SAN DIEGO – After the signing of free-agent righthander Zack Wheeler became official Monday, new Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he thinks his team has a No. 1 and 1A starter at the top of the rotation now.

“This is a power guy with four pitches where I think he’s just starting to reach his potential,” Girardi said of Wheeler during his media session at the winter meetings. “I think there is more in the tank there. I think this guy can be more dominant than he’s been and we’re looking forward to seeing the top of our rotation.”

Wheeler will be joined, of course, by Aaron Nola, who ranks in the top 10 in baseball over the last two seasons in earned run average (3.10, 10th), innings pitched (414 2/3, fourth) and FanGraphs WAR (8.9, tied for ninth). Those are numbers worthy of being called an ace even if Nola’s 2019 wasn’t as good as his 2018.

Pitching with bone spurs in his right elbow, Jake Arrieta posted a 5.34 ERA in his final seven starts last season.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Pitching with bone spurs in his right elbow, Jake Arrieta posted a 5.34 ERA in his final seven starts last season.

“I think [Wheeler and Nola] are as good a twosome as you’ll find in our league,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “Those two alone don’t make a rotation, but we think with an improved Jake Arrieta and a healthy Jake Arrieta, plus the trio of [Zach] Eflin, [Vince] Velasquez, and [Nick] Pivetta possessing the upside that they have.”

The general manager’s sentence was incomplete, but it appears as though the offseason construction of his starting rotation is not and that’s a little frightening given the inconsistencies and ineffectiveness of Velasquez, Pivetta, and Eflin over the last two seasons. Klentak’s assertion about the Phillies’ top two starters could also be challenged by every team in his own division except the Miami Marlins, but the Phillies do at least have the potential for a quality rotation with the addition of Wheeler.

It could even be special if the Chicago Cubs version of Arrieta resurfaces. The Phillies thought they had a 1 and 1A at the top of their rotation when they signed him for $75 million in March 2018, and for the first four months of his first season here he delivered exactly what the Phillies needed.

Despite pitching with a sore left knee that would eventually require surgery, Arrieta was the Phillies’ 1A to Nola’s No. 1 status into the month of August. Through 22 starts, he was 9-6 with a 3.11 ERA, which ranked 16th in the majors and eighth in the National League. The Phillies, at that point, were the only team in the league with two starters ranked in the top 10 in ERA.

Since then, however, Arrieta’s Philadelphia story has taken a turbulent turn. Along with former manager Gabe Kapler’s first team, Arrieta collapsed down the stretch in 2018, posting a 6.35 ERA in his final nine starts. The Phillies went 2-7 in those nine games.

Arrieta did not tell anyone about his knee injury until late in the offseason, but he returned and had an excellent first month last year, going 4-2 with a 3.46 ERA. By early July, however, he revealed that he was pitching with bone spurs in his right elbow and his results on the mound quickly went into decline. He had a 5.34 ERA in his final seven outings and he failed to get through six innings in all seven starts. In mid-August, he was shut down for the season and underwent surgery to have the bone chips removed.

The good news for the Phillies and Arrieta is that the surgery went well and he is expected to be ready for the start of spring training when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12.

“He’s doing great,” said Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras. “The flexibility in his arm is extended and improving. They took the bone chips out in the front and the back [of the elbow] and we’re excited about his upcoming year. He’s throwing once a week now.”

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak offered a similar assessment of Arrieta’s rehab progress and, given the veteran pitcher’s stretches of quality pitching during his first two years with the team, it’s not unreasonable to believe he could have a bounce-back season in 2020.

At the age of 34, he will be pitching for his next contract, and that’s always a nice carrot to hang in front of any big-league player with a successful track record.

So maybe the Phillies have more than a 1 and 1A with Nola and Wheeler. Maybe Arrieta can be their 1B. They’d settle for a solid No. 2 or No. 3. They know for sure that they need him to be good if they are going to compete in a division filled with some of the game’s best starting pitchers.