Will a Mystery Guest Join Phillies' Rotation?

The mitts will start popping Wednesday morning when Phillies pitchers and catchers assemble for their first official workout of the spring on the emerald fields of Carpenter Complex in Clearwater.

The group of candidates vying for spots in the starting rotation will look familiar. While the club made upgrades in the lineup (Carlos Santana) and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), the rotation went untouched.

Aaron Nola comes into camp deserving to be Gabe Kapler's first opening day starter. Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin will be looking to bounce back from late-season health issues, and Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively will try to build on valuable experience gained last season. Strike-throwing Tom Eshelman, the organization's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2017, will be someone to watch, as will other prospects, including Drew Anderson and Jose Taveras.

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Now, will there be a mystery guest coming to camp?

Quite possibly.

As new manager Kapler said last month, general manager Matt Klentak "is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective. That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation."

Klentak has talked all winter about his desire to add a starting pitcher, but he has made no promises and his quest has come with qualifiers. He has been leery of the price tags attached to top free agents (especially in length of contract) and trade candidates (quality of prospects needed to acquire). Also, Klentak, still steward of a rebuild, has had to balance his desire to add a pitcher with the need to make sure there are innings and opportunities for the current group of young pitchers to improve and reach their potential.

The glacial free-agent pitching market finally began to thaw over the weekend with Yu Darvish reaching agreement on a six-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and others should begin to follow as camps get set to open.

The Phillies have long been speculated as a potential landing spot for Arrieta, mostly because they have deep pockets, loads of room in their budget and a need for a starting pitcher. But Arrieta will turn 32 in March and the Phils are of no mind to go six years for a pitcher that age. If Arrieta decides to go for a shorter, one- or two-year deal then quickly head back out on the free-agent market, the Phils might strike. However, the competition for Arrieta on a short-term deal would be significant and logic dictates he would want to sign with a contender under those terms, not a team in a rebuild.

So, if an addition is made, it seems more likely that it would come from the second tier of available pitchers.

A general manager's quest to upgrade his starting rotation is neverending. That's how important starting pitching is. Klentak's short-term quest to upgrade the staff will intensify in July if his upgraded offense and bullpen has the Phillies poking around wild-card contention.

In the meantime, the Phillies go into camp with what looks like a cast of mid-rotation starters.

Nola leads the group after resoundingly answering health (elbow) concerns in 2017. Not only did the 24-year-old right-hander check out physically, he also took a step forward in his performance and became the reliable starter the team projected him to be when it selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft.

Nola struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings and his 3.54 ERA in 27 starts ranked 20th in the majors. He delivered 12 ultra-quality starts - seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.

While Nola progressed, the balance of the rotation had ups and downs as the staff pitched to a 4.80 ERA (21st in the majors) and allowed an .806 OPS (fourth from the bottom) to opposing hitters.

Pivetta showed big strikeout stuff despite not consistently pitching deep into games. Eickhoff, Velasquez and Eflin struggled with inconsistency and ended the season on the disabled list. The team hopes these pitchers, all now healthy, will step forward this season. For Eickhoff, it's a matter of regaining the health and mechanics that helped him lead the staff with a 3.65 ERA in 2016. For Eflin, it's a matter of staying healthy after a series of issues. Health is also an issue for the electric-armed Velasquez, but so is focus and economy of pitches. 

Given the value placed on starting pitching, it is understandable that the team has been patient in trying to develop the 25-year-old Velasquez. But the time could come, maybe this season, when continued struggles lead to a shift to the bullpen. That certainly could be an intriguing option for Velasquez, though the team hopes it never comes to pass.
The Phillies head into spring training with a new pitching coach as Rick Kranitz has moved up from the assistant's role to replace Bob McClure. Chris Young and former big-league pitcher Jim Gott have joined the staff as assistant pitching coach and bullpen coach, respectively. The Phillies are clearly throwing some depth of instructive personnel at their pitchers.

Hey, it all starts with the pitching and that all starts Wednesday in Clearwater.

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