READING, Pa. - Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.
It won't be possible to fully gauge the right-hander's condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.
But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.
"I feel like the injury is past me," he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. "I feel back to normal.
"My arm is all good. One-hundred percent."
Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow - a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.
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Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"All through the rehab, I had no pain," Nola said. "Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I've been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it."
The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.
Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.
Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.
"There's a part of me that's concerned," Mackanin said. "When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels."
Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that's a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he's healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.
More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.
"I don't think it's in our best interest or [Quinn's] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A," Mackanin said. "We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn't done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he's a potential game changer."
Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.
Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer's job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.
So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?
"I wouldn't say it's wide open," Mackanin said. "I'm going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he's the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September."