Part 2 of the Phillies’ 2017 minor-league seasons review: The pitchers
Out in the field, the vision of the Phillies’ future has come into focus. You can see Rhys Hoskins hitting 30-plus home runs at first base. You can see either Scott Kingery or Cesar Hernandez at second base and either Freddy Galvis or J.P. Crawford at shortstop. You can see a lot of things that you could not before this season, enough in fact to make the Phillies legitimate playoff contenders by the 2019 season.
You still must strain your eyes, however, to envision enough pitching to take the Phillies where they want to go and where they have not been in far too long.
“Most of the pitchers that were upper-level prospects are in the big leagues now,” a rival scout said last week. “They’ve had a lot of arms I liked — the Livelys and the Pivettas — but I don’t see that Luis Severino-type like the Yankees have at the top of their rotation. They don’t have that guy who can lead your staff.”
Eight of the 14 players who have made their major-league debuts this season have been pitchers and 16 of the 28 pitchers who have appeared in games for the Phillies had two years or less of big-league experience before this season. Seven of the 12 who had extended big-league service time have been traded or released.
“I think their pitching might be suspect in the next couple years,” the scout said. “It’s still going to be young. Those position players can certainly help out, but I don’t know if the young pitching is going to be able to hold the opposition.”
Like everyone else who has seen the Phillies this season, the scout loves Aaron Nola.
“Nola is a No. 2 or even a 1-A,” the scout said. “He could handle being a No. 1, but I’d love for him to be a 1-A with another guy in front of him. After that, they have a lot of guys cutting their teeth.”
And watching many of them cut their teeth this season has been comparable to root canal.
Four of the five members of the current rotation opened the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley. Three of them — Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, and Mark Leiter Jr. — had a combined record of 14-6 record and 2.94 ERA for the IronPigs. Their combined big-league numbers — 10-20 with a 5.30 ERA — are not nearly as attractive.
Still, they have all had their moments. Pivetta has a big arm, as evidenced by his 117 strikeouts in 111 innings, and Lively and Leiter are fierce competitors who probably should have the upper hand for 2018 rotation spots based on their performances this season.
“I see a lot of guys who are major-league pitchers, but they are threes and fours and fives,” the scout said. “Leiter is an overachiever. I’ve liked him since he was in college and high school. He’s not going to be your top guy, but every time you look he’ll be battling for a job on your team. But I don’t think he has a ceiling like Pivetta or Lively.”
The list of candidates for jobs in the rotation should be long when the Phillies return to Clearwater, Fla., for spring training in February. Zach Eflin has had a lost season because of knee and shoulder problems that rendered him ineffective. Jake Thompson, who has a spot in the big-league rotation by default, has been a disappointment, and the man he replaced in the rotation — Jerad Eickhoff — has been, too.
“Vince Velasquez has the best arm of anybody they have, but he is tremendously inconsistent,” the scout said.
In two seasons with the Phillies, Velasquez is 10-13 with a 4.48 ERA.
The other 2018 rotation candidates
Tom Eshelman, one of four players acquired in the Ken Giles trade with Houston, went a combined 13-3 with a 2.40 ERA at double-A Reading and Lehigh Valley and could be knocking on the big-league door at some point next season. Lefty Brandon Leibrandt, a sixth-round pick in 2014, was 11-5 with a 3.62 ERA at Reading and Lehigh Valley. Hard-throwing Drew Anderson was 9-4 with a 3.46 ERA at Reading and Lehigh Valley, and Jose Taveras went 9-6 with a 2.22 ERA while climbing from high-A Clearwater to Lehigh Valley.
“What Jose Taveras possesses, which a lot of our young players do not — pitchers and position players — is he knows who he is and what he has to do to be successful,” said Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development.
Even though the Phillies did not get an abundance of quality from their minor-league pitchers who graduated to the big leagues this season, Jordan believes the franchise will benefit from the quantity of prospects.
“It is very, very rare that you see a young player go to the big leagues and have the type of immediate success that Rhys Hoskins has had,” Jordan said. “There are examples of guys who went up and didn’t do very well and they end up being longtime very good major-league players.”
Lower-level pitching hope
There is a theory that it’s always easier to fall in love with young pitchers in the lower minors and the idea has merit. The hitters are not as good, the strike zones are not as tight, and the pressure is not as intense. That said, the Phillies have a group of young pitchers at high-A Clearwater and below who have the arms to develop into the kind of frontline starters the rival scout does not believe they had this season in the upper minors and at the major-league level.
“If you look at both our Lakewood and Clearwater rosters … there are some pretty exciting guys who it should be fun to watch develop,” Jordan said.
That list starts with Sixto Sanchez, the Phillies’ top-rated pitching prospect and No. 47 overall in the minor leagues according to Baseball America. His fastball hits triple digits, and his manager at low-A Lakewood, Marty Malloy, was quoted as saying that Sanchez already has a big-league change-up.
Sanchez, who turned 19 on July 29, dominated at Lakewood, but struggled at Clearwater, going 0-4 with a 4.55 ERA in his final five starts of the season. Still, he has the kind of arm the Phillies would like to see get to the big leagues fast.
“Just as bullish on him as I was on day one of the season,” Jordan said.
Franklyn Kilome, the Phillies’ 10th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, went a combined 7-7 with a 2.83 ERA at Clearwater and Reading.
“I’m probably as excited about the year Franklyn has had as I am about any of our young pitchers,” Jordan said. “He has every weapon a young player could have and I believe he is starting to figure out how to use them.”
Seranthony Dominquez (4-4, 3.61) dominated at Clearwater through mid-May before being shut down with a shoulder injury for two months. He was not as sharp upon his return.
In his first full professional season, lefthander Nick Fanti showed that pitching is not only about velocity as he used his deceptive delivery and high baseball IQ to post a 9-2 record and 2.54 ERA while also putting together two no-hit starts.
“I’d stack his season up against any of our guys,” Jordan said.
Fellow lefties JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez also dominated at Lakewood before being promoted to Clearwater. Romero, who turns 21 Friday, was 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA and struck out 128 batters in 129 innings. Suarez, 22, was 8-6 with a 2.27 ERA and struck out 128 in 122.2 innings.
The Phillies have not had a lefthander make a start for them this season, but Jordan is confident that is not a trend that will continue into the distant future. He was also impressed by lefties Cole Irvin (9-9, 3.39 ERA at Clearwater and Reading) and Bailey Falter (8-7, 2.99 at Lakewood).
Down in the Gulf Coast League in Clearwater, Jhordany Mezquita (3-0, 0.72), Manuel Silva (6-0, 2.60), Francisco Morales (3-2, 3.05), and Ethan Lindow (2-2, 4.55) all made favorable first impressions.
The Phillies have quality pitching prospects and the quantity seems pretty good, too. But there is proof all over baseball that you can never have enough.