1. Jeremy Hellickson RHP
2. Clay Buchholz RHP
3. Jerad Eickhoff RHP
4. Aaron Nola, RHP
5. Vince Velasquez, RHP
6. Jake Thompson, RHP
Six guys, five spots. Sound the alarms, right?
Eh, not so fast.
Most interesting guy of the Phillies' spring might be Thompson. You could argue that Thompson is the fulcrum of the whole thing. Though you could argue the same for Nola and Velasquez, their fates don't have as much to do with performance as health. We've seen what both players can do when they aren't battling elbow problems.
With Nola, the question is whether he is fully recovered from the bout of soreness that hampered him throughout last season and eventually shut him down. With Velasquez, it is more of an abstract thing: He had elbow problems last year and has some rather high-stress mechanics that he uses to generate the velocity on that mid-90s fastball. There were questions about his arm during the trade that brought him to Philadelphia from Houston, and last season's health hiccup ensured that they will continue to linger.
With Thompson, though, the question centers on performance. When he first arrived in the majors last season, he looked nothing like the pitcher whom the Phillies had seen in the minors and in a brief stint in big-league spring training. Most glaring was his fastball command, or lack thereof. At triple A, he walked 37 and hit six in 129 2/3 innings before his promotion. But in 10 big-league starts in August and September, he walked 28 and hit four in 53 2/3 innings. That was nearly double his walk rate at triple A.
While Thompson's last six starts were better than his disastrous first four, when he gave up 21 runs in his first 19 1/3 innings as a pro, his strikeout and walk numbers were still well below what his track record suggested was a reasonable expectation. At triple A, he struck out 16.8 percent of batters. In the majors, that rate dropped to 13.5.
To give you some idea of how low that is, consider that only one pitcher in the entire National League pitched at least 80 innings and finished with a K rate of lower than 13.5 percent (congratulations, Jeff Locke). From 2012-14, Kyle Kendrick struck out 14.8 percent of the batters he faced.
Anyone who watched Thompson's nervous energy on the mound in his first few starts had to suspect that it wasn't doing his mechanics and command any favors. He'll be 23 this season, and he still has plenty of time to find a groove. To me, he'll be one of the more interesting players to watch this spring. If he ends up becoming the solid upper-middle-of-the-rotation presence that many across the game projected, you can cobble together a scenario in which everything breaks right and the Phillies surprise people. Buchholz combines the stretches of health and dominance that he has flashed throughout his career, Hellickson replicates last season, Nola and Velasquez are healthy for 175 innings, and we haven't even mentioned Jerad Eickhoff yet.
There's some thought that the Phillies' acquisition of Buchholz hints at a forthcoming move, given that we've already mentioned six names for five spots in the rotation and still have players such as Ben Lively and perhaps Zach Eflin to consider. No doubt, the Phillies will entertain all offers, and they might secretly hope somebody comes calling about Eickhoff or Velasquez ("Gee, I don't know, Brian, we love 'em both. It'd take an awful lot ... but I'll hear you out.").
That said, as GM Matt Klentak mentioned on his conference call yesterday, there's little reason to think that all five of those names will break right. One or more will get hurt, or come out of the gate throwing meatballs, or earn a ticket back to the minors in spring training. The Phillies could very well decide that the best place for Thompson or even Nola to start the season is in the controlled environment of triple A.
At this point, the odds would suggest that the first series of the season will feature some combination of Buchholz, Hellickson and Eickhoff. Velasquez has way too much promise as a starter to think about moving him to the bullpen yet. Remember, in his final outing of the season, he struck out eight, walked none, and allowed three runs in seven innings while throwing just 92 pitches. If Nola is healthy, Thompson could end up back in triple A, and it wouldn't be a tremendous disservice to him.