Phillies: Pitching Depth for 2020

With the position players mostly locked in place — at least to begin the year — most of the attention during Spring Training has been focused on the pitching staff, particularly the fifth spot in the starting rotation, and the bullpen. Though the picture is more clear today than when pitcher and catchers first reported, there’s still a lot to learn about the group of arms the team will use in 2020.

While it may seem like the Phillies are once again putting together another average (if uninspiring) pitching staff, the reality is that they boast one of the deepest stables of arms in baseball when you consider the players at the top levels of the minors who are ready or near ready to contribute at the big league level at some point in 2020.

Other than the top-billed Spencer Howard, there aren’t many arms at the minor league level who most fans will be familiar with, but it’s likely that a handful of them could be filling roles out of the bullpen come mid-summer — even if those spots initially go to veterans or players without minor league options to open the year (Liriano, Swarzak, Parker, Storen).

At this point the calculus for the thirteen Opening Day arms has been well reported so I’ll keep this part short. We know a three-way competition between Nick Pivetta, Ranger Suarez, and Vince Velasquez will determine the #5 spot in the starting rotation, with one or both losers moving to the bullpen or being stashed in Lehigh Valley as insurance for the rotation.

Prediction: Suarez wins the fifth starter job, Velasquez makes a long overdue move to the pen, and Pivetta heads to Lehigh Valley to hone his stuff in a low-stress environment.

So far Suarez looks like the more polished pitcher with a poise and approach that clearly separates him from the other two. His pure stuff may not be as good as Pivetta or Velasquez, but his ability to get ahead in the count and adjust mid-game is about all you can ask for out of a back-end starter. Suarez was a career starting pitcher before contributing out of the pen last season, and his comfort level has been evident in the albeit limited action so far this spring.

As far as Velasquez and Pivetta go, I have a hard time imagining Velasquez finding the necessary command to be a starter, while at the same time believing his stuff will “play up” more out of the pen as compared to Pivetta (though I could see it going either way).

As far as the bullpen goes, the five locks we know of are Neris, Dominguez, Morgan, Alvarez, and Arano. While a few days ago Arano wouldn’t have been included here because of injury, recent reporting indicates that he is now on track to be fully healthy to open the season. Arano has some of the best raw stuff in the organization and his availability is an obvious x-factor for the ‘pen in 2020.

If you include Velasquez that leaves two spots remaining for Opening Day. Of the many veterans brought to camp Francisco Liriano has made the strongest case by far, and happens to have the strongest track record of the bunch; barring a meltdown or injury in the coming weeks it’s safe to call him a lock at this point.

I feel fairly confident in those six arms plus one of the losers of the fifth-starter competition making up the Opening Day bullpen. It’s the final spot that feels the most up in the air, although my guess is that it will go to 23 year old Edgar Garcia. While Garcia’s reputation suffers from a bad first impression after being prematurely forced into action in 2019 by an injury-plagued bullpen, the numbers shouldn’t blind Phillies fans to his obvious talent. There’s a reason that at 23 years old the team chose to call him up before most of the older arms in their system — his stuff is electric and he’s been dominant at the minor league level . His fastball sits in the mid-90’s and his slider runs in the high 80’s with violent movement. You could argue he’d have the second best two-pitch sequence in the entire ‘pen after a healthy Dominguez.

It’s possible that one of Swarzak or Parker will earn the job to keep warm until Tommy Hunter makes his return from the injured list sometime in April, but if Girardi’s comments about having the thirteen best arms on hand for Opening Day are to be believed then someone like Garcia is the safer bet — they can figure out the rest when Hunter is actually healthy.

Speaking of the team’s minor league arms, while none are likely to break camp with big league club, I expect a handful to log big league innings in 2020. Beyond Spencer Howard — whose debut will be sooner than most think — here are the current minor league pitchers who you should expect to see in red pinstripes at some point between April and October (in no particular order):

1) Damon Jones LHP

Damon Jones is a tall, hard-throwing lefty who uses a mid 90’s fastball and a power breaking ball to overwhelm hitters. He also uses a changeup to keep righties off balance and his length and good extension allows his stuff to be all the more deceptive. Opponents batted just .173 against him in Clearwater and Reading over the first half of 2019, and after a bumpy start in AAA he was able to settle in and put up solid numbers over the final month and a half. While the team will start him in AAA to begin the season, he profiles better as a big power-lefty coming out of the pen. Like most of the southpaws in this group, more consistent command is the only thing holding him back from truly dominating hitters. Barring a disaster in Lehigh Valley he’ll be one of the first arms called on for help.

2)Connor Brogdon RHP

Brogdon posted dominant numbers across three levels in 2019, with a 35.8% strikeout rate and just an 8% walk rate. His most impressive stretch came in his final 20 appearances in Lehigh Valley where he tossed 25.1 innings allowing just 5 runs with opponents hitting a meager .140 at the plate. He pairs a mid-90s fastball with a circle changeup that is one of the best put-away pitches in the entire organization. Minor league relievers are never the sexiest prospects but Brogdon is one of a few who have panned out in such a role for the Phillies. He’ll be one of the first arms called up for sure.

3) Addison Russ RHP

Much like Brogdon, Russ feels close to pro-ready. He dominated in a full season at Reading in 2019 where he posted a 2.54 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP, and for what it’s worth, over the past two seasons he’s recorded 49 saves in 111 innings. Russ’ calling card is his splitter, which has baffled hitters at every level of ball. If he’s able to replicate his success in Lehigh Valley to start the year he could find himself in red pinstripes come mid-summer.

4) Enyel De Los Santos RHP

De Los Santos is lumped in with Cole Irvin as players who’s reputation as a prospect has taken a hit after a bad first impression in the big leagues, but at one point in time he was one of the organizations top pitching prospects (and still is). In 2018 he made 22 starts at AAA and recorded a 2.63 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP. De Los Santos profiles a little better out of the bullpen, which is where he’ll find himself when he eventually gets called up. His fastball plays up to mid to high-90s with solid action, and he found a decent slider to pair it with when he was moved to the pen last year. In the past his changeup has flashed as a plus-pitch, and if he’s able to consistently throw all three of those pitches he could quickly turn into one of the top arms in the entire bullpen. I would be more bullish on his stock if it weren’t for a hamstring injury that’s delayed his spring.

5) Cole Irvin LHP

Irvin is in the same category as De Los Santos. He posted a 2.57 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 25 starts in Lehigh Valley in 2018. It’s been well documented that his struggles with the big league club in 2019 can be traced to a dip in velocity — which is an indicator that he’s better suited long term for the bullpen — but when his arm is at full strength he has the requisite command, demeanor, and repertoire of pitches to be a 3-5 starter in the majors. Irvin profiles as a starter more so than everyone else on this list, and I expect the organization to keep him in that role as insurance for the rotation, but don’t rule out a move to the pen if he presents himself as the best option for the job.

6) JD Hammer RHP

Phillies fans are more familiar with Hammer than most of the other names on this list. He made a handful of appearances in 2019, and while his production was disappointing, it wasn’t hard to see what the Phillies like out of the reliever–his fastball runs in the mid to upper-90s and his breaking stuff is above average when he locates it. He’s a ‘pen arm for a reason — his command is erratic — but when he’s on he’s one of the top relief arms in the system.

7)Jo Jo Romero LHP

Romero has a deep arsenal of pitches and decent enough command to be viewed as a starter, but lackluster numbers and a dominant stint as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League has evaluators wondering if a move to the pen is in his best interest. Romero’s potential in either role isn’t terribly high, but a good showing in Lehigh Valley will put him in the call-up conversation come July.

