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The Leadoff, Vol. 6: Jacob’s Ladder

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Four
The Cubs have phased him out of their plans. Could the Phillies bring Jake Arrieta into theirs?
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No moves, but movement just the same. Tuesday morning brought a twitch of a rumor to the leg of the sleeping dog that has been this offseason:

I mean hey, great! But that’s basically the same stuff Heyman has frequently crammed into his notes columns over the past few months (re: Ties to management). The evolution of the day saw no change or further details, and so we’re in the same position we started in, perhaps with an extra poof of smoke over the tree line.

Remember, you can always get through to this column’s hotline on Twitter or through email: is your target.

Onto the goodies!

Well, succinctly, I think they’re in a better position now than they were last season. Really, the best situation they’ve had overall since Chooch was still near his peak. No matter which two of Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, and Cameron Rupp makes the 25-man out of Spring Training, the roster is better at the position.

But Alfaro isn’t without questions of his own still. He provides a way better chance at establishing a long-term starter at the position than Rupp or Knapp, but is less patient at the plate than a dog with a treat on its nose and has some thinking he’ll fall short defensively, both with receiving and arm accuracy. Arm and bat strength, however, no one is questioning.

I think Alfaro is the guy you need to try as your de facto “starter” for a while. Some things about the position you can only learn via on-the-job training, and it’d be beneficial for Jorge to work on his game mechanics. Unless he maintains a .420 (?! but also, nice) BABIP, he’ll have to find ways to adjust, or he’ll crater really fast. If he doesn’t succeed, well, he’s out of options, and I’m sure that’s a conundrum the Phils would rather not have to face.

Regardless, this is a guy with unrealized potential at an age where he could still find ways to grow into it. His question marks are legit, but it’s impossible to deny how tantalizing a player he could be if he puts it all together this season. So, as long as he’s healthy and not hitting .160, he’s your guy for four out of five games.

The good news is that, since these questions came in, the Phils have once more been linked to Jake Arrieta. As fine as discussions are, though...they’re not signings, and so the Phillies still have the same active roster and rotation projections that they did 24 hours ago.

Look, I get it. If this were any of 2014-16, I’d be so unbelievably accepting of trudging into the season with a mishmash of 12 different starting pitcher candidates and hoping one or two stick. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you want. The reality of this, though, is that the Second Half Phillies have put conversations about 2018 in a new light, and that’s before the team decided to spend significant money on three Major League free agents.

The rotation, as we’ve all said nearly ad nauseum, remains this team’s biggest weakness. They have depth questions in the infield and outfield beyond the anticipated regulars, but no problem stands to cost them as many games as the dearth of reliable starting pitchers they currently employ.

But it’s a balancing act. We’ve seen Jerad Eickhoff pitch more like a No. 3. We’ve seen Vince Velasquez incinerate the Padres. We’ve seen flashes of...something...from each of Nick Pivetta and Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin and on and on. But Nola’s the closest thing we have to a sure thing, and he even has lingering health questions fluttering about the backs of our minds.

Not breaking any news with all of the above, but repeating it helps to underscore the potential the rotation has to torpedo this season, more than any other collective group. Planning for the worst and shoring up with bullpen with eight regular options - and flexing to nine if the situation calls for it and the days of rest permit it - looks like good planning. Being able to distribute appearances and innings across an extra body or two is something they’ll need. But these arms aren’t made of rubber, and relying on the 2007 Phillies model is...risky. The doubts are plenty right now; bulletin board material for the players, to be sure, but a source of anxiety for silly overthinkers like me who can’t help but wonder if the Phillies will have double-digit six-inning starts from all of their starters this season.

The talent on offense will save some games on its own. The bullpen will protect its share of close leads. Getting through four or five innings with a lead, well, that’s looking like a tough thing to expect very often. It’s not a great recipe for winning games. The compensation the team will great from the rest of the squad will help, and I do think they’re a 70-plus-win team at least. But they could be more.

It’s nice to know that Odubel has the green light from Kap to let his freak flag fly for the moment. When a losing streak inevitably hits, we’ll see how both sides react, but as we sit here today, I find myself encouraged. The stories about how Kapler is handling his first Spring Training - music, altered workout times, umpires during bullpen sessions - make me think he’s catering to these guys as humans as much as he’s looking to build up their ballplayer side. That’s important when considering the incessant grind of a baseball season, and makes me think that Kap’s approach to the clubhouse will be a proactive one, focused on resolving problems. Consider me bought in, and consider me glad to believe the clubhouse atmosphere will be a positive one, even in tough stretches.

I had hoped the answer to this would’ve been “pretty difficult,” but that answer would only come attached to a deeper roster of candidates. As we sit here today? Eshelman’s got a real, tangible shot at this team. Now, the schedule being the way it is early on, the Phils may opt for an extra bench bat until mid-April, as they won’t need a fifth starter for a bit. But if Eshelman impresses in camp - his control/command combo is already the best and most advanced in the entirety of the Phils’ minor league system - and follows that up with a steady first few turns through the Lehigh Valley rotation, he’ll be on the cusp, regardless of whether the club eventually adds another SP before camp ends.

Eshelman doesn’t look like he’ll be dominant or overpowering. And throwing too many strikes can let Major League hitters time you up pretty easily. What Eshelman will need to do is live on the edges with his fastball, and hide his curve and slider well enough and timing his change just right to keep hitters off-balance. Basically, he’ll need to be Tim Hudson...while possessing a full grade (or more, conservatively) lesser stuff than Huddy across the board. He seems like a guy durable enough to consume innings, which could be more valuable than we realize, and there’s absolutely no shame in carving out a longer career as a back-end guy.

Expect to see him before we’re too deep into the summer.

They, like some others out there, probably feel that Darvish is a better long-term investment, that he’s more likely to be viable in the fifth year of a contract than Arrieta stands to be.

Both pitchers have been very good over the past few seasons, in slightly different ways. Both pitchers have also been hurt, Arrieta less severely so. The Cubs don’t have a great depth of starting pitching candidates in their system, and apparently needed to shore things up now that John Lackey is out the door, not content to already have Jose Quintana, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Bastards.

To get to what I think may be the point in the subtext of your question, though: I don’t think the Cubs’ preferences reflect negatively on Arrieta in a way that should make the Phils’ FO (or us) nervous about adding him. Jake’s made 30-plus starts in three straight seasons, and was able to rebound from a rocky first half to be sterling once more in the second half of 2017. He’s averaged ~6.1 innings per start over the past three seasons, a number that ties back to an answer above. He’ll be expensive and cost the Phillies their third-round pick, yes, but those are costs the club can absorb in order to open their competitive window that much further for the next three or four seasons. The Cubs’ choosing Darvish instead signifies nothing much beyond personal preference, and Arrieta remains a potential upgrade for this Phillies team.