It has been obscured by the never-ending, soap-operatic chases of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, but less than five weeks until the start of spring training, this is a very real possibility: The Phillies could open camp with the same starting rotation that they had at the end of last season.
And that would be perfectly fine by Chris Young.
Young is one of the Phillies' leading voices on pitching. Two months ago, he leveraged interest from two division rivals into a promotion to pitching coach after one season as the assistant to deposed Rick Kranitz. As much as any team official, he was impressed with the progress made last year by young starters Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin and is optimistic about Jerad Eickhoff’s return from assorted injuries.
So, in a wide-ranging interview this week, Young echoed general manager Matt Klentak’s public stance that the status quo isn’t necessarily a bad look for the Phillies rotation, even though it faltered badly down the stretch last season and has lacked a left-hander since 2016.
“I understand the conversation in the offseason,” Young said of whether the Phillies need to add a starting pitcher, specifically a lefty. “I just feel so strongly about the group we have. I understand why people ask that question, but I love our guys.”
The Phillies courted prized free-agent lefty Patrick Corbin, even hosting him for a recruiting visit at Citizens Bank Park in late November, before he received a six-year guarantee and $140 million from the Washington Nationals. They had interest in J.A. Happ, but the 36-year-old lefty re-signed with the New York Yankees.
According to multiple sources, the Phillies discussed a trade for Texas Rangers lefty Mike Minor, but they have not been able to match up on a deal.
Otherwise, the Phillies are believed to be lukewarm on most remaining free agents, including lefty Dallas Keuchel, believing that none is enough of an upgrade to justify the cost. They have been linked to Arizona lefty Robbie Ray, but the Diamondbacks reportedly want more than what the Seattle Mariners got from the Yankees for James Paxton, a package that included top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield.
One intriguing name: Sonny Gray. He’s right-handed and coming off a bad year, but his numbers away from Yankee Stadium (3.17 ERA last year) make him a bounce-back candidate and a potential Phillies upgrade. After shopping Gray aggressively early in the offseason, the Yankees have backed off because of concerns about CC Sabathia’s health.
Regardless, Young is neither lobbying Klentak to make a move nor recommending it. Instead he’s thinking about ways to help Velasquez, Pivetta, and Eflin continue to improve and dreaming of a healthy season for Eickhoff.
“Vinny and Ef and Pivetta, if all they do is take another step forward like they took last year -- not a giant step; just another strong step forward in their career maturation process -- I think we’re looking at three pretty impactful major-league starters,” Young said. “I feel really, really good about those guys.”
Each of the three had his moments last season. Velasquez had a 3.12 ERA over a 15-start stretch in the middle of the season; Eflin went 6-0 with a 2.32 ERA in his final seven starts before the all-star break; Pivetta averaged 10.3 strikeouts and only 2.8 walks per nine innings and had a better strikeouts-to-walks ratio (3.69) than Ray (2.36).
But each of the three young Phillies starters also struggled badly down the stretch. After Klentak vowed to stay out of the starting-pitching market at the trade deadline, Velasquez and Eflin posted ERAs of 7.09 and 5.44, respectively, in August and September. Pivetta closed with a 4.63 mark over the final two months.
“You’re pitching into September, for a lot of them it was the first time, it’s taxing. It’s a hard thing to do,” Young said. “I think that played a factor into the performance. They know now what that’s like. They’ve learned how to train themselves for it. I think you’ll see guys make adjustments with the way they go about their in-season throwing. Guys will be wanting to make adjustments so that they’re strong and ready to go.”
Eickhoff could turn out to be the equivalent of an offseason pickup.
Three years ago, the 28-year-old right-hander notched a 3.65 ERA over 197 1/3 innings. But he has been dogged by injuries over the last two years, including a tingling sensation in the fingers on his right hand that mystified doctors until finally resulting in a diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Eickhoff made one start before the end of last season, then underwent surgery on Oct. 1 to alleviate the problem. He’s had a “normal offseason” in terms of his throwing program, according to Young, and recently began pitching off a mound. He figures to challenge for a rotation spot in spring training.
“His willingness to come back and pitch, his fight to come back, it gives me no reason to ever doubt Jerad Eickhoff,” Young said. “The cards will fall where they may, but when Jerad Eickhoff’s healthy, he’s an impactful major-league starter. And I don’t have any reason to doubt him showing up to spring training and getting back into that form.”
If only Eickhoff were left-handed. Then again, Young doesn’t mind an all-right-handed rotation. It has worked for the Cleveland Indians, who have the best rotation ERA in the American League over the last three seasons (3.65) despite getting only five starts from a lefty.
“I understand the concept of having a lefty to attack some of the tougher left-handers in our division,” Young said. “But I think the group that we presently have has set a really high bar for how good that lefty has to be. That’s kind of where I stand on it. I feel so strongly about the guys we have and their ability to get out right- and left-handers that having a lefty just to have a lefty doesn’t move the needle for me.”
One day before the deadline for teams and players to exchange salary figures, the Phillies avoided arbitration with reliever Hector Neris and starter Jerad Eickhoff by reaching agreements on $1.8 million and $950,000 contracts, respectively. The Phillies have seven other arbitration-eligible players.