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What if Aaron Nola isn’t ready for “Opening Day”?

With Nola still not present in Philadelphia, what would the strategy be?

Philadelphia Phillies Summer Workouts Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In his meeting with the press yesterday, Joe Girardi was asked about Aaron Nola’s condition while he is still at home for unspecified reasons, if he’s been throwing, etc. His response was this:

Well, his baseball shape was, um, pretty good, we felt pretty good about where he was at coming into spring training and that’s about all I can share.

Calling his situation “unpredictable” when asked if he would be back by July 25th, it’s not the most heartening thing that the manager can say about the team’s ace. With the season shaping up to buck the old baseball adage of “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”, losing your ace is something that could set a team back when each game is a must win. With each team trying to win as many of the 60 games as they can as fast as they can, facing opponents without your best option on the mound is the least optimal situation, yet here is where the Phillies are.

So, let’s go ahead and assume that Nola won’t be ready (an assumption, yes, but at this point a reasonable one). What should the Phillies do? What is their best course of action?

There is the fortunate distinction that the team does have a surplus of arms right now in the 60-man roster. Even without Nola, the options for the Phillies to start the season with in the rotation are actually pretty good:

  • Zack Wheeler
  • Jake Arrieta
  • Zach Eflin
  • Nick Pivetta
  • Vince Velasquez
  • Cole Irvin
  • Connor Seabold
  • Reggie McClain
  • Spencer Howard (!)

These are all theoretical options that Girardi has at his disposal that can be deployed until Nola makes his anticipated arrival. Having Wheeler as an option becomes especially big as he is probably the one pitcher on the staff that can dominate a game at Nola’s level for multiple games in a season. We can debate each of the other names and their level of competence until we’re each blue in the face, but the fact is that they are major league quality arms.

Should Nola miss some time, there is some comfort to be taken that at least Girardi and the team won’t be caught with their pants down. They have a few options there that can get the job done if need be. Remember - pitchers, not matter how quickly they ramp up over these next few weeks, are not going to be ready to throw 5, 6, even 7 innings per start. They’ll be going through the order once, plus a few extra batter before they reach a to be determined pitch count. So, the team will not be asking these players to dominate lineups two or three times through. They just have to survive getting between 12-18 outs per start. That’s something they can do.

The bigger question becomes - what if Wheeler decides that he would rather be home for the birth of his child? He is obligated to take into account the risk that exposure to covid-19 could limit his time with his newborn child. Firstly, as a human being, we should respect this decision of Wheeler should he choose this avenue to go down. The birth of any child is something many don’t get to experience and if Wheeler should choose to prioritize this event over playing baseball, we should applaud the decision rather than deride it.

However, it would leave the team with yet another hole in their rotation. It could accelerate the team’s timeline for bringing Howard to the major league roster. It could force them to make roster decisions that they weren’t ready to make, such as carrying more relievers to cover innings in the beginning part of the season. It could change Girardi’s thinking on a strategic standpoint, such as piggybacking multiple starters more often to make up for what looks like a shakier bullpen.

Getting back to it though, not having Nola could be an issue with the team early in the season. Each win will be important, no matter if it’s in July or in September. If Nola isn’t ready right away, it makes getting those wins out of the gate that much more difficult.