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Rotation royale: who will round-out the Phillies’ starting five?

As the Regular Season inches closer, the Phils’ rotation remains the team’s biggest question mark...

Photo via Patrick Gorski / USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday afternoon, Phillies manager, Joe Girardi, announced the teams’ first three Spring Training game starters.

Nick Pivetta will lead the charge, pitching on Saturday the 22nd, followed by Aaron Nola on Sunday, and Vince Velasquez on Monday.

As we inch closer and closer to the regular season, the one big question mark still looming over this team lies in the back of the rotation — who will the fourth and fifth starting spots be bestowed upon?

We can assume, of course, that Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Jake Arrieta will all be locks for their respective spots — but after that, it feels like a toss up. So, let’s outline the possible candidates for the last two spots, shall we?

RHP Zach Eflin (163.1 IP, 4.13 ERA, 4.85 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, 109 ERA+, 7.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9)

All things being even, Zach Eflin does indeed look to be the favorite, if not a lock, for the Phillies’ fourth rotation spot.

In a recent article published by NBC Sports’ Jim Salisbury, Jake Arrieta was quoted as saying that Eflin is, “just as good,” as both Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Now, while I’m not sure that’s completely true, I do agree that Zach Eflin has grown to become quite underrated by the Phillie fanbase.

Personally, I’m a big Eflin fan — he has it all: a big frame, excellent command, mid-90’s velocity, a vast arsenal of pitches... I could go on, but I’ll spare you the time.

The only flaw in the soon-to-be 26 year-old is, seemingly, his durability.

In 2019, Eflin came out of the gate in style. He pitched to a 3.34 ERA over 35 innings in March and April, and then followed it up with a 2.64 ERA in May. He took a bit of a step back in June with a 4.02 ERA on the month... and then, it happened — his deadly July. An 11.88 ERA, a 2.28 WHIP, and all of this across just 16.2 innings in a 30-day span. He was removed from the rotation, and was horrible out of the ‘pen — he was trapped in a spiral that was, seemingly, only headed downwards.

And then, he got right back on his horse after being added back into the rotation, as if nothing had ever happened. He put up a 3.77 ERA in 5 appearances (2 starts) in August, followed by a fantastic 2.80 ERA in September and October to bookend the year.

If we factor out Eflin’s abhorrent July, his season ERA totals to a 3.26, alongside a season WHIP of 1.25 — not bad for a guy you’re considering your number 4 starter, huh?

Zach had a similar issue to this in 2018. He started the year on fire, putting up a 3.15 ERA over 68.2 innings in the first half, and was even rumored to be the headlining piece of a trade for Manny Machado at the 2018 deadline — crazy right?

He then proceeded to fully implode in the second half, tossing a 5.76 ERA over 59.1 innings, and that was that.

All in all, 2020 is going to be a huge year for Zach Eflin to take that next step forward. He needs to hone in on his ability to pitch at a consistent level for a full year — and I imagine him returning to his tried and true methods (sinker down and away, pitching to contact, etc.) will help him do just that.

RHP Nick Pivetta (93.2 IP, 5.38 ERA, 5.47 FIP, 1.52 WHIP, 84 ERA+, 8.6 K/9, 3.7 BB/9)

Ah yes, everybody’s favorite pocket full of upside.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and preach that Nick Pivetta is bound to break out this year. I’m not going to point to one defining metric or factor that is going to make the guy a star because, the fact is, we don’t know what he is yet.

What we do know is that the kid has the stuff, and he has the drive to be better. Can he be a bit moody/cocky sometimes? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make him a bad person, and even less does it make him a bad player.

What we’re looking for out of Pivetta this year is a step forward — a sign of life. He needs to command his “plus” pitches better. He needs to develop a strategy against lefties. He needs to produce a third pitch — and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s making the effort to do just that. Joe Girardi even said on Tuesday that his changeup “looks much better,” and is developing smoothly.

Pivetta still has Minor League options, and he’s only owed the league minimum salary. If he were hamstringing the Phillies in a big way, I’d be the first to say they should just cut the guy and be done with it — but, the fact of the matter is; if he stinks up the joint this year, he’ll just get replaced by a guy further down on this list.

I know there are many people out there who feel they’ve seen enough out of Nick, and think he should be placed into a circus cannon and fired into the sun, but this is baseball. It’s a game of patience, a game of strategy — and, no matter how much you complain, he’s getting another chance this year.

RHP Vince Velasquez (117.1 IP, 4.91 ERA, 5.21 FIP, 1.39 WHIP, 92 ERA+, 10.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9)

Speaking of guys we’ve seen enough of, Vince Velasquez is somehow still in consideration for a rotation spot.

By now, I’m sure everyone and their mother has heard about Velasquez’ durability concerns, including his horrid numbers upon his third time through the batting order, so I won’t bother to share those here.

