There’s a logjam of pitchers at AAA for the Phillies. Who will step up and who will move out?
“Look, many young men who should be able to move out simply can’t. It’s called “failure to launch,” and that’s where I come in.”
–“Failure to Launch” 2006, Paramount Pictures
If we’re looking at starting pitchers right now for the Phillies, you can pencil in Aaron Nola for opening day, and follow up with incumbents Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickoff in some order. But then you need two more starters. Most fans, blogs, and media reports–as well as quotes from the Phillies general manager and manager themselves–suggest the team is in the market for at least one, if not two starting pitchers to start the season. Sources around Major League Baseball suggest the Phillies are “actively trying to get better,” so I think we can expect a trade or free agency signing at any moment.
But, what of the guys in the organization who have already started games for the team? These guys may be somewhat forgotten, but let’s take a look at who they are, how they fit, who might be moving to Philadelphia and who might be still living in Dave Lundquist’s basement.
Who will move up? Who will move out?
These four guys have already made their Phillies debut; however, none have seized control of a spot in the rotation for 2018–for a variety of reasons. These guys haven’t successfully launched their major league careers yet.
Zach Eflin: Zach has started 11 games for the Phillies in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Both years, it has been the injury bug that got him more than the opposing hitters. In 2017, Eflin had five straight quality outings between April 18 and May 10. He never allowed more than 3 earned runs and completed seven full innings three times.
He then had three straight horrible outings before getting shut down with injury. When he came back in August he had three starts at the MLB level with mixed results before shutting it down for the season with a sore shoulder.
Outlook: Do the Phillies even know what they have with Eflin? I’m not sure, but given the injury history I can understand that you wouldn’t necessarily want to go into the season counting on him to seize one of the rotation jobs. Even when healthy, he probably doesn’t strike out enough batters to be a long-term answer in the rotation, but he’s certainly shown that he can get results on more than one occasion. I’d give Eflin the best chance to grab a rotation spot if I knew his shoulder was OK. Zach will turn 24 as the season starts.
Nick Pivetta: Nick had plenty of opportunity with the Phillies in 2017, taking the mound 26 times to start games. At the end of it all he has an 8-10 record and 6.02 ERA to show for it. He was able to strike guys out, and walks weren’t excessive, but he did give up some hits and opponents OPS’d .846 against him.
Pivetta had some good and bad outings sprinkled throughout the season, and a pretty bad August. Still, he pitched all the way through to October and got plenty of big league experience.
Outlook: Pivetta might be the guy who moves out of the rotation to become a reliever. His raw stuff is good enough, and might tick up out of the pen. He has the strikeout numbers you’d want in that spot. If not, look for Pivetta to be available to return to the Phillies early in the season if needed, or possibly grab one of the spots out of spring training. Nick will be 25 next month.
Ben Lively: Lively made his MLB debut with the Phillies this past season and started 15 games. He notched 10 Quality Starts therein and certainly gave his team a chance to win that his ultimate 4-7 record does not reflect. In fact, with the IronPigs Lively always gave his team a chance to win even when the peripheral numbers didn’t look outstanding.
Without gaudy radar gun numbers and flashy breaking stuff, Lively just keeps getting dismissed, but always seems to compete hard.
Outlook: Don’t count him out. Lively comes to play and if given the opportunity I think he might be able to fill the role of back-end starter quite well for a while. Ultimately, the amount of contact he gives up might catch up with him, though. Lively will be 26 when the season gets underway.
Jake Thompson: Jake got his feet wet with the big club in the 2016 season. During that time the Phillies coaches made some changes to his delivery which had his 2017 start in AAA looking pretty poor. He righted the ship and made a couple of non-starting appearances for the Phillies during the first half of the season.
He seized a spot in the rotation near the end of July and made eight starts between then and the end of the season. With a couple bad outings sprinkled in, he ended up 3-2, 3.88 on the year. Almost every start, though, was of the 5-inning variety as he wasn’t terribly efficient.
