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Lehigh Valley’s rotation will command your attention

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The Opening Day rotation is set for the Phillies, but the IronPigs have lots of cavalry in stock in case things get hairy

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jerad Eickhoff was optioned to Lehigh Valley Saturday morning, a move that also silently confirmed the Major League rotation as being composed of Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. Eickhoff, after missing the vast majority of last season with multiple issues in his pitching arm, will look to reclaim a spot he had firmly held for two seasons prior. To do that, he’ll need to battle through a growing legion of contenders on the IronPigs, who stand to feature a pitching staff filled with viable options for Major League roles.

While a good problem to have, the Phillies will need to figure out how to appropriately set a rotation among seven options: Eickhoff, Drew Anderson, Enyel De Los Santos, Ranger Suarez, JoJo Romero, Cole Irvin, and Tom Eshelman. That’s four guys with Major League experience, two top organizational prospects, and another post-hype prospect. We’d be able to include Brandon Leibrandt in this mix, too, were it not for an arm injury suffered last July that will cost him most of this coming season.

It’s always good to have depth in case of injuries — which are inevitable and unavoidable — but also to back up the First Five in case they stumble. Nola and Arrieta aren’t getting optioned, but Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin all have optional flexibility to go with their shorter leashes. Each of those latter three provides more upside than just about anyone in that Triple-A mix (it’s why they’re the ones making the MLB team, after all), but they won’t be allowed to pitch through it forever. Pivetta is a breakout darling that more and more folks are picking up on since we identified 2018 as a sort of quiet emergence in its own right, but that breakout has to actually, you know, happen; Velasquez has long been a source of consternation since failing to regularly replicate 2016’s masterful excision of the Padres, and his problems don’t seem like they’d be fixed simply by moving into a relief role, so his future is very much in question; Eflin is a guy lots of folks are sleeping on, but if his knees are really still healthy, 2018 could be his new jumping-off point.

Eickhoff, now 28, pitched nine innings this Spring, striking out 12, walking 4, and giving up 3 homers. Bit of a mixed bag. His typical velocity — 91-92 with the fastball — was mostly there, if a point or two slower, in his final outing against the Yankees on Friday. At full strength, he’s probably the best option currently in reserve, but his comeback isn’t complete just yet.

Anderson, 25, and De Los Santos, 23, in their short times with the Phillies, have pitched mostly in relief, but each has made at least one start. Neither has logged enough innings for us to learn much about their potential roles there yet; we’ll learn more about that once the Lehigh rotation has been officially set. Both are currently on the 40-man roster.

Suarez, 23, also made a brief appearance with the Phillies in 2018, although he probably wishes it could have gone better. Suarez is a command lefty who needs to have his stuff traveling exactly where he wants it in order to be effective, especially against MLB hitters. He walked more right-handed batters (4) than he struck out (3) in 47 plate appearances which, small sample or not, can’t continue. Suarez is also on the 40-man, but his grip on a spot feels tenuous at the moment, mostly because...

Romero, 22, and Irvin, 25, are on his heels. Romero was limited to 18 starts at Double-A Reading last season on account of a fractured rib, and that missed time on top of this logjam may force him to start the season on a second go-around with the Fightin’ Phils. Irvin, though, is a lock for an IronPigs rotation spot. The 2016 5th-round pick pitched to a 2.57 ERA in 161.1 innings with 131 strikeouts, 31 walks, and just 11 homers allowed in 2018. Not being on the 40-man means a corresponding move would need to be made for either of these guys to make the Bigs, though whether that eventually ends up being a 60-day DL stint or DFA/release situation is probably not a detail either of them will care too much about.

That leaves Eshelman, 24, one of two players from the Ken Giles trade with Houston to not yet make the Majors (and no, Mark Appel doesn’t count toward that total anymore). Left unprotected and unselected in this offseason’s Rule 5 Draft after a super-bumpy near-6-ERA follow-up to a solid half-season in Triple-A in 2017, Eshelman is further away from a debut than he was at this point last year, and has more to prove.

If the back end of the Major League rotation is still lagging behind as May rolls around, it’ll behoove to be familiar with the reserve stock in Lehigh Valley that’ll be champing at the bit for their shot. The Phillies are certainly not short on choices to make.