What I will say about Velasquez is; his fastball command last year was truly impressive. I’m also consistently impressed by his excellent stuff, though he fails to command it effectively 90% of the time.

Eno Sarris of the Athletic wrote an excellent piece (behind a paywall) detailing Velasquez’ curveball, and just how nasty it can be. For me, Velasquez’ issue has always been the fact that his curveball and slider are far too similar in terms of velocity.

Most times, when you see a pitcher with a curve/slider combo, there is a significant change in speeds between the two pitches — typically a 7-9 mph difference. Cardinals pitcher, Jack Flaherty, for instance, boasts an average of an 8 mph difference between his slider and curve.

In 2019, Velasquez averaged 87 mph on his slider, and it’s a decent pitch (though he often has trouble locating it.) On the other hand, Velasquez also averaged 83 mph on his curveball — just a 4 mph difference between two “breaking” pitches that follow nigh-identical pathways. With a similarity like that, it’s no wonder his off-speed stuff gets absolutely crushed.

All of that said, what is SO encouraging about VV is his four-seam heater. Opponents hit just .221 against his fastball in 2019, and a could-be-worse .291 versus his curveball, too. The issue presents itself within his slider (.341 BAA,) his abysmal sinker (.400 BAA,) and his changeup, which he should never throw again (.667 BAA.)

The current iteration of Vince Velasquez only has two good pitches, and therefore should transition to the ‘pen, where I think he can be lights-out. His fastball/curve combo is solid, and he can even mix the slider in there every once and a while (if he can truly tack something on it.)

Right now, he’s trying to do too much, and he’s getting punished for it. I trust that Bryan Price knows this already, and will be focussing on simplifying with VV from here on out.

My only hope is; whatever we get out of Velasquez this year, let’s just decide where he’s going to pitch and keep him there. I don’t care whether he’s the 5th man in the rotation or the 8th man in the bullpen — give him a spot, and stick to it.

LHP Ranger Suarez (48.2 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 144 ERA+, 7.8 K/9, 2.2 BB/9)

Suarez is a major dark-horse in the rotation derby this year, and I’m personally quite excited that they’re giving him a shot.

I’ve been a fan of Ranger’s for a long time. Before Spencer Howard came along, Suarez, hands-down, boasted the best changeup in the system, and that was fascinating to me.

Upon first glance, Suarez’ make-up easily lends itself to that of a LOOGY. A killer changeup from the left side, a solid fastball that he locates well, and a sinker that was straight up murdering bats in 2019 — the guy is a soft-contact machine.

However, if you could effectively add a breaking pitch to that already solid three-pitch combo, Suarez could prove even more useful as a rotation piece.

The one key that Ranger is missing is a way to attack righties. He can set them up with his fastball, but right-handed hitters crush his default put-away pitch in his changeup...

That’s where his brand new slider comes into play.

Was it good in 2019? No, it was not — but he threw it significantly more often last year, and is surely still developing it as we speak.

If Suarez can manage to develop this slider into a useable pitch, he’ll surely get a shot at the Major League rotation at some point. If not, the worst case for him is that he gets relegated back to the bullpen.

Either way, Ranger will look to be a fixture of this team for years to come, and I’m truly happy for him.

LHP Cole Irvin (41.2 IP, 5.83 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 1.39 WHIP, 77 ERA+, 6.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9)

We were all really excited about Cole Irvin last year — especially after he’d strung together such a successful Minor League career.

For a little bit, it looked like he was going to come out strong, too. An excellent first showing against the Royals (7 IP, 1 ER, 5K,) and a decent follow-up against the Rockies (6IP, 3 ER, 2K,) gave us all hope that maybe, just maybe, the Phillies had found another gem left-hander named Cole... and then, the Cubs crushed him for 7 runs, and he was demoted to Triple-A once more.

The big issue for Irvin in 2019 was his velocity. He’s a control artist, and carries a really good changeup, but hitters walloped his 88-90 mph fastballs last year, tacking a .316 BAA on his four-seam, and a .375 BAA versus his sinker. This was looking to be a significant issue for Cole’s ability to transition fully into the Major Leagues... until September hit.

Cole Irvin was a monster out of the bullpen in September. His fastball velocity took a drastic leap forward (sitting ~93 mph, topping at 95,) and hitters managed to bat just .231 and .222 against his four-seam and sinker respectively. He also managed to string together an unprecedented 0.73 ERA across his 12.1 innings that month, and allowed a .214 (!!!) OpSLG%.

If THAT version of Swirvin’ Irvin can manage to carry his success into the rotation, you’re looking at a totally different pitcher. A guy with his control, mid-90’s velocity, and a killer change is absolutely worth giving a shot in your starting 5, and, as with Ranger Suarez, the worst case here is that you either demote Irvin, or let him continue on developing his velocity out of the bullpen. Either way, it’s a blast seeing him succeed.

