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Should potential innings limits make the Phillies players for a starting pitcher?

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A potential innings crunch could make it wise for the Phils to add another dependable starter.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There is little disputing the notion that much of the Phillies’ success in 2018 is thanks to the work turned in by the starting rotation.

As a unit, Phils’ starters have an fWAR of 11.5 so far in 2018, the top mark in the National League and 3rd-best in baseball, behind the Astros (14.9) and Indians (13.2). Their 3.81 ERA is tied with the Angels for 8th-best in baseball, with the Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves the only NL squads with better marks, and their 3.63 FIP is 4th-best in MLB, 2nd-best in the NL.

They have a strikeout rate of 23.9%, 8th-best in baseball. Their 7.4% walk rate is 9th-best, opponents are hitting just .239 against them, tied with the Cubs for 10th overall in baseball, and they allow fewer home runs per nine innings (0.99) than all but two teams in the Majors.

Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin have formed a starting five that is one of the best in the National League, with Nola emerging as a true No. 1 ace of a first place staff.

So with just a couple days left until the trade deadline, the Phillies have stood pat as J.A. Happ was dealt to the Yankees, Nathan Eovaldi was traded to Boston, and old friend Cole Hamels was moved to the Cubs. Given the outstanding work being turned in by the Phils’ starters, adding one of those players didn’t seem like a major need.

But there is a concern that perhaps should make them pursue another veteran starter on the trade market this weekend, as mentioned on the High Hopes podcast hosted by WIP’s James Seltzer and Jack Fritz (you should subscribe and listen to their pod, it’s quite good).

Innings.

For three of the young starters in the rotation — Velasquez, Eflin and Pivetta — they are either approaching, or have already passed, previous highs in innings pitched. And all three, if they remain healthy, are certain to blow past them at some point in August.

So would it make sense for the Phillies to go outside the organization to trade for another dependable starter, allowing the Phils to move to a six-man rotation if need be?

Velasquez is already up to 102.1 innings this year. His previous career high is 131.0, done in 2016 with the Phils in 24 starts, but he threw just 72.0 innings in an injury-plagued 2017 season. Pivetta is at 101.2 innings right now, following a 133.0 inning season last year with the Phillies. He’ll move past that number in a handful of starts as well. Eflin’s 71.1 innings are already a career high for him, as injuries limited him to just 64.1 innings in 2017 and 63.1 innings in ‘16.

Heck, even Nola is set to run past his previous high of 168.0 innings last year. He’s already at 134.0 in 21 starts, but for a pitcher as good as Nola, the team is going to ask him to bump that up to 180-200 innings this season — not an unreasonable ask for a 25-year-old in his 4th MLB season. Arrieta is only at 112.1 innings, having signed and started the season late, following up a 168.1 inning season last year and two seasons before in which he crossed the 200 inning mark (playoffs included).

Based on their current usage and the potential number of starts they would make moving forward, here are their approximate innings projections for the remainder of the year:

Nola: 212

Arrieta: 178

Velasquez: 164

Pivetta: 162

Eflin: 145

Given these numbers, and the high leverage nature those innings become during a pennant race in August and September, a quality reinforcement may be wise.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers on the trade market.

As mentioned by Fritz and Seltzer on the podcast, if the Phillies wanted to pursue an arm like Chris Archer, they would have to pay through the nose, i.e., likely Sixto Sanchez. Tampa values the 29-year-old right-hander highly, as the two-time All Star is signed through the 2021 season making a combined $27.6 million starting next year.

Archer has cleared 200 innings each of the last three seasons, but after finishing 5th in the AL Cy Young voting in 2015 has posted ERAs of 4.02, 4.07 and 4.30. Yes, his peripherals are generally better than his ERA, and he has terrific stuff, but he also gets hit around a bit. Would his baseball card numbers get better moving out of the AL East and into the NL East, and is this profile worth Sixto Sanchez? Would Tampa be convinced to trade him for a package led by Adonis Medina, and is that something the Phils would find palatable?

Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson is having an outstanding season as well. The 30-year-old has a 3.42 ERA and a 3.78 FIP in 21 starts, with a bWAR of 2.7 this season. He’s signed through next year, so it would likely cost a package led by Medina to get him. Is that worth a guy who has been a reliable innings eater who has seen a drastic uptick in his strikeout numbers this year?

What about Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman? The frustrating hurler is still only 27 years old and has starts where he looks like one of the most dominant arms in the game. But a career 4.23 ERA is no fluke, as he simply has trouble maintaining consistency. Still, he’s an intriguing high-upside arm that may not cost as much as Gibson or Archer.

Certainly, the Phillies could use their surplus of arms at AAA to help expand their rotation in August and September. We’ve already seen Drew Anderson, Enyel de los Santos and Ranger Suarez make spot starts this year. They could continue to do that in August and September in order to allow the Phils to skip some starts and/or go to a six-man rotation. The only issue is whether it’s wise to rely on young kids to get you through a pennant race.

There are no easy answers here, and the Phillies may choose to spend their prospect capital to upgrade at shortstop, the bullpen or the bench. Frankly, with the ‘pen doing so well in July (an MLB-low 2.32 ERA), and the emergence of Maikel Franco at third base and Nick Williams in left field, general manager Matt Klentak may choose to eschew a big move at the deadline and simply add a bullpen arm and/or a bench bat.

Certainly adding a starter like Hamels or Happ would have made a lot of sense, but it’s too late for that. Frankly, doing a deal with Baltimore that nets the Phils Adam Jones, Brad Brach and Kevin Gausman seems to make a lot of sense, filling a number of needs all at once.

Including giving the Phillies starters some cover for the surprising pennant race the team no finds itself in.