Outlook: Thompson could perhaps be a beneficiary of the 8-man bullpen the Phillies are contemplating for the 2018 season, as a five-inning starter. Otherwise, like Lively, Thompson doesn’t have the raw stuff to convert to a reliever and will work to hone his craft as a #5 starter and wait for his next shot. Thompson will turn 24 this month and got married in the off-season.
One of the reasons we look for our “launch candidates” to take off is because right behind them, challenging for not only a spot in the AAA rotation but an opportunity in the majors, is another group of starters. This three-man group has now spent significant time at AAA and pitched well enough to help the IronPigs make the playoffs last season. They deserve the opportunity to continue to develop and get challenged:
Thomas Darwin Eshelman: In 2018 Eshelman evolved into one of the best starters in the International League. After 18 starts with the IronPigs, and a 2.23 ERA, many were calling for him to get an opportunity in Philadelphia. However, without the pressure of a 40-man spot, and only in his second full season as a professional, and with 150 innings, the Phillies decided to shut him down prior to the AAA playoffs. I don’t think the Phillies have announced the minor league invitees to MLB camp, but I should think Eshelman would be one. He’ll certainly be in the AAA rotation regardless, and prepared for his opportunity when it comes. He’ll be 24 in June.
Jose Taveras: The 24-year old Dominican was moving up one level per season until 2017, when he did three! After 16 games in Clearwater, Taveras spent but 2 in Reading before starting 7 games for the IronPigs down the stretch. His 3-1, 1.32 numbers were part of the reason the IronPigs made the playoffs at all. With that performance, Taveras certainly earned his 40-man spot given this November, which will also give him an opportunity in big league spring training. He should certainly be in the IronPigs rotation, but I wouldn’t completely rule out a shot at one of those MLB jobs.
Brandon Leibrandt: A 25-year old Florida State product, Leibrandt split his season evenly between AA Reading and AAA Lehigh Valley. Leibrandt is the first lefty on this list, which could be an important detail going forward. His AAA numbers over 12 starts: 5-3, 3.94. However, he averaged less than six innings per start at both levels. He can throw four or five different pitches for strikes and keep batters off-balance, but he doesn’t have a tremendous fastball. He was another key cog in the IronPigs 2017 August Playoff surge, and certainly deserves some consideration for a big league opportunity at some point. He doesn’t have a 40-man spot, and might not have a spot in the IronPigs rotation, either. In a recent roster prediction, I had him in Reading–although he certainly doesn’t deserve that fate.
It’s not enough that there won’t be room for the seven pitchers listed above to pitch at AAA, but there are a couple guys at AA who might be held back from their AAA opportunity to start 2018:
Drew Anderson: The former 21st-round draft pick made his MLB debut in 2017 thanks to his 40-man spot and solid contribution in AA Reading all season. As the IronPigs were forced to ‘win-out’ to claim a playoff spot, he took the ball in one of those games and got the team in position for a win. Having started 22 games in Reading, it’s time for him to get some serious time at AAA. He’ll be 24 when the season begins.
Cole Irvin: Irvin will be 24 this season as well, and is the second lefty on our list. He split his time in 2017 between Clearwater and Reading, and since it was only his first full season in the pros (2016 5th round, having battled injuries in college) you can certainly make the case for a return to Reading to start the 2018 campaign. However, he had a couple tremendous outings in Reading, which I can attest to as a season ticket holder there. He’s not knocking on the door to AAA quite yet, perhaps, but as long as his left arm stays healthy, he will be soon.
Jacob Waguespack: The 24-year old former 37th round choice of the Pirates burst onto the scene this past season pitching at three different levels, including the final game of the AAA playoffs for the IronPigs. Perhaps signed to be organizational fodder–perhaps not–the tall righty registered a 3.65 ERA in 7 games (6 starts) with the Reading Fightin Phillies. Pressed into duty as the AAA starters were either in Philadelphia or shut down, he took the ball in Moosic and held the Railers to 1 run in a game the ‘Pigs lost 1-0 to close out the season. Despite his short time in AA, he could make the case for AAA any time.
