Utter euphoria has descended upon the Delaware Valley, as the Philadelphia Eagles have captured the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. Philadelphia is abuzz with excitement, as we anxiously await the parade that is set to take place down Broad Street in just a few days. With that being said, as one team’s season comes to a jubilant close, another’s is just a week away from ramping up.
The Phillies are just eight days away from the report of pitchers and catchers, a day that is most often looked upon as a fresh start in baseball, but one this year that cast aside with the successes of the Eagles. As the Phillies continue to rebuild into hopeful contenders once more, the 2018 Spring Training offers an opening glimpse at what could be for this recently disgruntled franchise that has fallen on hard times.
With a host of young, talented core players and a handful of veteran relievers, this tea looks to improve again in 2018, taking the next step back to relevancy. In order to be relevant, however, the team is going to need contributions from a full 25-man roster. In order to piece together the best Opening Day lineup, Gabe Kapler and his staff will have to sift through the Spring Training storylines, finding out which are the most crucial to the team’s success.
Here are some of my thoughts on the headlines of the upcoming Spring Training.
Finding A Viable #2 Starter:
I’ve talked about this topic ad nauseam, but it will bare repeating until the club settles the glaring issue. Whether the team decides an in-house arm is appropriate or any one of the numerous free agent starters still available are the viable option, something needs to be done. In previous articles, I’ve hit on pitchers who I think could make a difference in the rotation, so I won’t go into great detail about them, but just know I don’t totally think Jake Arrieta is off the table for the team yet. Neither is Alex Cobb. Either could sign a free agent deal with the team that would immediately bolster the rotation.
If the club decides to remain in-house, though, the task of becoming a solidified number two falls on one of two arms: Jerad Eickhoff or Vince Velasquez. After a very successful first full season in 2016 for Eickhoff, who won 11 games and posted a 3.65 ERA while starting a team high 33 games, the righty crashed back down to Earth last season. Eickhoff won just four games, and none through the first three months, in a season that he appeared in just 24. His ERA rose over a full point and his WHIP was inflated due to a flat fastball that hung in the zone too long and a control issue that caused him to walk 11 more batters in nearly 70 less innings pitched than in 2016. While Eickhoff doesn’t have the “blow you away” stuff, he does have the ability to get his head right and find himself once more in 2018. Pitch movement and location could be key for Eickhoff. Velasquez has an issue you consider a wild one: he strikes out too many hitters sometimes. It’s odd to assess any pitcher that moniker, but Velasquez throws too many pitches in his attempt to blow hitters away. He has the stuff, that much is certain. What Velasquez needs is a clean bill of health and long conversation with the pitching staff to understand that six innings is more important than ten strikeouts. Velasquez was trying to power through hitters, and his control suffered as such. With a lack of control, hitters were patiently waiting Velasquez out, driving up his pitch count and forcing him to early exits. That style needs to change in 2018 for Velasquez to be successful.
How Many Rookies Can Make Their MLB Debuts This Season?
Last season, we saw an influx off young players make their Major League debuts as a result of a less-than-stellar roster. 14 different players made their big league debuts in 2017 for the Phillies, but will a similarly high number do so this season? There may only be one or two players on the 25-man Opening Day roster that make their debuts in April, but that’s not necessarily the focus of this Spring Training. Instead, the Phillies would do well to focus on which players will have the fast track to make their debuts sometime in 2018. Scott Kingery is a near lock to play for the Phillies in 2018. He may not make the Opening Day roster due to the Super 2 clause, keeping him under team control for another season, but he will play at Citizens Bank Park this year. I would have to assume that come September, Dylan Cozens will also be a Phillie when the rosters expand to 40 men. Outside of those two, my next assumption would be that Tom Eshelman is the first pitcher in line to eat up some innings should a starter go down at any point in the season. Those three come as near locks to me for 2018. The rest of the lot are all speculation, but the protection of three pitchers by adding them to the 40-man roster this offseason could lead to a handful of debuts in 2018. Young guns Franklyn Kilome, converted reliever Seranthony Dominguez and Ranger Suarez all have outside possibilities of making the team at some point should an injury or struggles occur. Finally, the team may want to see what it has in Enyel de los Santos, having traded a Major League player for him this offseason in the Freddy Galvis deal. I highly doubt 14 guys make their debuts this year, but the number could be half that of 2017.
How Will Kapler Use His Bullpen?
There’s no denying that the strength of the Phillies this season will be the bullpen. After reacquiring Pat Neshek, adding Tommy Hunter, and taking a flyer on Francisco Rodriguez, the Phillies could be set up for a fantastic back end of the bullpen in 2018. The question now becomes, how does Gabe Kapler manage his relievers. There’s never been a doubt in my mind as to which league is more difficult to manage in, as the DH has sucked the strategy right out of the American League. But Kapler will have a plethora of arms at his disposal, and his decision making could decide the outcome of many games for a team that likely won’t win many blowouts. The understanding coming into camp is that Hector Neris will retain his closer status to begin the season. In front of him, however, is where things could get interesting. Will Kapler decide to use Neshek in the seventh and Hunter in the eighth? Will he strictly go situational, working sabermetrics and righty-lefty matchups? And how will returning and emerging reliever Luis Garcia be used? If Rodriguez can contribute to the club in any way, the Phillies will have five righties and two lefties (Adam Morgan, Hoby Milner) to create a very potent bullpen in 2018. The if’s loom large, however, for the bullpen. Rodriguez could be finished. Garcia could have been a flash in the pan. Morgan cold revert back to his previous ways. Any one of the arms could get injured. But the beauty of the game is, you don’t play in if’s and could be’s, but instead, in reality, and the reality of the bullpen is that it could be very dangerous if utilized properly. Kapler’s job managing these arms will be critical.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports