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The Phillies rotation: A Voltron of question marks

After a season in the wilderness, the 2016 Phillies rotation is going to be interesting, if not effective. Let's look at the team's options.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Almost a week ago, word came out that the Phillies had agreed to a massive deal with the Astros for sudden uber-closer Ken Giles. We learned on Saturday that in exchange for Giles and infield prospect Jonathan Arauz, the Phils received *deep breath* starting pitcher Vincent Velasquez, starting pitcher prospect Mark Appel, erstwhile starting pitcher Brett Oberholtzer, starting pitcher prospect Thomas Eschelman, and starting pitcher prospect Harold "No Relation" Arauz.

Reading into the modifiers I inserted into that list, you can see an argument that the Phillies acquired a complete rotation of starters for the price of Giles and Arauz Numero Uno. Of course, starting pitching prospects are doomed to turn into relievers someday, so in likelihood the team may have only gotten a handful of starters, maybe fewer who are able to ply their trade in MLB. Still, that’s a lot of potential innings. And the Phillies, perhaps more than any team in baseball, have a strange, wild starting rotation in need of identity and – more importantly – effectiveness.

Last season, the Phillies were one of the game’s greatest examples of futility, and it’s possible that the team’s starting rotation was a primary culprit. Armed with one long-term, talented ace (Cole Hamels), the rest of the rotation was a patchwork of veteran retreads and Triple-A-talent swingmen. It did not make for a particularly pleasing season, either from a statistical or an aesthetic perspective.

This season, the team is in the midst of a soft relaunch, and the rotation is without any sure things at all. Gone is Hamels, and veteran Aaron Harang … but the team also no longer needs to rely on guys like David Buchanan and Jerome Williams who carried virtually no upside AND were not very good pitchers. Instead, the team possesses seven-to-nine starting pitchers and prospects who, like those Voltron toys of old, combine to form a rotation that is simply a bigger badder version of what each of those pitchers are in singular: a question mark.

The Holdovers

Name 2015 ERA 2015 FIP 2016 Projected ERA 2016 Projected FIP
Jerad Eickhoff 2.65 3.25 3.99 4.16
Aaron Nola 3.59 4.04 3.9 3.87

(Projections are from the Steamer projection system at FanGraphs.)

The Phillies rotation last year was horrible. How horrible? In baseball, there are 30 teams. The Phillies rotation sported an ERA of 5.23, which ranked 29th in the game. The team’s starters’ FIP (4.77) was 29th. Their Deserved Run Average (DRA)? At 4.93, it ranked 29th in baseball. And that’s with a half season of Cole Hamels on the bump.

Thank goodness for the Rockies, right?

So it was very, very bad last year … but the team will carry over two of their brightest lights into 2016. "Staff ace" Jerad Eickhoff set off alarm bells around the league after surprising in an eight-game sample in 2015. Eickhoff rode his hammer of a curve to a 2.82 RA9 and a 3.25 FIP, after being pegged for years as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter if everything broke right. It appears that everything broke right, and then some. If you'd like a more in-depth examination of Eickhoff, check out Ryan Romano's excellent piece on the righty.

Meanwhile, former first-round pick Aaron Nola did almost exactly what the Phillies drafted him to do: rapidly rise to the major leagues as a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter. His performance in 2015 was an unmitigated positive – his cFIP (a true talent measure) was 97, which you can read as "very slightly better than league-average" and his RA9 (and ERA) was a toasty 3.59. All age-22 seasons should be so good.

These two right-handers straddle the line between "now" and "the future" – both are young enough to be part of the next good Phillies team (which for a while, looked like it may never come) and are certainly good enough to be rotation stalwarts today. The "problem" with these two is two-fold: performance and injury risk. The latter should be glossed over first; all young pitchers are a serious injury risk, and any starter without a demonstrated history of endurance should basically be treated with kid gloves. I’m not certain that either Eickhoff or Nola is more of a risk than any other young pitcher, but the risks are out there with everyone.

From a performance standpoint, these two are also a little risky, though the glass is certainly more half-full than half-empty. While Eickhoff was never this good in the minors, his performance in 2015 had very good underlying peripherals, and his performance wasn’t just the result of a low, fluky BABIP (.257) or high strand rate (80.7%). The concern with Eick may be that his high fly-ball rate will translate into loads of homers in Citizens Bank Park … and this concern should be real. Both xFIP and SIERA (good ERA estimators) expect his performance to register much closer to three and a half runs per nine than two and a half next season. Nola, without premium stuff but with a better pedigree, is projected for much of the same.

Make no mistake, these two pitchers appear to be pretty good, and may be the team’s most fun and watchable hurlers going forward. However, you shouldn’t mistake this for a diminished version of the Mets’ or Rays’ sets of interesting young starters. They are hardly sure things, and the upside looks more like a No. 3 than a No. 1.

The Veterans

Name 2015 FIP 2016 Projected FIP 2015 ERA 2016 Projected ERA
Jeremy Hellickson 4.44 4.24 4.62 4.19
Charlie Morton 4.19 3.89 4.81 3.94

(Projections are from the Steamer projection system at FanGraphs.)

To supplement the front end of this rotation, the Phils brought in two older starters who can eat innings and "stabilize" the rotation: Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. In theory? Great call – literally every team needs at least a couple of starters that can be relied upon to deliver innings. In practice? The guys Philadelphia have brought in are a bit risky in their own ways.

Arguably, Hellickson had his worst pro season in 2015 for the Diamondbacks. Acquired via trade between the ’14 and ’15 seasons, Hellboy finds himself traded again, now landing in Philadelphia’s rotation. After a few years of dodging a high FIP while posting a low ERA, regression finally caught up to him in force. His strikeout rate is sliding, while his home run rate, his true Achilles’ heel, is rising. Moving from the hitter-friendly confines of Arizona to the also-hitter-friendly confines of Philadelphia will probably not help hide his critical flaw.

Hellickson is kind of a rarity in today’s world of starting pitching in that he is flirting with replacement-level performance, yet virtually assured of a starting rotation slot. Everyone thinks they can fix everyone, and I’m sure the Phillies staff will tweak something in the hopes of driving some improvement. But in all likelihood the Phillies are counting on Helly to fill innings, not pitch well in the meat of them. Expecting more would be folly.

Philadelphia’s acquisition of Charlie Morton, meanwhile, is a sick joke being perpetrated on the Phillies phaithful. Quite notably, Morton saw his performance tick up after scrapping his previous rotation and delivery in favor of attempting to re-create former Jays and Phils ace Roy Halladay’s mechanics. The end result? NOT ROY HALLADAY. Morton was, however, a pretty decent mid-rotation arm prior to a down 2015, but since his command isn’t money and his strikeout rate is low (15.8% over his career), like Hellickson he needs to limit his home runs. Again, Citizens Bank Park: not the best place to try and do this.

Joe Vasile pegged Morton as a bounce-back candidate, as he still manages to induce copious ground balls – he’s averaged 55.3% over his career, and more than that recently. I’m a little less optimistic, especially as Morton moves away from Ray Searage’s tutelage. As we saw with A.J. Burnett, another grounder-heavy starter who made an in-state move recently, it’s not always a given that those worm-burners will translate from black and gold to mauve and, uh, whatever those awful colors are that the Phillies wear. Also, Morton is pretty injury-prone, and my best guess is that he’ll fail to reach 170 innings unless there’s some form of divine intervention.

While Morton and Hellickson’s ultimate effectiveness is, again, an unknown … these two are basically placeholders, guys biding time until the team re-creates the Jerad Eickhoff experiment or drafts a new Aaron Nola. With starters with potential lurking in Triple-A (Mark Appel and Jake Thompson, to name the two brightest), the Phillies can swap out these two with virtually no qualms about a performance dip if they think that the young ones can fill in at the MLB level. If everything breaks right, maybe these guys mimic the performance of a No. 4 starter. If not, look for them on minor-league deals in 2017.