8) Mauricio Llovera RHP

Llovera is another arm who has shown the sort of mix of pitches that makes you think he’s a starter, but he’s had trouble staying healthy and his delivery isn’t an effortless as you’d want. All this leads me to believe that a move to the bullpen is in his future. His fastball would play up from 93-94 to 97-98, and he can lean on his plus-changeup and slider. His potential in the starting rotation is what will keep the Phillies from moving him to the bullpen permanently, but it’s hard to ignore the number of signs pointing to him being better suited as a reliever. In my opinion he’s one of the more underrated pitchers in the system.

9) Ramon Rosso RHP

Rosso, like most pitchers in this list, will be used as a starter to begin the year with a move to the bullpen being his most likely ticket to the majors. He had a dominant 2018 in Lakewood and Clearwater, and he held his own in Reading last season before struggling in AAA with Lehigh Valley. His fastball isn’t overpowering, but there’s a thought that given his size his stuff will “play up” coming out of the bullpen more than most. Rosso has flashed a tight slider through Spring Training that he hopes to pair with a changeup that’s considered above average. If he continues to throw all three of his pitches as well as he has thing spring then he’ll be hard to keep off the big league staff.

10) Cristopher Sanchez RHP

Sanchez was in danger of being taken in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, and with the Rays unable to fit him on their 40-man roster they chose to trade him rather than risk losing him for nothing. Sanchez likely won’t push for a major league spot in 2020, but the reason I include him on this list is because his velocity has reportedly touched 99-100 in the past. With him starting the season in Reading, we simply can’t rule out a scenario where Sanchez reigns in his command and forces his way into red pinstripes by September.

11) Adonis Medina RHP

Medina is likely the other pitching prospect you’ve heard of the most after Spencer Howard, but his shine has taken a small hit in recent seasons. One of the critiques you’ll hear about Medina is that he doesn’t miss as many bats as he should considering how good some of his movement is, but if you listen to Medina talk about his approach, this is more indicative of his willingness to pitch to contact more than anything. Medina is still a top five arm in the Phillies system and he has the right mix of pitches to develop into a mid-rotation starter. Any contribution to the 2020 staff will likely come out of the bullpen, but if he starts out hot in Reading and moves quickly to AAA then he’ll be an arm to keep an eye on as the summer progresses.

12) Jeff Singer LHP

Singer caught the eye of a lot of fans this past Saturday when he struck out the side in his one inning of work against Boston. He spent the entirety of 2019 in AA where he logged 61.2 innings over 42 appearances, logging a 2.34 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and .180 BAA. He pairs a 95-mph fastball with a slider and changeup that are both average to above average. How soon he makes the jump to the majors is hard to know considering he’s a career reliever who’s never pitched in AAA (where the different ball has given some trouble) but if he proves to be comfortable in Lehigh Valley then he could be called up as soon as anyone on this list.

13) Kyle Dohy LHP

Dohy is the younger, higher upside version of Singer. His fastball tops out at 97 and his slider and changeup can both be considered put-away pitches when he can locate them. Dohy is the type of live arm who doesn’t need pinpoint location to excel, and if he’s able to establish even a modest level of command in Lehigh Valley then his stuff will be too tantalizing to keep in AAA.

14)Garrett Cleavinger LHP

Cleavinger is another arm in the long line of lefties in the farm system. His strikeout ability is there but he still needs to put everything else together. He’s yet to pitch above AA but if he’s able to throw strikes and get hitters on both sides of the plate out then he’ll be a name to watch as we head into the summer. I don’t like him as much as some of the other lefties but he’s not far off.

It’s nearly impossible to predict what mix of pitchers will be in the starting rotation and bullpen come June, let alone September. But I can guarantee that the Phillies have the sort of pitching depth to get them through 2020 — the type of depth that they sorely lacked in 2018 and ’19. Will they need to add an arm at the trade deadline if they truly want to compete? Possibly. But any success the pitching staff has this season that they were unable to sustain in the past will be directly related to the bevy of arms waiting in Reading and Lehigh Valley that are finally ready for the show.

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