Tom Eshelman looked around the Phillies clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon and glanced at the collection of prospects who dotted the room. Each of them, the righthanded pitcher said, hopes to start this season in the major leagues. But it is Eshelman whose hopes seem most realistic.
The Phillies have three certainties – Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez – for their starting rotation. Nick Pivetta, whom the organization holds in high regard, can also be considered a safe bet. Unless the Phillies sign a starter before spring training, there will be five young pitchers competing for the final rotation role. Eshelman, who won the Paul Owens Award last season, is certainly in the mix.
“My mentality has always been to make the big-league roster,” said Eshelman, one of nine minor-league pitchers the team hosted this week for its annual Prospect Education Program. “But I just have to focus on what I’m trying to do as far as getting better, and hopefully if everything falls into place I’ll have an opportunity.”
The Phillies have not yet told Eshelman that he’ll be reporting to major-league camp, but it almost a certainty that he will be. He will join Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., and Jake Thompson in the competition for that final spot. The competition would end if the Phillies acquire a starter before camp. Leiter pitched well out of the bullpen last season and the Phillies could chose to keep him there as a long reliever. Eflin, Lively, and Thompson have started in the majors, but none has the track record to be considered a favorite. There seems to be an opening for Eshelman, who posted a 2.23 ERA last season in 18 starts at triple A.
“There’s a lot of good starting pitchers kind of right in this area right now,” Eshelman said. “Competition creates success on a team. We had that in college too. We had a lot of competition. To be able to be in the mix with these guys right now is pretty special for me. I’m just trying to put my nose down, work hard, and show the new coaching staff what I can do and even learn from these guys. Everyone of them has a certain niche that they’re really good at. If I can take something from their game and put it into my own and create success, and get this thing rolling.”
Eshelman, long known for his command, lowered his walk rate to a career-low last season at triple A as he walked just 13 batters over 121 innings. He kept the ball in the strike zone at a higher rate yet still had success. Eshelman was no longer just a consistent strike thrower. He was learning how to pitch. The righthander picked the brains of the IronPigs’ veteran relievers and learned how to better attack hitters. His four months at triple A made the major leagues feel within reach. It seemed even closer Wednesday, when Eshelman saw his name written above a locker stall at Citizens Bank Park. And in five weeks he could have a chance to make the major leagues a reality.
“You can smell it, definitely. You can smell the big leagues,” Eshelman said. “But you just have to work hard.”