3 Question marks surrounding the Phillies starting rotation

It doesn’t take a mad scientist to figure it out.  The Phillies main priority this offseason should be fixing one of the worst bullpens in Major League history.  The team, front office and the fans are aware.  They finished with a 7.06 ERA, good for second-highest ever, according to Elias Sports Bureau. 

The horrendous bullpen overshadowed mostly everything the Phillies did in 2020, both good and bad.  With that being said, an area fans may need to give a closer look is the starting pitching. Outside of Aaron Nola (3.28 ERA) and Zach Wheeler (2.92 ERA), the rotation was sub-par over the 60-game shortened season.  I’m excluding Zach Eflin (3.97 ERA) in this portion for purposes of this article (see below).  Three of the other arms on the staff: Jake Arrieta, who is a free agent and not expected to re-sign with the team, Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard each had more than five starts last season, and had Earned Run Averages over 5.00.  Not good enough.

But what about 2021? A full 162-game season is expected, per USA Today.  Along with Spring Training scheduled to start on time in less than a month.  Also, we may be able to expect fans back in ballparks at some point this season, according to The Athletic. So, this season may not be completely normal, considering COVID-19 isn’t just going away just yet, but potentially having a full season and having “some” people in the stands back on a regular basis may be a little more what we’re accustomed to as fans. 

All these things considered heading into this season, here are three question marks surrounding the Phillies starting rotation.

  1. Is Vince Velasquez worth yet ANOTHER try?
Yong Kim / Philadelphia Inquirer

An easy starting point, but Vinnie Velo is a puzzling case.  At this point, it seems like most Phillies fans are done with him.  At least as a piece in the starting rotation.  Last year, even though he posted a career-high in Strikeouts per nine innings (12.2), he posted a career-low ERA (5.56).  Given that he only made seven starts in the shortened season, fans have been waiting for Velasquez to show improvement for some time now.  And when I say some time, I mean the last five years.  Since 2017, he hasn’t had a Runs Allowed Per Nine IP below 5.00, according to Baseball Reference. Besides allowing a high volume of runs, he’s repeatedly never been able to go deep into ball games because his pitch count soars and gets close to 100 by the time he gets to the fourth inning.  Even in starts he gives up a limited amount of runs, his pitch count still manages to skyrocket.  He’s been anything but efficient as a starter.  And according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury, the Phillies reached an agreement with Velasquez last Friday on a one-year deal worth $4 million, avoiding arbitration.  Many fans have suggested that Vince be used as a bullpen piece, a role where he’s not a complete stranger, as he’s made a handful of relief appearances since 2019.  Given how bad the bullpen was in 2020, maybe Phillies manager Joe Girardi plans to use Velasquez in that capacity.  Velasquez has had many chances to prove himself, and whatever role he’s thrown into in 2021, he’s going to have to make it count.

2. Can we trust Zach Eflin?

Charles Fox / Philadelphia Inquirer

Zach Eflin, like Velasquez, has shown that he has the stuff to potentially be a legitimate pitcher in Major League rotation.  In 2020, Eflin posted career-highs in ERA (3.97), K/9 (10.68) and FIP (3.39).  Eflin looked very solid last year.  But, his problem throughout his career so far has been consistency.  Yes, Eflin finished with good numbers, but he only made 10 starts due to the Coronavirus-shortened season.  In 2018, he had an ERA as low as 2.97 through July 3rd, but an up and down last three months of the season led to Eflin finishing with a 4.36 mark.  In 2019, through his first 17 starts, Eflin had a respectable 3.78 ERA in 100 innings.  But, in his last 11 starts he had an ERA almost a run higher, at 4.69.  In those 28 starts, that ERA evened out to a 4.13 mark.  Not terrible, but in those two seasons Eflin has shown it’s tough to predict what you’re going to get from him when he takes the mound every fifth day.  Yes, Eflin looked formidable in 2020, but he’s going to need to prove it over a full slate in 2021.

3. What is expected of Spencer Howard?

Yong Kim / Philadelphia Inquirer

Spencer Howard came into the 2020 season as the Phillies top prospect.  He ranked 27th out of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects, right in front of teammate Alec Bohm, at 28.  Being a top prospect comes with expectations.  And coming off of his latest stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2019, where he posted a 2.11 ERA to go along with a 11.4 SO/9, fans were excited to see what he could bring to the table.  Especially in an organization that hasn’t had a deep farm system of late, as well as having a starting staff with question marks.  Fans were ancy for Howard to show some promise.

Unfortunately, he didn’t give anything for the fans to drool over.  In fact, he did the opposite.  He only pushed more than four innings once against Washington on August 31st, where he went five innings, giving up two earned runs en route to his first career win in the Majors.  Every other start only lasted between three and four innings.  In what ended up being his last showing against the Miami Marlins on September 12th, he was forced into an early exit, due to shoulder stiffness.  That early exit ended up being the end of Howard’s season.  In six starts, Howard finished with a 5.92 ERA in just 24 innings pitched. 

Not the type of debut Howard wanted to have in the big leagues.  Not to make excuses for the young pitcher, but you may be able to give him a bit of a pass due to the pandemic.  Howard is someone that relies on preparation, and in a recent article from The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, he talked about those struggles in 2020:

“But, I think for me, when I’m at my best mentally is when I feel like I’ve been preparing super hard. And so when I wasn’t able to really prepare how I normally would for the year, it kind of derailed everything about baseball for me. And so that was what I was trying to navigate last year. Going out and competing, even though I didn’t feel my best, physically or mentally. So that was a trip. But I’m glad that it’s over and got it under my belt. And I learned a lot from it.”

But 2021 is a new year, new season for baseball.  I’m not sure what to expect from Howard.  I’m not sure the Phillies do either.  Maybe Philadelphia will go out and sign a free agent such as Anibal Sanchez or Julio Teheran (who they’ve been linked to, per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia).  Baseball Reference has Howard projected to throw 93 innings this year, and that number sounds about right. 

Perhaps Howard will share the bulk of starts with someone like Velasquez or another arm they sign in free agency.  But, keep in mind I mentioned earlier that the Phillies most likely are not bringing back former Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, whose contract ended after the 2020 season.  Arrieta wasn’t what they hoped he would be, as his best season with the team came in 2018.  His numbers regressed each year after and a few short stretches on the DL didn’t help.  

It will be interesting how the rotation comes together this year.  The questionable holes can not be overlooked.

Twitter: @Rojas_Media_

Featured Image: Jose F. Moreno / Philadelphia Inquirer

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