Phillies see potential to turn starting rotation into a strength

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For the Philadelphia Phillies to compete in a tough division, they need better starting pitching.

There's hope because none of their returning starters performed up to expectations last year, the team strengthened the top of the rotation by signing Zack Wheeler and new pitching coach Bryan Price has a track record of success working with pitchers.

"I like what our rotation brings because there's different looks, there's power, there's very good breaking balls, there's sinkers, there's different stuff," manager Joe Girardi said after a 10-2 win over the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. "It's going to be a different look every day which I think is important."

Wheeler joins ace Aaron Nola to form a formidable 1-2 punch. Veteran Jake Arrieta, coming off an injury-shortened season, is the No. 3 starter. Zach Eflin appears to have the fourth spot locked up.

Ranger Suarez has turned the competition for the fifth spot in into a three-man race with Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta. Suarez gave up two runs and five hits, striking out four in three innings against the Red Sox.

"I think it can be a strength," Price said about the rotation. "The best is yet to come."

Nola struggled a bit after a breakout season in 2018 when he finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting. Nola went from 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA to 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA and his WHIP jumped up to 1.3 from 0.9.

"I was trying to be too fine around the plate last year and wasn't having the same results," Nola said. "I had ups and downs. That tests you as a person, as a player. I can grow from that."

Nola is working on his slide step this spring and he's slated to make his third consecutive opening day start when the Phillies begin the season in Miami on March 26.

The Phillies are counting on Nola and Wheeler to help them compete in the NL East. The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The New York Mets have Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. The Atlanta Braves have Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried and Cole Hamels.

"I absolutely think we have enough starting pitching and bullpen pitching to compete," general manager Matt Klentak said.

Wheeler spent his first seven seasons with the Mets and was 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA last year after going 12-7 with a 3.31 ERA in 2018. He got a $118 million, five-year contract in December.

"To add a front-of-the-rotation guy is really hard. That's why we targeted Zack Wheeler as we did," Klentak said. "In doing so, that really creates additional depth for you from a top-down perspective."

Arrieta was a disappointment in the first two seasons of a $75 million, three-year deal he signed in free agency in March 2018. Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner with the Cubs, is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA for Philadelphia. He made 24 starts last year before having season-ending elbow surgery. The 34-year-old right-hander had knee surgery after his first season with the Phillies.

"He has not been healthy for two years," Girardi said. "I think we're going to see the Jake Arrieta of a couple years ago because he's healthy again."

Eflin was 10-13 with a 4.13 ERA last year and lost his starting spot for a few weeks. He posted a 2.83 ERA in his last seven starts after rejoining the rotation.

Velasquez (7-8, 4.91 ERA) briefly moved to the bullpen last season and could end up being a key reliever if he doesn't win the competition.

Pivetta (4-6, 5.38) was demoted to the minors after a poor start in 2019 and finished with 13 starts and 17 relief appearances in the majors.

Suarez, who would be the only left-hander in the rotation, tossed five scoreless innings in his first two outings this spring. He was 6-1 with a 3.14 ERA in 37 relief appearances last season.

"I've been a starting pitcher all my life and last year was my first time coming out of the bullpen," Suarez said through interpreter. "I felt I did a good job so really I feel comfortable with either one. Whatever role they give me, I want to help the team win."

Spencer Howard, the team's top pitching prospect, is expected to start out in Triple-A after making only six starts at Double-A last year. He's already dazzled some of his future teammates.

"He has some of the nastiest stuff I've ever seen," Bryce Harper said.
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