RHP Enyel De Los Santos (11.0 IP, 7.36 ERA, 7.67 FIP, 1.64 WHIP, 63 ERA+, 7.4 K/9, 4.1 BB/9)

Man, what happened to Enyel De Los Santos in 2019?

The once top-10 prospect was having a mediocre year in Triple-A before being called up in a pinch, as Phillies relievers were dropping like flies during the regular season.

He floated back and forth between the Minors and Majors for most of the year, entering MLB games in low-stakes situations, never really impressing out of any role — especially when he started against the Marlins in June, surrendering 7 hits and walking 3 across 4 innings.

While he suffered through a pretty terrible year, it goes without saying that there’s still a great deal of potential hidden within EDLS.

The 24 year-old righty always surprises me with his impressive changeup — though it doesn’t seem to be fooling guys too well at the Major League level. Opponents are hitting .286 against his go-to secondary — not that bad, right? Well, that would be the case, if they didn’t also carry an otherworldly .714 SLG against it. This implies that, while his changeup is his best off-speed pitch, he’s not commanding/locating it well — thus, it’s getting absolutely torched.

De Los Santos also needs to put some work into his fastball. While his heater has life (94-96 mph) it, like his changeup, is not being located properly, and is seeing similar results against MLB bats.

The key to EDLS retaining his role as a starter is, once again, the fact that he lacks an effective third pitch — but that’s where things get interesting.

Enyel’s slider is on the rise, and it was EASILY his best pitch in his two short stints in the majors. If he can continue to develop it, he won’t have to rely on his changeup as much, and can more effectively mix his pitches — resulting in (hopefully) less punishing at-bats.

I’ve always viewed EDLS as a bullpen-bound arm, but, if he can manage to unlock the elusive third pitch, there’s a whole lot of potential there out of the rotation.

LHP Damon Jones (No MLB Stats.)

“Guys came back from rehabbing [in the Minor Leagues] with their jaws wide open [after seeing him pitch.]”

That is what Phillies’ GM Matt Klentak had to say about Damon Jones, who shot up the Phillies’ prospect leaderboards after a stunning 2019 season.

Jones was an 18th round pick out of the 2017 draft who surged thru the Phillies Minor League system in 2019.

He began with a torrid campaign in High-A, where, across 11 starts (58.1 innings,) he turned in a 1.54 ERA, alongside a 1.06 WHIP, a stellar 0.5 HR/9, and a ridiculous 13.6 K/9. He then moved up to Double-A Reading, where he put up a 0.82 ERA across 22 innings without allowing a single home run, and striking out 31. Finally, he stuck to Triple-A, and finished out his season there with mediocre numbers.

While he’s still struggling with command, Jones has excellent stuff. A 94-96 mph fastball, a newly-developed and biting slider, a decent curveball, and a work-in-progress changeup.

The key to his success is simply based upon whether or not he can hone in the control — much like what was once the worry with, now top pitching prospect, Spencer Howard.

Let it be known that, while the current expectation for Jones is that he slots into the rotation in a year or so, he also has a very high floor. At worst, he’ll, eventually, move to the bullpen, and his stuff will surely play up from there. At best, his ceiling, right now, projects to be a low number three or high number four starter — something I’m sure the Phillies would be thrilled to receive out of an 18th rounder.

RHP Spencer Howard and Connor Seabold (No MLB Stats.)

I decided to clump these two together because, while they will almost definitely factor into the Phillies’ rotation at some point in their careers — they are not going to start the year with the club.

Everyone knows who Spencer Howard is by now — that kid with the absurd changeup, and the fastball that can touch 100. He’s pretty good, and has what is quite possibly the highest ceiling of any Phillies pitching prospect since Cole Hamels (yes, even more of a ceiling than Aaron Nola, who was slated to be a low number two or high number three starter at best.)

We’re talking ace-level stuff here, and that means the Phillies are going to take it SLOW with him.

Connor Seabold, on the other hand, has nowhere near the ceiling that Howard does — but is still worth mentioning here.

Seabold had a long year this past season. He came back from injury with bumped up velocity, and tossed an excellent 7 starts with Reading to the tune of a 2.25 ERA. He then dazzled in the Arizona Fall League, tossing 17 innings of 1.06 ERA ball against some of the game’s best and brightest.

He’ll likely start with Double-A Reading this year, but will surely bump up to Lehigh Valley in no time, where he’ll have the chance to stretch his arm out, and truly test what he can do with his newly elevated velocity.

Welp, that went on for WAY longer than I expected — but I hope it helped delve into the many, many options that the Phillies have this Spring, and the multitudes of ways they can go with this configuration of arms.

Live Spring Training games begin in two days. Get excited, Phillies fans!