Who Should Return to the Phillies’ Rotation in 2021?

MLB: AUG 01 Giants at Phillies
PHILADELPHIA, PA – AUGUST 01: Philadelphia Phillies Starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) prepares to deliver a pitch during the game between the San Fransisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies on August 1, 2019 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

Continuing our series looking at the 2020 Phillies’ roster, we look today at the starting rotation to determine who should stay for the 2021 season.

Looking overall, the Phillies’ starting rotation held a 4.08 ERA in 2020, 10th best in the league. For the sake of this article, we ignore bullpen pitchers who made spot starts as necessary. Don’t worry, the bullpen is the final article in this series.

Aaron Nola: STAYS

After the 2019 season fans were concerned that Aaron Nola was not the ace they thought he was. Nola answered the call in 2020, posting a 3.28 ERA with his first two official complete games. Combine that with a career-high 12.1 K/9, Nola has proven himself to be among the elite pitchers in the league.

Nola’s contract does not expire until at least 2023, so don’t expect him to go anywhere.

Zack Wheeler: Stays

For the first time in years, the Phillies have a bonafide one-two punch in the rotation. Wheeler owned a rotation-best 2.92 ERA while leading the league with a 0.4 HR/9. When the Phillies signed Wheeler, they were taking a risk on a player who had previously had Tommy John Surgery. But he proved himself well worth the investment in 2020.

Wheeler, however, will be due for some regression in 2021. He will still be a great pitcher, but benefited from 13 double plays in 11 starts. In 2019, he had 13 double plays over 31 starts. The ground ball went his way in 2020, so expect a few more to find the gap in 2021. As long as he can keep the home runs down, however, there should be no problem.

Jake Arrieta: GONE

Arrieta has progressively gotten worse since his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2015. 2020 was statistically the worst season of his 11-year career, putting the 34-year old free agent in a tough spot this offseason.


Arrieta has been heralded by some as the worst free agent signing in Phillies’ history, and it shows with his decline. Coming into the season, he was the third starting pitcher on the depth chart, perhaps the most important position as the third pitcher glues together the best and the worst. Fortunately for the Phillies, the next man on this list had himself a good season, earning himself the third position in Arrieta’s stead.

Zach Eflin: Stays

Zach Eflin is perhaps the most improved pitcher on the Phillies’ roster this season. With career-bests in ERA (3.97), WHIP (1.271), and K/9 (10.7), he has solidified his place on the pitching staff. Heading into 2020, Eflin tentatively held the four-spot with Pivetta and Velasquez competing for a spot and the looming threat of Spencer Howard. Eflin took the competition in stride and even moved up in the order to three.

Eflin is aribtration eligible for the first time in his career heading into the 2021 season. Given the numbers he posted this past season, he will most certainly be receiving a pay raise from his $2.6 million in 2020. He also may slide back into the fourth spot into the rotation if the Phillies make a free agency splash this offseason.

Vince Velasquez: Stays (Bullpen)

Vinny Velo had to impress in 2020 to earn his spot in the rotation. And while he started seven games over the course of the season, it was mostly out of necessity due to injury, a difficult schedule, and a lack of starting pitching depth. While 2020 saw Velasquez’s highest K/9 rate (12.2), he also had his career-worst ERA and WHIP (5.56 and 1.559, respectively). Essentially, he either struck out the batter or they likely got on base.

Velasquez is also arbitration-eligible and will not earn as much as Eflin. The Phillies may elect to relegate him to the bullpen as a two-to-three inning reliever who can also make an emergency start when necessary. If Velasquez does not succeed there, then he will run out of spots to fill on the Phillies roster.

Spencer Howard: Stays

While 24 year-old Spencer Howard made his MLB debut in 2020, it is worth noting that he had only pitched in six games at the AA level in 2019 and was due for another season of minor league development in Reading and Lehigh Valley. The rookie started six games for the Phillies, pitching 24.1 innings while allowing 16 earned runs and striking out 23.

Given that Minor League Baseball did not compete in 2020, Howard earned a battlefield-promotion to the Phillies’ roster into a situation he was not yet fully ready for. He took that in stride and did the best he can, gaining crucial experience. Now, with an offseason to reflect on his first taste of the Majors, expect him to come into Spring Training ready for the Big Show. If not, he could always take another year in the minors to get ready. While the Phillies may need all the pitching they can get, Howard is not the pitcher you want to rush any more than he has already been.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire