With the Feburary 18th deadline for pitchers and catchers to report quickly approaching, minor league invitations for Phillies 2015 Spring Training have once again been released, and the club’s 2014 first-round draft pick Aaron Nola will not be joining the team in Clearwater as previously commented on here at TBOH.
With what could be charitably described as a “transition year” looming, the annual visit to Clearwater will be watched more keenly than usual. Performances there could well be the crucial factor in deciding how some of the holes in the team’s rotation and lineup will ultimately shake out.
This transition or rebuild is why so many have been caught off-guard by the omission of the Phillies top pitching prospect from the list of invitees. Although you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who realistically believes the 21-year old could contend for a spot on the Opening Day lineup, Nola is widely considered to be close to Major League ready. It’s not out of the question that he could be considered for a callup at some point in the 2015 season.
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With high expectations for the young righthander, the general consensus is that a Spring Training cup of coffee with the other major league pitchers would have been a valuable experience for the future. In some ways, that’s true. However, make no mistake, if the goal is to have Nola ready to join the Phillies rotation as quickly as possible, then keeping him out of Spring Training was unquestionably the right move.
The fact is that, despite being considered one of the most polished pitching prospects in the game, Nola is still incredibly new to professional baseball. In fact, as of right now, Nola has just over 55 innings of pro ball under his belt.
Granted, the results were impressive (2.93 ERA, 1.033 BB/9 with a promotion to AA), but they came in very limited circumstances. Those 55 innings were spread throughout 12 appearances, 11 of those as starts, which means he averaged just under 5 innings per outing. The organization was clearly trying to ease Nola into his pro experience after he had already pitched a full season of college ball.
However, that won’t be an option this season. Nola is going to have to make the transition, and there’s a good chance it will take a toll on him. While he only had to pitch about once a week at LSU, he’ll have to adjust to throwing roughly 7 innings every five days if he wants to reach his anticipated ceiling as a solid #3 starter in the majors.
This isn’t even mentioning the all-around work that still needs to be done on his game. He may be an advanced prospect, but there are some edges that need to be sanded off before he’s ready for the pros. His curveball is strong, but has been pegged by scouts as needing tightening to become a true plus pitch, and his changeup needs to be further developed if it is going to be a reliable third pitch.
Again, these aren’t major projects, and Nola should be considered likely to reach his potential. It will just take time, and some consistent finishing work on the mound. The work that needs to be done in further developing those pitches is work that Nola would not have available to him if he were to join the Phillies’ at Spring Training.
Nola might be a fixture of the future, but the focus for the training staff in Clearwater will be determining who will be in the rotation and bullpen when the team heads back north to Philly in April. With a glut of pitchers already on the list and only two rotation spots truly locked up (even that subject to change based on Lee’s health and Hamels trade status), there just won’t be much attention available for a young pitcher who doesn’t have a chance of breaking in to start the season.
Ironically, if Nola were a little further away from being able to contend for a spot with the team, a stronger argument could be made for including him in Spring Training. He’d get a chance to mingle with the likes of Cole and Cliff and face Major League caliber opposition without having to worry about how it might impact his progression.
However, because there’s a real chance Nola could break into the rotation this year, it’s all the more important that he begin refining his game immediately. He would have been relegated to the back-burner in Clearwater, but in the minor league camps that start this March, he’ll be the main focus of attention for his training staff.
There he can start putting serious effort into working out those final kinks in his game in preparation for the minor league season, consideration later in the season for a call-up to Philadelphia, and a serious shot at beginning the 2016 season in the Phils rotation. Fans of the Fightins can follow his continued development right here at TBOH.