The Philadelphia Phillies new general manager is reaping major benefits already from his first big trade.
Many of the Phillies’ moves to rebuild the club began in 2015, before Matt Klentak was hired to become the general manager. Former World Series heroes Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Chase Utley, as well as closer Jonathan Papelbon, were all traded for prospects prior to his arrival.
On December 12th of this past off-season, Klentak began to put his pwn stamp on the rebuild when he traded closer Ken Giles and minor leaguer Jonathan Arauz to the Houston Astros for five pitchers: Mark Appel (the first pick in the 2013 Amateur Draft), Harold Arauz (no relationship to Jonathan), Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Vincent Velasquez.
Velasquez, a hard throwing 23-year old righty was the centerpiece of the deal for the Phillies. In his rookie season last year, Velasquez started seven games and made 12 relief appearances for the Astros.
Velasquez went 1-1 with a 4.37 ERA, 1.275 WHIP, and 9.4 SO/9 ratio. That ERA is a bit misleading, as the FIP came in at a full run lower at a 3.46 mark. His SIERA was 3.74 as well. Both stats indicate that he pitched into some bad luck and/or the ‘Stros didn’t play good defense behind him.
Velasquez is currently considered the Phils fifth starter, a job he won this spring in a direct competition with left-hander Adam Morgan. Many fans thought Morgan had won the competition based on nine scoreless innings that he tossed in spring training. There was also talk that the Phils needed a lefty in the starting rotation. Then there are the conspiracy theorists on talk radio that said the Phils kept Velasquez over Morgan to justify trading Giles.
The fact was that Morgan did indeed pitch well, but manager Pete Mackanin chose Velasquez because he simply pitched even better, and also because of his upside and electric right arm.
Last year, Velasquez averaged 94.6 mph on his fastball, which he threw 68.5% of the time. He also features a plus changeup and above average curveball. If he is going reach his potential, Velasquez will need to improve his command, limit the free passes, and stay out of deep counts. Though his command is just average Velasquez gets away with the occasional mistake pitch due to his velo and the late movement on his four-seam fastball.
Velasquez hasn’t had an easy time getting here. The soon to be 24-year old was the 2nd round pick of the Astros in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft after enduring elbow problems in high school. Finally in 2011 those elbow problems manifested themselves to the point where he needed Tommy John surgery, wiping out his second pro season. Velasquez also missed time with groin and lat injuries in 2013 and 2014, further limiting his innings pitched.
In five minor league seasons, Velasquez only pitched 296.1 innings, with a mere 33 of those at the AA level last year. He skipped right over AAA when he was promoted to the Astros.
Velasquez made his MLB debut on June 10th, 2015 on the road against the Chicago White Sox. He pitched five scoreless innings of three-hit baseball, striking out five and walking four. He finished with a no decision in a game the Astros eventually lost 4-1. After going 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA in seven starts Velasquez was moved to the bullpen where he made a dozen appearances over the remainder of the season.
If Velasquez fulfills his potential as graded out by scouts, he’s projected to be a number three starter or an average closer. I believe that his ceiling is higher than that evaluation. As he begins to locate his fastball better, especially on the first pitch to a batter, Velasquez will become a very dangerous pitcher. He’ll also be in games longer, making him more valuable to the Phils.
Going deeper into games is a must just to reach the status of a number three starter. In his seven starts last year Velasquez averaged just over 5.1 innings per outing, but his pitch count was 93+ pitches per start. He needs to go deeper into games to have a chance of being that number three or better in the Phillies’ rotation.
Velasquez looked excellent in his first start this year against the defending NL champ Mets. He earned the Phils first win of the season, a 1-0 nail biter – with the lone run coming on Ryan Howard 5th inning opposite field HR.
The three walks Velasquez issued against the defending NL champs didn’t come back to haunt him, mainly because he only allowed three hits and fanned nine. The only extra base he allowed was a double by Asdrubal Cabrera in the 3rd inning. Cabrera was stranded on second as Velasquez mowed down both )Yoenis Cespedes and Lucas Duda to end the inning.
After 6 innings Velasquez was done. He’d already thrown 99 pitches, 26 in the first inning alone. In Velasquez defense, that could have been nerves, as he was pitching his first game for a new team.
However, high pitch counts have been a problem at times for Velasquez in his short professional career. What I saw in spring training and again Saturday night helps me believe he’ll be pitching deeper into games this year. Doing so will earn Velasquez more “W’s” and more notoriety in baseball circles. When he reaches arbitration, then later free agency, it will earn him more money as well.
When the season started Mackanin set up his rotation as follows: Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton, Jerad Eickhoff, and Velasquez. Though Valesquez is unofficially the 5th starter here in April, he may end up as the number one pitcher once September rolls around and on into the 2017 season. His stuff is that good.
If Valesquez realizes his lofty potential what would that mean for the young, rebuilding Phils? For starters it would give them a pitcher with the ability to blow the ball by opponents. That’s a trait no one else in the Phils rotation possesses. It also gives the team cost stability near the Major League minimum through 2019 when Velasquez first hits arbitration. This will allow the Phils to spend their considerable resources putting together the final pieces of a contender.
More than being a bargain, it would appear to solidify three spots in a young, improving rotation. Nola seems to be a given at this point, and has the best command on the staff. Eickhoff has one of the National League’s best curveballs, and looks to be in a strong position to solidify his spot in the rotation.
Velasquez is the power arm with a deceptive changeup, one that keeps hitters from just sitting fastball. That’s three totally different looks that Phils’ opponents will have to deal with night to night.
With most baseball media outlets predicting the Phillies will draft a pitcher with the 1:1 pick this coming June, the organization could have four quality pitchers in their rotation by 2018-19. That looks to be a realistic time for the team to begin contending for a playoff berth and beyond.
Velasquez’ performance will be a factor in how soon the Phillies actually do contend. If they are a playoff team in the next 2-3 years, he’ll also play a prominent role in how far the team goes on a postseason run.
There’s a lot of “ifs” associated with Velasquez because he simply hasn’t done it yet over a full season. But with more experience and a sharpening of his extensive tools, Velasquez will realize his enormous upside…and Matt Klentak’s first big move will be a winner.