Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Day 5: The rotation

Starting pitching is probably the most tangible area of progress in the Phillies’ rebuild.
 
Don’t misunderstand. When it comes to a starting rotation, these Phillies aren’t the Mets or Nationals. And they’re certainly not the 2011 Phillies.
 
But through a series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by predecessor Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects, the Phillies have built some solid starting pitching depth in recent years.
 
The depth will be on display next Tuesday when mitts start popping and pitchers and catchers hold their first official workout in Clearwater.
 
The Phillies have 15 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster and 10 of them have come to the organization in trades since the rebuild started after the 2014 season. Eight of 15 starters on the 40-man roster made at least five starts with the big club last year. Some of these pitchers could eventually end up making a conversion to the bullpen, maybe as soon as this season. In fact, manager Pete Mackanin has already hinted that lefty Adam Morgan, who made 21 starts last season, could get a look as a reliever this spring. But as camp begins, all 15 are starters and the club will adjust from there.
 
On paper, the Phillies’ season-opening five-man rotation looks to be set. Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are all penciled into spots and all Aaron Nola needs to do to fill out the rotation is prove his health.
 
But over and over in this game, history has taught us that a team can never have enough starting pitching. The 1997 Phillies remain an example of that. During the final week of camp, the team sent Calvin Maduro to Triple A. A few days later, the club put five pitchers on the disabled list and Maduro was brought back from minor-league camp not just to pitch in the rotation but to hold down the No. 2 starter's job behind opening day starter Curt Schilling.
 
So guys like Morgan, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson will all be major factors in camp, though Thompson might be a little behind the others in early workouts because of what is said to be some mild soreness in his right wrist. Eflin is coming back from a pair of surgeries to repair tendinitis in both knees. The right-hander turns 23 in April and could be set to break out now that he’ll be pitching on healthy knees for the first time in his career.
 
The quartet of Morgan, Eflin, Asher and Thompson made 47 starts in the big leagues last season and will almost surely get time in the Philadelphia again this season. 
 
“With Hellickson, Buchholz, Eickhoff, Nola and Velasquez, the rotation is pretty solid when you think about it,” Mackanin said. “And with the inventory we have behind those guys, it’s not like you’ll be bringing up guys and crossing your fingers. They have some experience. And all this creates good competition.”
 
Other young starters who will get a look in big-league camp include Ben Lively, an 18-game winner in the minors last season, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Mark Appel, Drew Anderson and Elniery Garcia. All project to open at Double A or Triple A.
 
The projected big-league rotation is a blend of experience and youth. Hellickson, who turns 30 in April, returns to the club after recording a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts last season. Buchholz, 32, was acquired from Boston in a salary dump. He pitched his way in and out of the Red Sox rotation last season and is looking for a rebound season to carry him into free agency. The Phillies hope both veterans pitch well and become July trade chips, bringing back young talent and opening spots for younger pitchers to rise from Triple A.
 
Eickhoff, 26, could be poised for a breakout season in 2017. He emerged as a mid-rotation rock last season, delivering 20 quality starts and becoming just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling.

Velasquez needs to improve his economy of pitches to stay in games longer, but there’s no doubting the power stuff that helped him strike out 10.4 batters per nine innings last season.

Mackanin’s decision on an opening day starter will be an interesting spring storyline. He could give the nod to Hellickson for a second year in a row or go with Eickhoff, who led the staff in starts (33), innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season.

If Hellickson and Buchholz pitch well in their walk years, if Nola is healthy and Eickhoff and Velasquez continue to improve, the Phillies stand a good chance to stay in games for six innings most nights. This isn’t the Mets’ or Nationals’ rotation and it surely isn’t the 2011 Phillies, but, with a sprinkle of veterans, some developing talent and more percolating in Triple A, it ain’t bad.

Next: Day 6 – A look at how the bullpen shapes up

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”