We can’t say we weren’t warned. The Phillies, having made one significant upgrade, can now no longer make another needle-moving rotation addition through free agency this winter. The language in the stories published in the wake of Zack Wheeler’s signing intimated as much, but it felt hard to resist feeling like something else could still be done.
Well, that’s a little easier now. Over the weekend, Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu — the last two upper-tier starting pitchers available on the free agent market — signed with the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, respectively. Keuchel, who spent half of last season with Atlanta, signed for three years and just under $60 million with an option, while the former Dodger Ryu inked a deal worth $80 million over four years.
Neither pitcher received a qualifying offer this year after both were issued one after 2018; Keuchel declined his and sat on the wire until June, while Ryu accepted and played out the season for Los Angeles. That means neither the White Sox nor Blue Jays had to forfeit any sort of draft compensation to make these moves. Solid stuff all around for two teams trying to claw their way back into contention.
Against any feelings of uncertainty post-Wheeler, it really seems as though the Phillies are content to go into 2020 with what they’ve currently got in-house. That precludes the notion of a trade, but if the Phillies were unlikely to go for the likes of Corey Kluber when the cost was in the neighborhood of a promising young reliever and a fourth outfielder, it’s reasonable to doubt how aggressive they might be in that department for the rest of the offseason.
So let’s assume they don’t want to part with either Alec Bohm or Spencer Howard — the two minor league pieces that could net them a game-changer — and any additional move(s) they may make for a starting pitcher will be of the marginal variety. There’s always an option for a non-roster invitee to get a look at a veteran or two during Spring Training and maybe bolster Lehigh Valley’s staff, but as of now, here’s how the upper levels of the system are looking.
Nola, Wheeler, and Arrieta are assured rotation spots on Opening Day. Eflin leads the race for the fourth spot, but doesn’t hold an ironclad guarantee. Pivetta and Velasquez will probably duke it out for the last spot, with the loser destined for some kind of strange limbo.
Pivetta has the best chance of being a steady reliever if we’re only focusing on his stuff, but he hasn’t been a fan of the role. His curveball gives him a plus secondary pitch to go with his fastball, at least when it’s working, but his inability to use it effectively against LHB remains an issue no matter the amount of exposure. Velasquez is someone fans have long envisioned to be a reliever, but his inconsistent performance there in a nine-game cameo stretch last season left something to be desired, his decent ERA offset by allowing 2 of 6 inherited runners to score and permitting a .280/.367/.400 line over his last seven relief appearances (which even omits a disastrous outing immediately preceding that run). It’s also tough to envision Velasquez enjoying long-term relief success when his main problems (command and homer-prone stuff) aren’t typically things that get solved by a move to full-time relief.
One of them will not start the year in the rotation. Barring an injury, sudden shift to a six-man rotation, or piggybacking the two of them in one rotation spot, one of them will either be a reliever or be sent to Lehigh. The implications there are fairly far-reaching.
Velasquez enters the 2020 season with four years and 86 days (in shorthand, 4.086) of MLB service time. Pivetta holds two years and 94 days (2.094) to his credit. One full “season” of service time is 172 days, regardless of actual season length. If Velasquez spends 86 or more days with the Phillies in 2020 and 2021 each, he stays on target to be Arb3 in ‘21 and a free agent after that season.
Pivetta is further from free agency, but very close to qualifying for arbitration for the first time. The Super Two cutoff — a set amount of service time that allows a player to be arbitration-eligible despite not having three full years of ST accumulated — is two years, 115 days for the 2020 season. That’s a low bound for an amount that fluctuates year-to-year, and has often been in the range of 2.120-2.135. It’d take some incredibly bad luck for Pivetta not to pick up the three or four weeks of time he needs to qualify for arb in 2021, but a season-opening demotion and injury...well, it’s better not to speak it into existence.
Six players for five spots, with the odd man out possibly finding himself in...
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Almost immediately, things start to look crowded and cloudy. Irvin and Suarez could both find themselves in the Major League bullpen; no one really knows what the team wants to do with EDLS; Medina and Romero are question marks following setback seasons, but still carry some promise; Jones and Rosso struggled in Triple-A after midseason promotions, but still deserve a longer look.
Add it all up and, even before factoring in an odd-man-out situation at the MLB level, things are snug. Perhaps Taveras is converted to full-time relief to ease the pressure a bit, but even if both Irvin and Suarez pitch out of the Phillies bullpen, the rotation is still already full with the remainder of De Los Santos, Romero, Medina, Jones, and Rosso.
That leaves no obvious opening for a certain someone at...
It’s assumed that Howard will see the Majors at some point in 2020. He’ll need a spot on the 40-man when that day comes, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. For now, he’s on Reading’s roster, although none of the options currently in Lehigh will really stand in his way when promotion time arrives, assuming he doesn’t skip the level altogether (he probably won’t; Triple-A uses the Major League ball, and the club likely wants him to get accustomed to that unless he blows the doors off in Spring Training).
A lot of these moves aren’t final on paper, and the actual rosters of these squads could look different by April. It’s important to understand that, right now, a lot of these rotation configurations up and down the system are subject to change, especially considering the names we haven’t even mentioned yet, like Andrew Brown, Alejandro Requena, Kyle Glogoski, Ethan Lindow, Kyle Young, Brett Schulze, and others. Any further additions, even on a minor league deal, could force one (or more) of those pitchers into a new role. It also leaves the minor league SP crop as one of the most ripe for trading in deals ranging from Major League impact to cash considerations; easy to say now, before injuries set in.
Given their confidence in the current in-house options and their apparent unwillingness to spend another $18-20 million annually on a free agent starter, these appear to be the names upon which the Phils will call for rotation reinforcement in the upper levels of the system, now or in the near future.
Things will clear up more as we get closer to February and March, but for now the Phillies are asking us to accept that the club was just one starting pitcher addition away from having a playoff-capable rotation. We’ll see if that decision — and the ripple effects from it — ends up being worth it.