Where’s the pitching? It’s the most pertinent question facing the Phillies in these last few days before the first official workout of spring training. Anybody with two working eyes and a general understanding of what a competitive big-league rotation looks like should know that it should look a lot different than Aaron Nola followed by four guys whose combined ERA in 2017 was north of 5. I know it, you know it, and you have to believe that Matt Klentak and his front office know it.
So, what gives? Or, better, what’s about to give? Something has to, doesn’t it?
The Phillies’ dissatisfaction with their rotation in its current form has been something of an open secret all offseason. Klentak might quibble with that exact choice of words — dissatisfaction implies a lack of faith, and, whatever happens, the Phillies will be relying on their current crop for some serious innings this season — but both he and majority owner John Middleton have been relatively open about their desire to add another starter or two. That’s not to suggest that Jerad Eickhoff or Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez or Ben Lively won’t someday establish himself as a dependable member of a competitive big-league rotation. But, like any portfolio, the health of a 25-man roster is measured in degrees of certainty, and there is scant evidence to warrant much in the way of confidence for their immediate future as a collective.
Even with Nola’s stellar 2017 numbers factored in, the five pitchers you’d currently project to open the season in the rotation combined for a 4.66 ERA last season. Look at the projected rotations for the 14 other teams in the National League and you’ll find only two that have combined for a worse mark.
Again, that’s not an indictment of any one of Eickhoff/Pivetta/Velasquez/Lively as an individual. Over the last couple of seasons, each has given the Phillies some reason to believe in his possibility. The Phillies have seen less-established pitchers play important roles in contending rotations (Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley, J.A. Happ, et al.). The presence of any one of them in a big-league rotation is hardly a dealbreaker. The presence of all of them, though, could very well be.
That’s the scenario the Phillies need to make sure they avoid, the one that could occur if everything else breaks right at every other position: If Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams and Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr combine to post an .837 OPS at a 20-homer-apiece clip (as they did last season); if Cesar Hernandez ranks in the top five in OBP among big-league second baseman (as he does over the last two seasons, minimum 500 plate appearances); if Carlos Santana posts an .842 OPS and 28 home runs at first base, and Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford play the way many projected when they ranked them among the brightest prospects in the game.
That’s a lot of ifs, but it’s not all that much of a stretch, not nearly enough that the Phillies should be content with their rotation as they see it. Because if all of that happens, then they are just a quality start away from having a better-than-even chance to win on a substantial percentage of nights. And it’d be a shame for them to look back and think, “If only our rotation wasn’t dead on arrival.”
Let’s again warn against two potential inferences. First, that Eickhoff/Pivetta/Velasquez/Whoever are dead on arrival as individual pitchers. Eickhoff is just one season removed from a campaign in which he logged 197 1/3 innings over 33 starts with a 3.65 ERA. In 2016, he pitched six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs in 20 of his 33 starts. That’ll get it done in a world where the Phillies’ lineup and bullpen fulfill their potential. Velasquez clearly has the stuff of a perpetual breakout candidate, while Pivetta has that swing-and-miss velocity on his fastball.
On an individual level, each of these guys has a high enough probability of proving himself capable that you can understand the Phillies’ desire to give each of them that chance. But when you combine those probabilities — whatever they are, case-by-case — the chances that all of them combine to form a competitive rotation probably sits somewhere in the single digits. Even if you give Eickhoff a 60 percent chance of being the guy he was in 2016, and Pivetta a 60 percent chance of being the guy the Phillies think he can be, Velasquez’s health concerns and inconsistency to date makes anything more than 50-50 seem a tad optimistic. Combine all three of those odds and you are down to an 18 percent chance of success as a collective.
That’s not exactly peer-reviewed math, but you get the drift.
Second, don’t mistake any of this for a suggestion that the Phillies are satisfied with things as they stand. In fact, don’t be surprised if they suddenly find themselves in the thick of some serious action over the next five to 10 days. This has been one of the stranger free-agent markets in recent hot-stove history, with the commissioner’s office and players association exchanging blows over a stagnant market that each contends is the other’s doing. Until Yu Darvish signed a $126 million deal with the Cubs over the weekend, the consensus top four pitchers on the market remained unsigned, along with six others you could probably rank as being among the Top 15 available at the start of the offseason.
That affects the Phillies in several ways. They probably never considered Darvish a realistic target, given their prioritization of long-term payroll flexibility (when they signed Santana, they said they were adamant about limiting the deal to a length of three years). The same likely holds true for Jake Arrieta, and perhaps Cardinals workhorse Lance Lynn, who profiles similarly to a number of starters who have signed four- and five-year deals over the last couple of offseasons (Mike Leake and Ian Kennedy, to name two).
But consider a guy like Alex Cobb, who doesn’t have the innings-eating track record of the other three guys and has seen a dip in his strikeout rate since coming back from Tommy John surgery late in 2016. There are a lot of potential outcomes that a contract negotiation could take with such a uniquely positioned job candidate. Until a team like the Phillies eliminates somebody like that as a potential acquisition who could be had at a palatable price, it’s hard to focus one’s attention elsewhere. If the asking prices on the trade market are as high as they contended a couple of months ago, it is a lot easier to let them simmer if they think the free-agent market might yet yield solutions.
Pitchers like Cobb and Lynn can also have an impact on the deeper levels of the market: Without knowing their price tags, it can be difficult to assign value to a veteran multiyear candidate like Jaime Garcia or even an older stopgap type like Jason Vargas.
Now that Darvish has signed, it will be interesting to see if both the free-agent and trade markets begin to flow. To be sure, markets do not operate in a linear fashion, and the choices that a buyer like the Phillies must make are not necessarily binary in nature. Still, with less than a week to go before spring training, it’s hard to look at the depth chart and conclude that everything is set.