The Phillies need to reinforce Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler

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Phillies Zack Wheeler
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler throws during the first inning in Game 5 of the baseball NL Championship Series between the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Manager Rob Thomson and the Philadelphia Phillies did a masterful job of navigating their lack of starting pitching depth through the 2022 Postseason. With only three reliable starting pitchers in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Ranger Suarez, the Phillies managed to work their way to Game Six of the World Series, even requiring the occasional bullpen game in the process.

But while Philadelphia made it to the World Series, they did so with so much duct tape it would make the Apollo 13 astronauts proud. The Phillies worked their rotation throughout the Postseason to create favorable matchups for their starters while also utilizing the bullpen early and often to work in favorable lefty-righty splits (except in the case of Yordan Alvarez).

And while one can argue all day over whether or not each move Thomson made was the best one he could have made, the truth is that each move that was made was done so to take the Phils just a bit further into the Postseason.

That cannot, however, be the case moving forward. The piecemeal method of working through matchups worked out well but is not sustainable in the long run. The Houston Astros are well aware of that fact, which is why their starting pitching core, paired with a strong bullpen, has taken them so far in recent years.

The State of the Current Phillies’ Starting Pitchers

The Phillies witnessed their top three starting pitchers all have strong years in 2022. Aaron Nola pitched the second most regular-season innings of his career along with his first 200+ inning season since 2019. A large part of Nola’s dominance in 2022 was his ability to keep free bases to a minimum. He led the National League with a 1.3 walk BB/9 ratio while also pitching a Major League-best 8.10 strikeouts per walk ratio.

Nola ran out of gas, however, when it came to the postseason. Through the NLDS, Nola had earned two wins over two starts, pitching a combined 12.2 innings, allowing one run while striking out 10 batters. That performance did not continue past the Division Series. In three starts against the Padres and Astros, Nola allowed 14 earned runs over 13.0 innings.

Aaron Nola32205.03.252350.96.219
Zack Wheeler26153.02.821631.04.221
Ranger Suarez29155.13.651291.33.249

Phillies second ace, Zack Wheeler

Zack Wheeler, meanwhile, pitched another strong season for Philadelphia. With a 2.82 ERA on the year, Wheeler led the staff in the department once more. The pitcher did have his share of problems in the season, however.

In late August, Wheeler went onto the Injured list with right forearm tendinitis. Wheeler returned just in time to make three tune-up starts before the playoffs, with good results across the three outings as Wheeler returned to form.

All was going well for Wheeler in the postseason through the NLCS. In four starts, he earned a 1.78 ERA over 25.1 innings as the Phillies went 3-1 in his starts. Game Two of the World Series, however, raised several red flags for Wheeler.

Over five innings, Wheeler allowed five runs (four earned) on six hits. Worse, however, was the drop in his pitch velocity. While Wheeler had denied any issues at the time, it certainly appears as though the number of innings pitched on his elbow was catching up to him.

Aaron Nola525.24.91271.32.274
Zack Wheeler635.22.78330.73.153
Ranger Suarez514.21.23131.02.167

Ranger Suarez

When it comes to Ranger Suarez, the stats speak for themselves. The dude is a gamer.

He is not an ace, but Suarez can hang with the best of them and was a large part of why the Phillies did so well in the postseason.

The truth of the matter is: Nola and Wheeler ran out of gas in the Postseason. Why? Philadelphia relied on the pair to lead a weak rotation throughout the regular season and then, for the first time in both of their careers, into the Postseason. Deep into the Postseason.

And while the fans can make an argument that the pair simply need to condition themselves better for the coming season, that argument is neither productive nor does it address the true problem at hand:

The Rotation Needs Help

The Philadelphia Phillies made do with three reliable starting pitchers in 2022, with no true depth beyond the point. Their acquisitions of Kyle Gibson and Noah Syndergaard, along with the aid of Zach Eflin and Bailey Falter, helped hide the issue throughout the regular season.

But, when the Phils were repeatedly forced to treat Postseason contests as bullpen games, the issue was laid bare for all to see. Gibson and Syndergaard are past their prime. Eflin projects better as a reliever moving forward. Falter has the chance to develop into a lower-end starting pitcher, but proved ineffective against the Padres in the NLCS.

It’s time to bring in some reinforcements.

Now, to be fair, the Phillies have some in-house help that could emerge next season. Highly-touted prospects Andrew Painter and Mick Abel have been making noise all year across the team’s Minor League system. Depending on how they come into Spring Training and how their fair in the early stages of the 2023 season, Painter and/or Abel could be a part of their rotation in no time.

That being said, they cannot rely solely on their upcoming prospects to fill the ranks of their rotation.

Carlos Rodón is the most desirable name on the free agent market.

The southpaw is entering his age-30 season, coming off two successful seasons with the Chicago White Sox and, most recently, the San Francisco Giants, with whom he led the Major Leagues with a 12.0 SO/9. Rodon, a Scott Boras client, is set to make the big bucks on the market. Jacob deGrom is also available at the top of the market.

Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher to sign so far, returning to Los Angeles on a one-year deal. Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Bassitt, Justin Verlander, and Sean Manaea are just a few of a long list of free agents of whom the Phils could pursue.

While Philadelphia would be best served by bringing in Rodón or deGrom, there is an argument for Philadelphia to elect to pursue two starting pitchers rather than one, not only to wrap up the rotation but also with the intention of Painter or Abel to usurp the veterans in due time.

Regardless, the Phillies have money to spend. They went over the luxury tax for the first time in 2022, ending in them being just two wins away from the World Series. That success is enough of a motivator for owner John Middleton to open the pocketbook yet again.

A fix to the bullpen and a signing of Trea Turner are both also high on the priority list, but the Phillies’ pursuit of a better rotation must be paramount this offseason.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson