CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta was asked last week if he had any insight into the challenges that await free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel once he signs with a team after missing most of spring training. Arrieta, better than most, would know.
It was just last year that Arrieta was the former Cy Young winner who had to wait four weeks into camp before landing a free-agent contract. But before he offered advice, Arrieta offered a plea.
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“I would love to have him here,” Arrieta said. “He’d make us better. That’s for sure. No question about it.”
That plea seems likely to go unanswered. A source said this week that the Phillies are unlikely to sign Keuchel, who is still seeking a multiyear contract. Unless Keuchel’s asking price drastically drops, the Phillies will see what they have in Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez at the back of their rotation. And if a need arises, the Phillies will be willing to add an arm at the trade deadline.
The Phillies are set to begin the season with the same rotation that stumbled down last season’s final stretch. So what do they have behind Aaron Nola and Arrieta?
Among the three pitchers, Pivetta seems to have the highest ceiling. His fastball is in the mid-90s, his curveball and slider can induce swings-and-misses, and he racked up the 12th-highest strikeout rate last season among all major-league starters.
But Pivetta’s ERA, 4.77, was at least a run more than that of any of the 11 pitchers who topped his 10.33-per-nine-innings strikeout rate.
The Phillies will point to his xFIP, which ranked last season as the 14th best in baseball. The advanced metric, as defined by FanGraphs, measures a pitcher’s expected run prevention independent of the performance of the defense behind him. His xFIP, which the Phillies believe is better than ERA when it comes to predicting success, had a larger discrepancy with his ERA than that of any of the 13 pitchers ranked above him.
So how can Pivetta move closer to that ceiling? He has started this spring by throwing his change-up, which he threw last season for just 65 of his 2,827 pitches. An increase in use of that pitch, which comes from the same grip and arm slot as his four-seam fastball, will provide more life to Pivetta’s fastball, because batters will not be able to sit on his preferred pitch.
“I need that,” Pivetta said. “To be a big-league pitcher, you need that fourth pitch, and I firmly believe that. To have that extra weapon is really going to help me this year.”
If Pivetta has the highest ceiling of the three, then Eflin has the highest floor. He reached the sixth inning in half his starts last season, providing a bit of reliability that he at least would give the Phillies length. Eflin was so good at one point last summer that the Phillies reportedly made him off-limits in trade talks with the Orioles for Manny Machado.
Eflin had a 2.97 ERA in his first 11 starts but posted a 5.74 ERA in his last 13 starts. Batters recorded a .630 slugging percentage against his four-seam fastball in September after slugging just .246 against it in June, the best month of Eflin’s career. By the end of the season, the pitch was flat.
Eflin has proven to be a less erratic pitcher than Velasquez or Pivetta. But that steadiness means only so much if he cannot regain the fastball that provided him so much success.
“Consistency with my pitches. I want to be able to throw any pitch I want in any count,” Eflin said. "Pitches like my change-up in a full count are the ones that I’m working on. Off-speed in crucial counts. So far, so good. I’m just kind of working on keeping it going.”
If Pivetta has the highest ceiling and Eflin has the highest floor, then Velasquez is the greatest mystery. This year, the right-hander said, is about a “new Vince Velasquez.” He altered his delivery, refreshed his mental outlook, and even changed his uniform number.
So who is the new Velasquez?
Neither of the other two pitchers have looked as dominant as Velasquez has at times over the last three seasons. But the other two also have not looked as troubled.
Velasquez’s strikeout rate was on par with Pivetta’s, but his walk rate was nearly one higher per nine innings. The Phillies have to hope the new Velasquez is closer to the one who had a 2.14 ERA over a six-start stretch last year and not like the one who ended that stretch by allowing 10 runs in less than four innings.
Velasquez last season had a 7.09 ERA in his final 10 starts. A performance like that this season could lead to a transition to the bullpen. The Phillies might not be ready to pounce on Keuchel, but they have pitchers at triple A who will be ready if an opening pops up early in the season at the back of the rotation.
“I don’t think we’re focusing on what the word is out there,” Velasquez said. “I’m not focused on what’s going on. I have a job to do, and that’s to continue pitching and being a strong pitcher that I’m capable of being.