Phillies: What’s the rotation without Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler?

Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

The Phillies face even more uncertainly in their starting rotation than expected

Entering the 2020 season there was finally a reason for optimism when it came to the Phillies rotation. With ace Aaron Nola already locked in as the number one starter, the team added a solid number two arm with Zack Wheeler in free agency on a $118 million contract.

Behind Nola and Wheeler remained the uncertainty that is Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez, but at least the Phillies had a one-two punch at the top of the rotation that could win a couple of critical series throughout the year.

Even more promise lies in the farm system with top prospect Spencer Howard knocking on the door of the big leagues. Baseball America (subscription required) ranks Howard as the 29th best prospect in baseball and the 12th best pitching prospect.

Many projected the starting rotation to start out as Nola, Wheeler, Arrieta, and Eflin with a battle between Velasquez, Pivetta, and Ranger Suarez for the final spot. Howard was not expected to make the team back in February and was set to make his big league debut by the summer.

A lot has changed since the days we came up with those projections, including the availability of the Phillies top two starters.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 09: Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies walks to the dugout after the end of the top of the second inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park on September 9, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Nola has yet to report to “summer camp” but has not been placed on the COVID-19 injured list. Manager Joe Girardi made it clear that just because a player is not in camp doesn’t mean he’s contracted the virus.

Matt Breen of The Inquirer says that Nola “has been kept away from Phillies camp because of COVID-19 protocols meaning he could have tested positive, came in contact with an infected person, or showed symptoms.”

God forbid for his own health Nola contracted the virus and lets hope that he’s not in camp only for precautionary measures.

If Nola is not available to start the season and misses and extended period of time, that’s already a hit to the Phillies season. Even missing one start in a 60 game season could be the difference.

Behind the Nola situation is Wheeler, who said that he plans to play this year but that things could change after his wife gives birth, which he anticipates will be in late July, right when the season starts.

If Wheeler does not feel like he can safely play with a newborn baby at home, the Phillies might be in a situation where they don’t have two of their best starting pitchers.

At that point, if there’s no Nola or Wheeler for a portion of all of 2020, what does the Phillies rotation look like?

Who’s the Phillies best starter behind Nola and Wheeler? Among the major league staff, Arrieta is the most experienced but he comes in as damaged goods coming off another injury in 2019. Eflin showed promise in 2020 once he took control of his routine and repertoire, but he remains a big question mark.

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The situation is set up for both Velasquez and Pivetta to make the rotation after it was assumed one would find themselves in the bullpen. With new pitching coach Bryan Price at the helm and each pitcher likely limited to only a couple of innings this year, can either finally grasp a spot in the rotation?

Then there’s the issue of Spencer Howard. The Phillies could lose valuable service time if Howard starts the season on the expanded roster versus the taxi squad. Jim Salisbury of NBCS Philadelphia reports that if the Phillies don’t call Howard up for the first couple games they can save that service time and buy themselves another team control of his contract, which could be a $20+ million decision depending on how his career turns out.

The Phillies don’t have much starting pitching depth

After Howard, the Phillies don’t have much major league ready starting pitching depth to work with. Ranger Suarez is on the 10-day disabled list under the COVID-19 protocols, so his status is a big question.

On their 40 man roster there are only a couple of other options, and they aren’t stellar. Enyel De Los Santos could make the bullpen coming out of camp but his history as a starter in the big leagues isn’t impressive with a 7.36 ERA in three starts. Granted, it’s only three starts but you don’t want to have to rely on De Los Santos to get a quality start against the Nationals in September.

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Philadelphia Phillies /

Philadelphia Phillies

Cole Irvin has largely moved into a reliever role as well despite tremendous success in Lehigh Valley. He’s also only made three starts in the big leagues with a 5.60 ERA, though his numbers as a reliever (an ERA of six in 13 relief appearance) aren’t strong either.

Those would be the only two guys on the 40-man roster with big league starting experience.

The Phillies left right-handed pitching prospect Adonis Medina off their summer camp roster, but there’s still room for him if they’re desperate. Many thought Medina could be ready for the big leagues in 2020 but the 23-year-old righty took a step back over the last two years with ERAs over four.

Prospect Mauricio Llovera has never pitched above Double-A, but is an option on the 40 man roster if the Phillies get desperate. Again, they don’t want to start the service time clock on these young guys, especially during this season. The same goes for Cristopher Sanchez, JoJo Romero, Francisco Morales, and the other young prospects.

If the Phillies are stuck with only four starters, they might have to have a full bullpen day and hope that Irvin and De Los Santos can give them six combined innings and give the rest of the game to the other relievers.