Enyel De Los Santos: The Dominican righty came over from the Padres organization in the Freddie Galvis trade, and slipped my mind for the first publication of this post. He pitched all of last season at AA San Antonio, starting 24 of his 26 appearances as a 21-year old. He compiled a 10-6 record with a 3.78 ERA, striking out 138 to go along with 48 walks and a 1.19 WHIP. He was a top-20 prospect in the Padres system–top 10 on some lists. He’s knocking on the door to AAA at 22 years old and should appear in plenty of games with the IronPigs this season.
It’s A Long Season
We’ll bring it back around to the MLB squad here in a minute. However, here are a couple names that IronPigs fans need to know for 2018. They won’t start the season in Allentown, but they might end it there.
Elniery Garcia: I had my eye on the Dominican native all season long in 2016. His numbers in Clearwater were really good, and he’s a lefty. He finally got to Reading for the AA playoffs and was the only pitcher to get a win in the series with the Thunder. His stuff was tremendous that night, and I couldn’t wait to see him again in 2017. Alas, it was not to be–much. He was limited to five starts due to a drug suspension and an injury. Although he put up 2-1, 1.75 in those games, I don’t remember being terribly impressed in the two home starts I saw in person. Reports I’ve heard from the Arizona Fall League and overseas winter leagues have not been tremendous. I’m not sure he’s fully healthy or what to expect in 2018, but he should be in Reading to start and it’s not inconceivable that he would find his way to Allentown before all is said and done in 2018. He’s 23.
Franklyn Kilome: The big righty won’t turn 23 until June, and got his feet wet in August in Reading. He’s still considered a top-10 prospect on most lists, and would have started a deciding game 5 in the AAA playoffs if it had gotten that far. He has work to do at AA, no doubt, but I’m expecting at least a taste of him in AAA this season–if not more.
What Ever You Do, Do Not Call Them ‘Baby Aces’
Top prospect Sixto Sanchez, top-10 prospect Adonis Medina, top-15 prospect Jo Jo Romero (LHP), control specialist Ranger Suarez (LHP) and almost-ready-for-AA Seranthony Dominguez are all slated for Clearwater to open this season. Dominguez could be on his way to Reading. These guys are all highly regarded and although they’ll move up at their own pace, there’s no time for the players above them to get in the way. This group comprises most of the top pitching prospects in the Phillies system.
In fact, as I ready this piece for publication, a report has surfaced that Romero, Suarez ad Dominguez could all be ticketed for Reading out of camp. That would be a pretty formidable rotation in Baseballtown, along with Kilome and Waguespack.
“I have fun, they have fun; it’s good for me, it’s good for them, and I would argue that it’s damn good for civilization as a whole.”
–“Failure to Launch” 2006, Paramount Pictures
What’s Gonna Happen?
As we circle back to the top of this list, it’s important to remember that no MLB team makes it through the season with just five starters. Even if the Phillies sign a free agent pitcher and trade for another to fill out their opening day rotation, others will be needed. There will be injuries and there will be roster moves. There might be trades. While it seems like too many guys for too few spots, chances are they’ll all be needed in one way or the other. They’ll need to perform, and stay ready for when that opportunity presents itself. If we really have a glut of pitching, there could always be an Alec-Asher-esque trade.
The first 10 pitchers listed above, all with AAA credentials or better, are 24 years old–save for Lively at 26 and Pivetta and Leibrandt at 25. That’s a whole group to watch. Some will launch into major leaguers. Some will fail. Some might get traded. More are coming.
The beneficiary in all this is the IronPigs. For the foreseeable future, starters 6-10 for the Phillies should be plying their trade at Coca Cola Park. Some of them will be top prospects. Some of them will have something to prove. Some of them will have a chip on their shoulder (hopefully not in it…) All of them should win games. It’s going to be good, and it’s going to be fun!
See you at the park,