Yesterday the Phillies signed Jerome Williams, which was a great signing, but still made us all very sad. Williams just underlines how thin starting pitching is across baseball as a whole, and just how important it is to develop starting pitching depth as an organization. In a healthy organization this spot is filled internally by a league minimum salaried 22 year old, but that is not where the Phillies are right now. Right now the Phillies need innings from their starting rotation, and on the open market those innings aren’t cheap. But that era is starting to end, the Phillies have pitching depth on the way, the problem is that Spring Training is just too early for them. That means the Phillies have to fill the gap in the mean time until that depth is there.
When we think about the Phillies starting pitching depth going forward we can think of it in three categories. In the first you have guys you expect to count on in the rotation going forward. They may not be front of the rotation arms, but you expect them to be part of the future going forward. Then you have your rotation filler, the Phillies had a surprise in this category last year when David Buchanan stepped into the rotation from AAA. The problem with these pitchers is that you are waiting for them to turn back into pumpkins. Some will continue to build and improve, others just don’t have the stuff to compete in the majors. Lastly you have your fliers, players that you cannot reasonably expect anything from, but could be impactful if things work out. The biggest reason pitchers are fliers is injuries, it is just hard to count on players coming back healthy and with their stuff intact.
The big name here is Aaron Nola. Nola ended last year in AA, and this spring will determine whether he returns to Reading or gets a taste of AAA. Nola has the stuff and feel he could be a #5 starter for the Phillies out of spring training. That being said, the combination of service time, innings pitched, and just general polish needed mean that he is a near lock to go to the minors. He shouldn’t be down long and could settle in as a mid-rotation starter by the end of the year. After Nola we get to LHP Jesse Biddle. Biddle’s last two years have had many running away from the Phillies 2010 first round pick. But the big lefty showed solid stuff before a concussion and hamstring injury set his year back. When healthy this year Biddle’s fastball was 90-92 touching 94 and he was able to work everything down in the zone. Many of projected their own feelings onto Biddle thinking that he profiles at the front of a rotation, but in the end he is likely a very solid #4 starter with an outside chance at being a good #3. If he is healthy and gets his stuff together he could be ready by the middle of the year and will already be on the 40 man roster.
Not every prospect is a future star, sometimes you just need a guy who can take 15 starts for you after the season has fallen down around you. The first guy that jumps out is 2013 pitching darling Severino Gonzalez. Gonzalez put up a pedestrian 4.59 ERA in AA thanks to a 1.3 HR/9. Gonzalez lacks really swing and miss stuff, but he works quickly and throws strikes. The secondary pitches continue to improve and he threw a career high 158.2 innings in 2014. He could start in either AA or AAA, but overall he could do some #5 starter things in a big league rotation in not too long. His future is not too exciting or impactful, but he could be very useful to the Phillies. From the unheralded Gonzalez we move to the formerly heralded Adam Loewen (#4 overall pick in 2002). Loewen returned to the mound for the first time since 2008 and the big lefty showed that there is still life in his arm. He threw 113.2 innings across two levels and was sharper each time out. The rust is evident and he can really lose his control at times, but he keeps the ball in the yard, works deep into the games, and generates week contact. After a rough time in in June his last 12 starts from July on he pitched 70 innings with 2.70 ERA 0.3 HR/9 4.6 BB/9 7.6 K/9. I am not sure Loewen has the pitching impact potential he had early in his career, but he could be very solid if he continues to improve.
Shoulder injuries are the scariest thing that can happen to pitcher in baseball. In general they end careers and the promise they once held, and even if a player comes back it could be 2+ years since they went away. The Phillies have two once promising pitchers trying to work their way back in Adam Morgan and Jonathan Pettibone. Morgan is currently rehabbing in the Arizona Fall League after not pitching for over a year. Before the injury he was inches away from the majors and looked like he could be a mid-rotation starter. Now we don’t really know what he is going to be after working himself back healthy, but Morgan was a guy who had real promise not too long ago. Jonathan Pettibone is a year and shoulder surgery removed from giving the Phillies 100.1 innings at the major league level and a 1.5 bWAR. Pettibone has always projected as a #4 starter at the majors relying on an average fastball and breaking ball to go with a plus changeup and solid control. He won’t miss many bats, but he should be a solid pitcher if he can return to 2013 levels.
The Phillies don’t have a set of aces waiting in the wings, nor do they have a bunch of pitching ready to go for Spring Training, but they do have depth going into 2015. By the middle of the year we will have a better feel on who these pitchers are. Some will step forward, others will step back, but there are a lot of arms here. The Phillies are going to be reaching down a lot for starting pitching given the fragility of the rotation, and this year it won’t be Sean O’Sullivan coming up.
Image by Tom Hagerty