Phillies' young rotation eager to learn from Jake Arrieta

PHILS10
Jerad Eickhoff was at a golf tournament when he heard the news of Jake Arrieta’s deal. He believes it’s a sign that the Phillies are turning a corner sooner than anyone thought.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jerad Eickhoff was at a golf tournament Sunday afternoon, not far from the Phillies’ spring-training complex, to get his first chance at watching Tiger Woods in action. But Eickhoff’s moment was interrupted when someone alerted him to the breaking news: Jake Arrieta had agreed to a contract with the Phillies.

“I was just shocked,” Eickhoff said Monday. “You just don’t think it’s going to happen to us and this team and then it happens and it’s kind of like a ‘Wow.’”

Arrieta will arrive Tuesday but his deal, which according to a source is a three-year contract worth $75 million, already brought a buzz to the team’s clubhouse. The Phillies, perhaps a bit energized by manager Gabe Kapler’s enthusiasm, said when camp opened that the postseason was a goal. That seemed a bit lofty after the Phillies lost 96 games last season. But adding Arrieta suddenly makes that goal a bit more realistic.

“It shows that the turning of the tide is a lot sooner than I think we all thought,” Eickhoff said. “This whole camp has been real positive and there was this sense that it could happen sooner than later, but this is just another piece. … It makes us a lot better. You’d be crazy to think it doesn’t.”

Arrieta will join a rotation with Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta. The four young starters enter the season with an average age of 25. None have thrown 200 innings in a season and only Eickhoff has a season with 30 starts. A veteran pitcher like Arrieta, who turned 32 this month and has made 30 starts in each of the last three seasons, was needed.

“How exciting,” Velasquez said. “To have a [pitcher] like that on board would be awesome. I could go on and on about picking his brain and how important that is for all of us as a pitching staff. It’s crucial. I think it’s one of the things that we could utilize as a young staff.”

The Phillies’ rotation still has questions. Eickhoff struggled through an injury-plagued season. Velasquez reached the sixth inning last season in just six of his 15 starts. Pivetta had a 6.02 ERA as a rookie. But those warts are more easily concealed when Nola and Arrieta are your top two starters.

Nola had a 3.54 ERA last season and ranked eighth among National League starters with a 9.86 strikeouts per nine innings. Arrieta, despite seeing a 2 mph dip in velocity last season, still kept his strikeout rate around the same mark and lowered his walk rate. Both have roughly a 50 percent groundball rate, a big factor when your home games are at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. Nola and Arrieta, if things go right, could be one of the National League’s premier tandems.

“He’s been in my shoes once before,” Nola said. “So I think kind of learning from a guy like that who’s been in the game a little while and experienced some things, experienced winning, experienced challenges as a pitcher, I think we can all take away from that, can learn from him.”

Eickhoff arrived at the team’s complex Monday, grabbed breakfast and sat with teammates at a table. He expected the conversation to be centered on the pitcher whose deal interrupted his golf tournament a day earlier. Instead, it was not. The mood, Eickhoff said, as if everyone “understood the gravity of the situation and how big of a piece” Arrieta could be.

“It’s almost like a calm before the storm,” Eickhoff said. “It’s going to be a pretty special thing to see him walk around the clubhouse. … What a competitor, what a person, what a player, what a pitcher to learn from. He’s done a lot in the game and it’ll be a pretty special time to interact with him and bounce things off him.”