Let’s start with facts. A 4-3 road trip through Chicago and Milwaukee, two teams that are probably going to the playoffs in some form or another this season, is nothing to sneeze at. After playing Milwaukee specifically so horribly at home, to see them bounce back and really play quite well in two games out of three was a good thing to see. Lost in all this first place goodness is that there are some real concerns with this ball club, some of which they might need to address from outside the organization. Perhaps the one flying a bit under the radar is the starting pitching.
You wouldn’t think that this would be an area of need if you took a look at the team from a macro level. Instinctively, you probably think that the relievers are the ones that need reinforcements. But let me run some numbers by you. This is how the team’s starters rank in all of baseball:
IP - 296 2⁄3 (9th)
K/9 - 8.13 (20th)
BB/9 - 3.28 (12th)
ERA - 4.19 (13th)
FIP - 4.72 (22nd)
fWAR - 2.4 (23rd)
These numbers aren’t ones that suggest a full fledged freakout by the fan base. Instead, it’s more of a caution that if something isn’t done soon to address the issues, the stay atop the NL East could end soon. The problem is: how does the team address the issue of needing better starting pitching?
They’ve so far gotten a disappointing year out of Aaron Nola. It’s probably the least talked about part of the season so far, with Bryce Harper’s struggles and the injury bug that is making its way through the bullpen, but having Nola struggle as much as he has this year has been a problem. People are still at the point where they believe that he’ll suddenly snap out of it, but now that Memorial Day has past, it’s fair to wonder if this is the version of Aaron Nola that the team will receive all year long. He is talented enough that yes, he can all of a sudden start looking like he did last year, but the season isn’t getting any shorter. If he is going to turn it around, this week is as good as any to start.
Whatever you think of Jake Arrieta, the best term to describe his season is “uneven”. He can be brilliant still, as evidenced by his most recent start in Milwaukee (8 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 K), but he can also have starts like he did against Miami in late April (5 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 5 K). He’s been pretty much what we expected him to be since he signed with the team, but he isn’t a #2 starter either. Ideally, the team would want a little more consistency out of him, but at this point, they have to be happy with the production they have received. So, while Nola and Arrieta have been a little off this year, they’ve also been solid enough that you know what you’re getting at this point. Zach Eflin has been the team’s success story thus far in the season. His 3.02 ERA in 65 2⁄3 innings pitched leads the starting staff, while his walk rate of 5.1% is 16th among 86 qualified pitchers. He’s dominated teams at points this year (see his start against Kansas City) and if he can avoid Milwaukee, would be a fine arm to throw in a playoff game. The issue is the last two spots.
Nick Pivetta was everyone’s breakout player this year. He hasn’t.
Jerad Eickhoff was the guy we all wanted to bounce back to, borrowing John’s phrase, be the “human metronome” again. He hasn’t.
These last two spots in the rotation have been the weakest links on the rotation and are the spots the team needs to upgrade if they want to be make a serious run at the National League pennant. Pivetta’s start this coming Tuesday is an important one in that if he can show that he has made strides in the minor leagues, he can help deepen the rotation that much more. If we are judging strictly from what he has done game to game, those strides haven’t been made quite yet. Eickhoff started off with a few high quality starts, but in his last three, he hasn’t made it past the fourth inning in two of them. While the team has bailed him out twice, this type of trend cannot continue.
There are some decent options available in the free agent and trade markets that could upgrade this team pretty significantly. Dallas Keuchel will certainly find his market heating up in short order, once the MLB Draft is completed and he is not subject to the compensation system any longer. Though he is dependent on his defense to have the amount of success he’s accustomed to having, the Phillies’ defense has improved to the point where they won’t hinder him too much from having success. When looking at the trade market, obviously the big fish out there is Madison Bumgarner. He will, as the top arm available that we know, command a princely sum in return, but if the Phillies are serious about making a run this year, they’ll surely be sniffing around to determine the best package to deal for him. Other names that might help include:
It doesn’t help things that through Monday’s game, 9 of the 15 National League teams are at or above .500, while two others are within 2 games of a .500 record. The playoff race is going to include a lot of teams that will also need some reinforcements with their rotation as well. If the team is going to address the rotation, time might be getting shorter than they think.