Phillies Young Guns Riding to Rescue

Mar 7, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vincent Velasquez (28) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vincent Velasquez (28) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Phillies minor league system is being rebuilt, and some of the top prospects are pitchers who are, or soon will be, helping the big league rotation.

Over the last four years, Baseball America ranked the Phillies minor league organization at 27th, 23rd, and then at 22nd in each of the last two seasons. But in the list just released last month, the respected baseball talent evaluators shoot the franchise all the way up to 8th on their 2016 rankings.

In their Phillies ‘State of the System’ commentary for BA, John Manuel and J.J. Cooper described the club as follows: “The Phillies may have waited a year longer than they should have, but their rebuild has gone well to this point. They extracted five players from the Rangers in the Cole Hamels trade, adding depth arms in other deals.

The club received starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff in that Hamels deal, as well as their top pitching prospect in right-hander Jake Thompson. They also received pitcher Alec Asher and veteran arm Matt Harrison, who is now out for the season, and position players Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro.

Those “other deals” that Baseball America refers to include the trades of Marlon Byrd to the Reds for pitcher Ben Lively, Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers for pitchers Zach Eflin and Tom Windle, Ben Revere to the Blue Jays for pitchers Alberto Tirado and Jimmy Cordero, and Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals for pitcher Nick Pivetta.

And then there was the biggest of those “other deals”, where the Phils dealt closer Ken Giles and prospect infielder Jonathan Arauz to the Astros for pitchers Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, and Harold Arauz.

The bottom line in those deals is that the Phillies under both previous GM Ruben Amaro and new GM Matt Klentak have brought in more than a dozen new young arms to the organization over the 15 months.

With the club also having added young Aaron Nola to the organization as their top pick in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft, and then Nola’s ability to reach the big leagues and become a legitimate Major League starting pitcher by last summer, the future is looking much brighter on the mound.

Since the start of spring training games some ten days ago, Phillies fans have begun to get their first looks at some of the more promising young pitchers in Thompson, Appel, and Velasquez, as well as Oberholtzer, who may not have the ceiling of those first three, but who is closer to ready and could be in the 2016 opening rotation as camp breaks in just over three weeks.

Thompson has appeared in two games, making one start. He has a 1-1 record with a 0.00 ERA, having allowed eight hits over five innings pitched to this point with two strikeouts and a walk.

He is seen as a big time competitor by talent evaluators, including our staff here at TBOH, who named him the Phillies’ #3 overall prospect in our rankings and the organization’s top pitching prospect back in February.

“What impresses me,” said Phils’ director of player development Joe Jordan in a statement to Tom Housenick at The Morning Call of Allentown, “is that his stuff is good, at times above average. But, to me, there’s some moxie to him. He’s a competitor. He answers the bell every night.

In his own first two outings, Appel has a 2.25 ERA, having allowed two hits and one earned run over four innings, with three strikeouts and four walks. In an interview with 6ABC’s Jeff Skversky in late February, Appel showed his own confidence.

I want to be the best pitcher on this team, I want to be the best pitcher in baseball,” Appel said. The big righty is happy to be with the Phillies. “It’s exciting. It’s an exciting time to be in the Phillies organization. It’s exciting time for the city of Philadelphia. I think the future is bright and it’s a lot sooner than I think a lot of people expect.

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Velasquez is seen by some as a future starter, while others have seen a future closer. The Phils will give him every chance to remain in the rotation, and to this point he has a 3.60 ERA with six hits allowed over his first five innings. He has allowed two earned runs, with a 6/1 K:BB ratio.

To help in his development, Velasquez has now added a sinker to his repertoire. “It’s one of the things that would really help me early in counts, to get that ground ball when I really need it,” said the righty to’s Matt Gelb a few days ago. “I utilized it a little bit before but I didn’t have full control. Now it’s one of the things that’s added to my arsenal.

A couple of years older and more experienced than the previous three, Oberholtzer is from Delaware and grew up a Phillies fan. The lefty is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He has allowed just four hits over his first five innings with a 3/1 K:BB ratio and has to be considered the leader in the battle for the 5th starter role this season.

Thompson, Appel, and Eflin were all with the Phillies in Clearwater over these last couple of weeks enjoying their very first big league spring training. The club announced today that all three have been reassigned to their minor leagues complex.

In no way is that move a demotion for the three, all of whom have a chance to impact the club in the coming months and years. The Phillies have just about three weeks of Grapefruit League games remaining before the MLB regular season opens. Those games will be used to get anticipated starters Nola, Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson, and Charlie Morton ready.

The battle for that fifth starter role is exactly where everyone thought when spring opened, being fought over by Oberholtzer and Velasquez, as well as lefty Adam Morgan and righty David Buchanan.

Nola is here already, and the others are not far off. The Phillies have more talented starting pitching options in their low-mid 20’s now than at any time in the last decade or so. The young guns are not all here yet, but they are riding to town. It should not be long before they ride into Philly to help save the day from losing baseball.

Next: Bullpen Candidate: Edward Mujica