Phillies plan to protect their arms

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The first Phillies pitcher to step onto the mound Tuesday for the Grapefruit League opener started seven games in the majors last season, once won an award given to the organization's top pitcher, and added 25 pounds this winter for more strength. But when camp ends, Severino Gonzalez may rank 13th on the rotation depth chart.

"I'm very motivated because I do realize there is a lot of competition in camp," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "I know I have to work extra hard."

The 23-year-old righthander knows that because all he has to do is scan the clubhouse. The Phillies have collected young pitchers over the last seven months, a strategy that offers hope but a potential quandary for 2016.

How far should the Phillies push their young arms?

"I'll put it this way: If there is no need to go to 200 - if we're not fighting to get in the playoffs - I don't see any need to go to 200 innings," Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said Tuesday morning. "I think they can. I don't think it's a problem. But, in my opinion, there is no sense in doing it. I think we just have to use common sense there."

That statement makes pitchers such as Gonzalez relevant despite a drab first impression. The Phillies used 14 starting pitchers last season. They have, undoubtedly, raised the talent bar. But there are no proven workhorses on the staff, and every available arm could be used in 2016 to protect others.

Last season, for the first time in a non-strike-shortened year, the Phillies did not have a pitcher throw 180 innings in the majors. They were one of four teams who didn't have a 180-inning man, another sign of how fragile and protected starting pitchers are in the modern game. No pitcher in Phillies camp has ever thrown 200 innings in a season.

Just 56 pitchers in 2015 threw 180 major-league innings, the fewest in a full season since 1966.

The problem was most acute for the Phillies. Their starting pitchers in 2015 tossed fewer innings than any other Phillies rotation in history. Eight of the 14 pitchers who made starts last season are no longer on the roster.

Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, heading into their second season, are the top returning workers. Nola hit 187 innings between the majors and minors. Eickhoff threw 1841/3 innings. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Nola should be able to hit 200 innings. The 23-year-old righthander agreed.

"I want to throw as many innings as I can," Nola said. "I've been creeping up in innings every year."

McClure, judging by what he saw from Nola and Eickhoff at the end of last season, said both could reach 200 innings with "no problem" as long as they avoid injury.

"Now, depending on where we're at, will I let them do that?" McClure said. "I don't know yet. We'll just have to see where we're at."

Neither Jeremy Hellickson nor Charlie Morton, veterans acquired to stabilize the young rotation, has pitched 200 innings in a season. Hellickson's career high is 189 in 2011; he threw 146 innings last season. Morton reached his highest in 2011, at 1712/3 innings, and managed 1491/3 in 2015.

Brett Oberholtzer accrued 1662/3 innings in 2012 but just 1081/3 in 2015. Prospects Jake Thompson (1322/3 innings), Mark Appel (1312/3), and Zach Eflin (1312/3) all posted career highs last season. So did Alec Asher, with 1622/3 between the minors and majors. All of them will look to top those figures, but by how much is the question.

McClure cited an old rule he once adhered to: Add 30 or 40 innings to last season's total, and there should not be much of a problem. With younger arms, however, the Phillies could exercise more caution.

And there are bound to be injuries.

"I don't think 200 innings is pushing anything from a physical standpoint," McClure said. "I just don't. But that being said, we still have to revisit it constantly, in my opinion. We might be at 180 with Nola and whoever and say, 'Hey, we're good right now.' "

mgelb@philly.com

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