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2018 Phillies Preview: The starting rotation is a work in progress

The Phillies may add another arm to the rotation, but as of now, the Phils are ready to go to battle with what they have.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I want Jake Arrieta. You want Jake Arrieta. The Phillies themselves seemingly want Jake Arrieta and one would imagine that if the Phils offered up a long-term deal (one they’re not prepared to do as of this writing), Jake Arrieta would like to be a Phillie.

That being said, Jake Arrieta is not a Phillie, and he may never become one. If he doesn’t, the team will go into the 2018 regular season with Aaron Nola and a bunch of question marks behind him in the starting rotation.

Fortunately, the Phillies have a true top-of-the-rotation arm in the 24-year-old Nola, who manager Gabe Kapler announced will be the team’s Opening Day starter this year, the team’s youngest Opening Day starter since 1964.

Nola’s 2017 showed sustained flashes of brilliance, including a 10-start run from mid-June to August in which he pitched at least six innings and gave up two runs or less in each of those starts, good for an ERA of 1.71. Overall, he put up an ERA of 3.54 in 27 starts, striking out 184 batters and walking 49.

Nola has shown his ceiling can be that of a true No. 1 starter - an ace. The team is hoping he will become more consistent in 2018.

At the moment, Jared Eickhoff is the team’s No. 2, and the Phillies are hoping for a bounce back season from him. In 41 career starts heading into the 2017 season (248.1 innings), Eickhoff had an ERA of 3.44, an ERA+ of 120, and had struck out 216 batters while walking 55. He was worth 5.3 WAR during that stretch, and that 3.44 ERA ranked 37th out of 145 qualified Major League starting pitchers during that time, just behind Jacob deGrom(3.41), Yu Darvish (3.41), Chris Sale (3.40) and Carlos Carrasco (3.38). He was better than Gerrit Cole (3.47), Johnny Cueto (3.49), Felix Hernandez (3.65), Zack Greinke (3.71) and David Price (3.73).

But in 24 starts last season, it all fell apart. His ERA ballooned to 4.71 and he piled up just 128 innings (averaging 5.1 innings per start, down from 6.0 innings per start prior to that). His walk rate jumped from 5.2% in 2016 to 9.2%, and opponents batted .274 against him, up from .246 the year before. That lead to a ghastly WHIP of 1.52, drastically higher than his 1.16 in 2016.

As a result, his WAR in 2017 was -0.3, and he finished the season on the disabled list with nerve irritation in his hand and a sore shoulder. The hope is that last year’s struggles were due to the nagging injuries that cut his season short, and that he will return to his previous form this year.

Vince Velasquez will likely open as the team’s No. 3, with 2018 being a make-or-break season for him as a starting pitcher. So far this spring, Velasquez has been excited about his health and team officials have been raving about his bullpen sessions. And while his first spring outing was a microcosm of how he has pitched over his first two seasons with the team, a good spring could give him the confidence to be an effective MLB starter moving forward.

Certainly, the talent is there, as we saw in his second-ever start with the Phils back in 2016.

But the odds are just as good that Velasquez continues to struggle with high pitch counts (as he did in his first spring start) and getting hitters out. A move to the bullpen could ultimately be Velasquez’ final destination, but right now, the team needs him in the rotation.

The final two spots in the rotation are a free-for-all, although Nick Pivetta probably has a line on one of those jobs. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz and Kapler are trying to get Pivetta to pitch up in the zone more in the model of Houston’s Justin Verlander. The 25-year-old, acquired in the 2015 trade of Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals, had a 6.02 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP in 26 starts last season, although his stuff was impressive at times.

Zach Eflin has shown flashes of effectiveness in his brief time in the Majors but has had trouble staying on the field. The 23-year-old comes into the spring feeling much better after a full off-season to strengthen both of his surgically-repaired knees, and is looking to put a disastrous 2017 season behind him in which he made just 11 starts with a 6.16 ERA and a WHIP of 1.41 in 64.1 innings.

Mark Leiter, Jr. performed well as a swing-man for the Phillies last season and has come out dealing this spring as he tries to win one of those rotation spots. Ben Lively jumped into the fray at the end of last year and, in 15 starts, compiled an ERA of 4.26 and a WHIP of 1.28. Dark horse candidate Tom Eshelman was outstanding in AAA last season, with a 2.23 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 18 starts, he’ll get a serious look, too. Jake Thompson is the odd-man out as the team appears to be converting him to a relief role.

There is talent there, but a ton of questions, and the preseason projections for this group aren’t exactly inspiring.

ZiPS has Nola with a 3.38 ERA in 30 starts, Velasquez with a 4.35 ERA in 25 starts, Eickhoff with a 4.53 ERA in 27 starts, Pivetta with a 4.53 ERA in 29 starts , Eshelman with a 4.73 ERA in 24 starts, Leiter with a 4.89 ERA in 15 starts (30 appearances) and Lively with a 4.98 ERA in 29 starts (obviously not all these pitchers will make all these starts, but they assume statistics assuming what would happen if each pitcher made a big league rotation).

Certainly many of those pitchers could do better than the projections indicate, but there’s no doubt the starting rotation is the most unsettled part of the Phillies roster, and it’s why the team will continue to be linked to Arrieta for as long as the former Cubs ace remains a free agent.