The New Young(er) Guys

Name 2015 FIP 2016 Projected FIP 2015 ERA 2016 Projected ERA
Vincent Velasquez 3.46 3.56 4.37 4.37
Brett Oberholtzer 4.49 4.19 4.46 4.07

(Projections are from the Steamer projection system at FanGraphs.)

We don’t have a full roundup of projections yet – really, only the Steamer projections are out there and ready to be perused, as ZIPS and PECOTA haven’t rolled out fully yet – but it’s neither the holdovers or the new veterans that look to perform the best out of Philly’s revamped rotation. It’s new addition Vincent Velasquez.

Well and truly overshadowed by fellow 2015 rookie Lance McCullers, Velasquez was actually pretty good last season. He split time between the rotation and the bullpen after being called up to the big leagues, and looked sharp despite limited innings. He already has a plus fastball and change, and possesses real strikeout stuff, though his command can be sketchy at times. His June walk percentage was 13.4%, but that dropped dramatically as the season went on to come to a 9.1% mark for 2015.

More than any other option in Philly's nascent rotation, this is the guy who has a chance to be a top-tier pitcher. While it would be nice if he were a bit younger (2016 will be his age-24 season) and he could demonstrate some improved command, Velasquez has the ceiling of a No. 2 (if not a No. 1), and the floor of a high-leverage reliever. Still, the range of possibilities is high, especially if he winds up throwing a lot of pitches early in games at Citizens Bank Park.

Coming along for the ride is Brett Oberholtzer who, by virtue of being left-handed and out of options, almost looks like a lock to start the year in Philadelphia’s rotation. Throw left-handed, kids! Taking a cue from an old BP Annual comment, one can compare his upside to a left-handed Joe Blanton. His upside. Enjoy that one, Phillies fans! It’s possible he could reach back and reclaim some of what made him a decent pitcher back in 2013 (no walks! ground balls!), but given that he wasn’t a plus starter in Triple-A last year, no. We’re looking at the upside of a competent No. 5 starter.

What we’re left with here is six starters that fit into two major buckets: Eickhoff, Nola, and Velasquez versus Hellickson, Morton, and Oberholtzer. The first bucket includes guys who are young and have some upside, but who carry the risks of being young and/or experiencing growing pains. The second bucket includes guys with very low ceilings but who could probably be relied upon not to embarrass themselves too much in extended work. While sometimes those guys can surprise in a positive way (J.A. Happ! Vance Worley!), more often than not, they don’t.

In a perfect world, that second group pitches just well enough to buy time for Mark Appel and Jake Thompson to show progress in their first Aprils in Triple-A, and by July both Appel and Thompson unseat Hellickson and Oberholtzer. That would give the team five young, interesting pitchers in the rotation. And while none of them seems to carry real ace potential, going from Jerome Williams and David Buchanan to a full complement of mid-rotation starters is a massive upgrade, and can be the foundation for a competitive 2017 team.

And that’s what makes the 2016 Phillies rotation fun: this team is no longer a joke. Coming into 2016, they will be competing to be the worst team in MLB by true talent level, but they are no longer the franchise centered on punchlines about Ryan Howard’s contract. Ruben Amaro saw to that on his way out of town, and Matt Klentak’s new regime appears committed to a full rebuild.

Say what you want about Ruben Amaro (and I have, on numerous occasions), but once he started to commit to the team’s rebuild, he did an excellent job of stockpiling young talent. Perhaps the Phillies will tear off a run of reclamation projects along the lines of what we’ve seen from Dave Duncan, Don Cooper, Chris Bosio, and Ray Searage over the last decade. Maybe their player development staff can put enough polish on their potential mid-tier starters to see them punch above their weight class?

Yes, the 2016 Phillies are without a sure thing – but there’s potential for a breakout or two here. It could get ugly in the City of Brotherly Love next season, but at least there’s something interesting to look for toward the future.

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Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a columnist for Baseball Prospectus - Boston.