The 2016 Phillies May Need a Six-Man Rotation… But Not Yet

I have a totally new, just-thought-of-it, breaking ground phrase for you: you can never have too much pitching. I hope your head didn’t explode and you’re now able to begin showering me with accolades because, hoo boy, if that isn’t the truism you never knew you’ve been needing.

This phrase is relevant to the Phillies right now because they are atypically overflowing with worthy starting pitchers. Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Charlie Morton have had their rotation spots locked up since camp began. After battling a thumb fracture and a foot blister, Jerad Eickhoff made his Grapefruit League debut yesterday and put to doubt any doubts about whether he’d be healthy enough open the season in the rotation with a dazzling performance with a gorgeous curveball that was a true difference maker for him last September. This leaves one final rotation spot and multiple worthy candidates.

The three finalists for the #5 starter were Adam Morgan, Brett Oberholtzer and Vince Velasquez. Oberholtzer has already moved to the bullpen despite posting fantastic numbers this spring (9 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K). Morgan has continued showing an ability to get the most out of a repertoire which features well-below average fastball velocity by yielding just two runs through nine innings this spring. Meanwhile, Velasquez, has been every bit the thrilling pitcher Philadelphia hoped to see after making him the primary piece in the Ken Giles trade. With true bat-missing stuff,  he has struck out 16 through 14 innings pitched. Unfortunately, there’s just one last rotation spot for these three deserving candidates. Or is there?

The relative strength of the Phillies starting pitching this spring in addition to their relative youth has led to questions about whether the team ought to begin the season with a six-man rotation. Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly recently explored the topic and quoted Phillies pitching coach, Bob McClure as saying: ““[A six-man rotation] is not out of the question. We’ve talked briefly about it, not at length, but it was briefly tossed around. We haven’t come to a conclusion yet, but it could be an option.”

Here’s where my brand spankin’ new piece of wisdom comes into play. You can never have too much pitching. Why is that, Corinne? Well, I’m glad you asked. You can never have too much pitching because pitchers get injured like Ryan Howard whiffs on breaking pitches — it’s inevitable. The five (or six) pitchers who make the Opening Day rotation are not the only five (or six) pitchers who will start for the Phillies, not even close. Oberholtzer will be in the bullpen ready to make start spots if and when the opportunity arises. If Morgan or Velasquez are sent to Triple-A they’ll be one elbow tickle away from rejoining the Phillies. Not to mention the plethora of other options who could make their way to Philly this summer including (but not limited to): Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Alec Asher, Zach Eflin, David Buchanan, and Severino Gonzalez.

So does it make sense to keep both Velasquez and Morgan and go with a six-man rotation to start the season? Beyond the fact that both struggled at times during their 2015 rookie seasons, it’s difficult to find many similarities between the pitchers. Velasquez’s stuff is leaps and bounds ahead of Morgan’s. Morgan is a strike-thrower and Velasquez is still learning to consistently get the ball over the plate. Velasquez is a 6’3″ righty and Morgan is a 6’1″ southpaw. But the one other important similarity is this: both have looked like major league starting pitchers this spring.

Velasquez and Morgan give the Phillies options and options are a very good thing. But talk of a six-man rotation seems ill-advised. Although the Phillies pitching staff is young, workloads aren’t a major concern as Matt Winkelman of Phillies Minor Thoughts pointed out earlier today on Twitter. Given that Nola threw 177 innings last season while Eickhoff tossed 184.1 innings, these are pitchers who should be continuing to acclimate to a regular major league work load, not pitchers who need to be eased into one.

A six-man rotation would also necessitate going to either a six-man bullpen or a four-man bench. With the outfield currently in such flux, a four-man bench is simply not feasible and a six-man bullpen could be problematic for a pitching staff that is unlikely to work regularly past the sixth inning.

It would appear that manager Pete Mackanin agrees that this strategy doesn’t currently fit the Phillies.

In that case, who should go to Triple-A, Velasquez or Morgan? While Eickhoff and Nola don’t necessarily need extensive innings regulations, Velasquez might. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career and he pitched just 88.2 innings last year in part due to his time in a major league bullpen. He is also new to the Phillies organization and has had struggled with consistency, most notably in regards to his command/control. I’ve maintained all along that if the Phillies have a specific new approach or tweak that they want Velasquez to work on, sending him to Triple-A to focus solely on that task is a wise approach. If, however, they’ve determined the only way for him to take the next step forward is by facing major league batters, then his upside necessitates the Phillies putting him in the rotation immediately. Morgan’s lack of upside in comparison means the Phillies really ought to make this decision based on what is best for Velasquez.

There may come a time this season, however, when a six-man rotation makes sense. In September when rosters are expanded, if the Phillies are lucky enough to have healthy and productive prospects ready for major league experience a six-man rotation may be the best way to make sure guys like Thompson, Appel, Asher, and Eflin all have an opportunity to garner major league experience. Of course, that’s still a long ways off and, as you’ll recall, you can never have too much pitching. Don’t worry about how to get enough playing time for all of the pitchers because, more often than not, these logjams will work themselves out.

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  1. Keystone

    March 24, 2016 05:17 PM

    If Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Alec Asher, Zach Eflin, David Buchanan, Severino Gonzalez, and one of either Vince Velasquez or Adam Morgan are due to go to AAA. Is Lehigh Valley going with a 7 man rotation? And is MAG still considered a starter? Or what about Ben Lively? If so would they be at AAA?

    It seems like Pivetta, Rodriguez, Leibrandt, Leiter, and maybe Richy would be at AA.

    Still leaves Victor Arano, Matt Imhof, Franklyn Kilome, Tyler Viza, Thomas Eshelman, Ricardo Pinto, Adonis Medina, Elniery Garcia, Luke Leftwich, Mitch Gueller, Tyler Gilbert, Felix Paulino and Bailey Falter for the lower levels.

    I’m interested to see how they finally place everyone after spring training.

    Thompson and Eflin deserve to be at AAA after last season but one or both may be back at AA just from a numbers game to start the season.

    • Corinne Landrey

      March 24, 2016 06:14 PM

      You’re right that there is a bit of a crunch, but I think it’s a manageable one. Leiter and Leibrandt were both injured last I heard (and Leiter is likely a reliever at this point) and Joely may be bullpen bound. Off the top of my head the rotations look something like this:

      AAA – Thompson, Appel, Eflin, Asher, Morgan/Velasquez
      AA – Pinto, Pivetta, Arano, Lively, Richy

      Of course this leaves Buchanan and S. Gonzalez without a rotation spot. Six-man rotations to start the year are certainly a possibility (which could help keep workloads down now for prospects who will be pitching in the majors in September) and Eflin strikes me as a candidate to start the year back in Reading if they need to slide someone down. But don’t be surprised to see Buchanan and/or Sev begin the year in the bullpen.

      As mentioned above, the inevitability of pitching injuries make this sort of logjam a a good problem to have.

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