The Phillies Have Starting Pitching Depth?
The Phillies were supposed to have a young rotation full of upside. They were supposed to have depth on the way to fill in any cracks. As we open June, the rotation is still young, with only Jeremy Hellickson over 26 years old. They have had cracks, as Vince Velasquez joins Clay Buchholz on the DL. They have had depth that has been shoved in the cracks in a desperate attempt to hold the whole thing together. Right now the rotation is Hellickson, a struggling Jerad Eickhoff, and a fresh off the disabled list Aaron Nola. Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin have had their shot at the rotation and have had mixed success, but both are in AAA right now. The Phillies have two rotation spots to fill and a lot of depth to fill them, but is it really going to hold back a complete collapse?
The Sure Call Up
There is enough smoke from the beat writers around Ben Lively getting his chance in the majors that we can feel safe assuming he will be promoted this weekend (plus he has been pulled from his schedule start tonight). The 25 year old Lively was acquired by the Phillies from the Reds for Marlon Byrd back on the last day of 2014. After scuffling in 2015, Lively is now in the middle of his second good year in the Phillies system. For the most part, Lively has not changed since coming to the Phillies. His fastball sits 88-92 and will touch 93-94. The lower range is a two seam fastball with some sink and run, but his four seam fastball tends to flatten out at high velocities. His slider is his best pitch, and at it’s best it will show above average potential, but it is more of an average offering. His curveball is loopy, and his changeup lacks life, both pitches are below average. Lively will fill up the strike zone with all of his pitches, but he doesn’t have great command and will mostly locate to areas of the zone and not hit his spots on the corners. Lively’s success comes from keeping hitters off balance with his pitch mix and from his delivery. The deception in his delivery has been something much discussed even before he joined the Phillies organization. The deception comes from Lively’s release, where the ball appears from behind his elbow, giving the batter a late look at the ball. This can help keep hitters off balance, but it seems that hitters are able to figure out the deception after seeing him a few times, and he really loses the advantage when he can’t locate his pitch mix, because hitters are able to lay off of his offspeed pitches and punish his fastball. Overall Lively profiles as a back end starter who should be able to get the Phillies some innings, but he is more likely to be an up and down arm than a rotation mainstay.
Given that he was optioned after his last start, Zach Eflin is unable to come up and fill one of the two major league rotation holes, but he will factor into the Phillies getting out of this mess. Eflin is only 23 years old, so he has time to work on his two biggest weaknesses: his wavering fastball command, which can cause him to leave his pitches up in the zone rather than driving them down into the bottom half, and his lack of a bat missing breaking ball. The Phillies still believe in Eflin, so he will get time to work on improving these two things, which means he won’t be coming up to replace himself in the rotation.
Jake Thompson has seen his stuff regress each year for 3 seasons now. His fastball used to sit 89-93, touching a bit higher, and was a ground ball generating bowling ball. It is now more 88-91 and lacks the ground ball abilities. His changeup and curveball were never more than fringe pitches. The big problem has been that his slider has gone from a plus to plus plus pitch with two plane depth and bat missing ability to a merely average pitch. On paper, Thompson is more like Ben Lively without the deception and control, but his youth (he is 23) and previous abilities make him more appealing. He needs time in AAA to try and refind himself.
We got a brief glimpse of Nick Pivetta while Aaron Nola was out. Pivetta was not horrible by Phillies pitching standards in the majors. His fastball and breaking ball were both good pitches, while his changeup continues to lag behind. Pivetta’s big problem was command, and he consistently worked deep counts and short outings. It is doubtful he improved in just two starts down with the IronPigs, but he did put up two more great starts to add to his masterful time in AAA (5 GS 32 IP 1.41 ERA 2 BB 37 K).
While We Are Throwing **** At the Wall
Mark Appel has not been good since he was at Stanford. His delivery is inconsistent, his stuff is inconsistent, and to this point he cannot pitch out of the stretch. Since everything else has failed, why not just bring up Mark Appel like they did with Phillippe Aumont in 2015. The Phillies should really not do this.
The new hot pitcher in AAA is Thomas Eshelman. Eshelman was a 2nd round pick of the Astros in 2015, and then he was the third piece in the Ken Giles deal. Fangraph’s Eric Longenhagen had his fastball at 87-90 last week. He can manipulate the pitch with sink and cut. He pairs that with a curveball and changeup that are still fringe average, but will flash average potential. Unlike Ben Lively, Eshelman has plus or better command and can paint the zone with all of his pitches. Until the offspeed pitches take a step forward, he is probably a #4 starter at best. He has only been in AAA for a little bit and is not on the 40 man roster, so he is almost certainly behind the group of pitchers in front of him.
The starting pitching is unlikely to improve any time soon, but at least it will be young. I don’t think Ben Lively or Nick Pivetta is going to save the Phillies, but they should probably replace Velasquez and Eflin in the rotation for now.