Phillies rotation competition will be key in spring training
The 2020 Philadelphia Phillies finished 28-32, despite finishing top-five in terms of runs scored, due to serious struggles in the bullpen.
The rotation was actually solid, with the 1-2-3 combo of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin. New Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham believes all three are capable of winning the Cy Young Award in their careers.
The fourth and fifth spots in the Phillies starting rotation are wide open.
Last season, back-end Phillies starters included Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard. Arrieta’s contract expired and will not be back in a Phillies uniform, but rather with another team with whom he used to play. Velasquez, who the Phillies retained on a one-year deal, could finally transition to a full-time bullpen role. Howard, meanwhile, struggled in his rookie campaign, issuing 40 baserunners in only 24 innings of work, and recorded a 5.92 ERA.
President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski was active this offseason in acquiring starting pitching depth. Chase Anderson, a former Blue Jay and Brewer right-hander, signed a one-year, $3 million deal. Left-hander Matt Moore, a 2013 All-Star, also inked a one-year contract following a strong season in Japan. There is also longtime Yankee right-hander Ivan Nova, who has a chance to reunite with manager Joe Girardi in the majors if he impresses in the coming weeks. These moves certainly strengthen the starting pitching depth.
With the strong trio atop the rotation, only two spots remain for Anderson, Moore, Nova, Velasquez, and Howard. Of course, depending on who impresses in spring training, any two could be named the final starters in the rotation.
It seems plausible that Velasquez finally transitions to the bullpen full-time, but Girardi was impressed last spring with his stuff, and Cotham may soon be as well.
Based on Anderson’s deal, it seems the Phillies project him to be a part of the rotation. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman recently tweeted his contract details, noting several incentives for the number of games started:
Based on those numbers, expect Anderson to have an upper hand entering spring training. He has a career 4.06 ERA, and also has bullpen experience over the past two seasons, but could be a quality No. 5 starter.
Moore struck out 89 batters in 78 innings overseas in 2020, tallying a 2.65 ERA in 13 starts, while posting a career low in BB/9. The left-hander was very good in only two starts with the Detroit Tigers in 2019, and could be among other players who have resurrected their baseball careers from success in foreign leagues — among the likes of Eric Thames, Casey McGehee, Colby Lewis, and Miles Mikolas. Moore does have bullpen experience as well. In 2018, when Moore pitched mostly out of the bullpen, batters only hit .234 against him.
Nova is most likely depth that could be called upon later in the season — something the Phillies did not have within the pitching staff in 2020. It is nice to have a veteran and experienced arm who can slide into the rotation if need be — in case of an injury. Like Moore and Anderson, Nova also has bullpen and rotation experience, but struggled mightily in 2020.
Most Phillies fans would probably like to see Howard take one of the spots, given his history as a highly-touted prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. But, it may be best for his career to get some more seasoning in the minors and readjust to Major League Baseball in a more normal season.
As a prediction for a five-man rotation, it is easy to envision Nola, Wheeler, Eflin, Moore, and Anderson. Don’t be surprised if we see Howard or Velasquez slide in, and one of Moore or Anderson shift to the bullpen.
Either way, it seems like the Phillies are looking to improve their rotation, and nothing breeds success like competition in spring training.