A Too Early Look at the 25-Man Roster: Pitching Locks

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Clearwater on February 13th–three short weeks from now–it is certainly early to look forward to which 25 players will emerge from Spring Training as members of the Phillies Opening Day roster. This week, we’ll look at the locks to break camp with the Major League club before turning to potential roster battles in the final two weeks before pitchers and catchers report.

Starting Rotation

With the return of Jeremy Hellickson and the addition of Clay Buchholz through trade, the composition of the Phillies starting rotation is more or less set.

Aaron NolaThe only question with Aaron Nola is his health. After prematurely ending his 2016 season with an elbow injury, he elected a rest and rehab approach rather than undergo surgery. He recently claimed that he feels 100%, but manager Pete Mackanin expressed some tempered skepticism on that front. At 100% health, Nola is among the best pitchers in baseball, as we saw for his first 12 starts of 2016 in which he had a 2.65 ERA with a 27.2 percent strikeout rate.

The fear underlying Mackanin’s skepticism is that Nola claimed he felt 100% over his final eight starts of 2016 when he had a 9.82 ERA with notably worse strikeout and walk rates. Either way, Nola will be in the Phillies rotation and will likely be the team’s opening day starter if he makes it through Grapefruit League play without injury.

Jerad EickhoffThe hidden gem of the Cole Hamels trade has a 3.44 ERA and 4.00 FIP in nearly 250 major league innings since joining the Phillies. He’ll never be at the top of a good major league rotation, but he’s shown the potential to be the sort of workhorse mid-rotation starter that every team needs to endure the grind of a 162-game baseball season.

Jeremy HellicksonWhile it’s hard to argue that the Phillies trade for Hellickson last offseason has gone according to plan, he did establish himself in 2016 as a solid mid-rotation starter. Would it have been better for the Phillies to trade him last July? Probably. Would the team be better off if he declined the qualifying offer and signed elsewhere this offseason? Sure. But, Hellickson threw almost 200 innings in 2016 with the best strikeout rate, walk rate, and FIP of his career (excluding his 36-inning debut in 2010).

Like 2016, the hope is that the team will trade him at the deadline and open up room for Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Ben Lively, or someone else in the rotation. There’s little doubt, though, that he will open the season in the starting rotation.

Clay Buchholz: The former top-10 prospect in the game has been either injured or ineffective for the last six seasons. In 139.1 innings for the Red Sox in 2016, Buchholz posted the lowest strikeout rate and highest FIP of his career. Entering his age-32 season, it’s an open question whether he can put it all together again  to be an attractive trade target for a contender at the deadline. Effective or not, the Phillies brought him in to start and buy some time for pitching prospects like Thompson and Eflin to develop further in the minor leagues.

Vince VelasquezThere are still concerns about Velasquez’s long-term future as a starting pitcher as highlighted by his late-season struggles to pitch deep into games. He showed enough promise in 2016–especially in his 16-strikeout performance against the Padres–to merit at least another look in the rotation. He showed enough improvement in his control (8.2 percent walk rate) that it remains possible to envision him sticking in a rotation, perhaps even near the top of one.

Bullpen

Hector NerisNeris’ breakout 2016 season had many pushing for his elevation to the closer role as early as May. In 80.1 innings out of the bullpen–a high workload for a one-inning reliever–he had a 2.58 ERA with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate. He still struggled a bit with the home run ball with 14.1 percent of fly balls finding their way over various outfield fences. Both the good and the bad with Neris stem from his use of the splitter as his signature pitch. It generates whiffs at tremendous rates when kept low, but can get crushed when elevated.

Mackanin has already stated that the closer role remains Jeanmar Gomez‘s to lose, but it would be a little surprising if Neris doesn’t get some opportunities to close out games if he beings 2017 like a continuation of 2016.

Jeanmar GomezGomez struggled over the final month of the season with  19.13 ERA in September and October, but that shouldn’t overshadow what he is. Since joining the Pirates in 2013, Gomez has been a reliable middle reliever. He won’t wow with strikeouts, with a strikeout rate just over 15 percent in that time. What he does well is limit hard contact and induce a slightly above-average rate of ground balls. That’s not the profile of a modern closer/relief ace, but it is a valuable skill set for innings six through eight.

Pat NeshekAcquired in a trade with the Astros this offseason, Neshek adds depth to a bullpen that sorely needed it. Since 2012, he has a 2.75 ERA and 3.60 FIP. Like Gomez, Neshek isn’t going to strike a lot of guys out with a relatively pedestrian 22.6 percent strikeout rate over that time. He doesn’t generate a ton of ground balls (career 32.7 percent rate), but does have a 12.3 percent infield fly ball rate over that time. For reference, the league average over that time is right around 10 percent.

Joaquin BenoitEntering his age-40 season, Benoit continues to be an effective reliever, appearing in over 50 games every season since 2010 and posting ERAs under 3.00 in all but one of those seasons. After a July trade to the Blue Jays, he gave up a whopping one run in 23.2 innings. At his age, Benoit is not a long-term piece on this team, but, like Neshek, he should provide depth to what was effectively a three-man relief effort in 2016.

Edubray RamosRamos came up in June and became a fixture out of the Phillies bullpen in the final months of the season. The then-23-year old held his own with a 3.83 ERA, 25 percent strikeout rate, and 6.9 percent walk rate in 40 innings in the majors. With the added depth in the bullpen, he’ll likely start the season as a early-to-middle relief option, but could pitch his way into higher leverage innings as the season goes on and veterans get traded or take a backseat to the rebuild.

This series will return Tuesday with a look at the players who are locks to make the team as infielders.

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