually spent some time in the majors but there’s another group that’s MLB ready and would be getting at least a look with most other teams.

Enyel De Los Santos came over in last off-season’s Freddy Galvis trade and all he’s done in the minors is win. A 23-year-old, he’s spent the last four seasons working his way up the ranks. He’s 36-14 with a 3.40 ERA in 81 starts, most of which were in more hitter-friendly west coast leagues. Last year at Lehigh Valley he started 22 games and finished the season to the tune of a 2.63 ERA. What do the Phillies do with him this season? Put him in the bullpen too?

Ranger Suarez is a 22-year-old with seven minor league seasons (he was signed as a 16 year old) and a 2.27 ERA; Cole Irvin is 24, and had 25 starts last year at AAA with a 2.57 ERA. It’s getting crowded in that bullpen.

And what about the guys right behind them but still maybe a few years away? Your Adonis Medina’s and JoJo Romero’s and Spencer Howard’s? Sixto Sanchez, the Phillies top prospect is only 20 but he’s on his way as well. Their situations may sort themselves out with time but if the Phillies had done a five-year deal with Patrick Corbin, that would have been one less rotation spot for the foreseeable future.

None of the guys currently in the majors have accumulated any real trade value. Even though they are developing, they just haven’t developed enough to make them in demand. Yeah, there’s a lot of potential there but as-yet-unrealized potential is like a day-old donut – you’ll take it, but you are not going to pay for it.

The guys knocking on the door have some value, but other GM’s know this Phillies situation and they know that they don’t have to make a move for one of them because the Phils will have to do something sooner rather than later. There’s absolutely no leverage whatsoever. This is why the Rule 5 draft even exists.

The pitchers who are maybe a few years away do have trade value but the Phillies shouldn’t trade one of them unless they know they’re getting the better end of the deal. One of those guys could be an ace, particularly Sanchez.

So for the Phillies, they may “have enough pitching.” Their issue isn’t with the quantity of pitching, it’s with quality – quality that’s proven consistent.