Phillies notes: Short- and long-term questions facing a top-10 rotation

More than 40 percent into the season, there is no question how great a strength the Phillies’ rotation has been. Only one team, San Diego, has received more innings from its starters. The five pitchers the Phillies intended for their rotation have made 94 percent of the starts. They haven’t needed depth. By just about every measurement, the Phillies have one of the top 10 rotations in the major leagues.

It helps when Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, two of the best starters in the National League this season, are starting two of every five games. The bar is lower for the rest of the rotation — all the Phillies want is length and performances good enough to keep a potent offense within striking distance. The less the Phillies need to rely on the bullpen, the better.

So, the onus is on Kyle Gibson, Zach Eflin, and Ranger Suárez to remain competent. Depending on the week, at least one of them has looked like a capable No. 3. It’s been up and down. That makes them back-of-the-rotation pitchers by nature.

Everything is predicated on them making a start every fifth day, so the Eflin situation is somewhat concerning given his chronic knee problems. Eflin is in a contract year; it’s not surprising he would like to pitch through soreness to prove his durability. But it’s one thing to pitch through it and another to be effective. Interim manager Rob Thomson told reporters after Sunday’s 9-3 loss to the Nationals that the plan was to remove Eflin at around 40 pitches.

It would not be unreasonable for the Phillies to press pause for 15 days. Eflin had major knee surgery 12 months ago. The starts in July and August will be just as important as the starts in June.


Zach Eflin made 38 pitches Sunday. He allowed four runs in two innings. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

Four of Suárez’s previous five starts had lasted 4 1/3 innings or less, so pitching into the sixth on Friday was an accomplishment. “Still missing a little bit,” Thomson said. “But he was better. He’s not where I think he will be or what we’re used to, but he was better.” Suarez has a 4.43 ERA in 65 innings.

Washington batters swung and missed at just six of Suárez’s 94 pitches. The lefty was asked if he’s still searching for another gear.

“No, not really,” Suarez said. “You know, obviously it’s not happening the same as it did last year (1.36 ERA in 106 innings). But I’m working hard. I feel good. I think things are gonna be OK.”

No one expected Suárez to do what he did in 2021, but that performance did bump the potential outcomes for him. Evaluators had debated whether he was a back-of-the-rotation type or better suited for middle relief work. It was easier after last season to squint and imagine Suárez as a solid No. 4 or maybe even a No. 3 in a rotation. So far, in 2022, he’s fallen short of that.

The Phillies can live with Suárez as a No. 5, but it puts a little more pressure on Eflin and Gibson to be more consistent in the middle of the rotation. There are short- and long-term implications to how Suárez fares in 2022 because both Eflin and Gibson will likely be free agents this offseason. The Phillies will need to address the rotation; if they feel better about Suárez going into 2023, they might target lesser starters. It’s been years since the Phillies were players in the free-agent market for mid-rotation starters. It’s a place they have actively attempted to avoid.

Give ’em the cutter

The Phillies have tried a litany of ideas to help José Alvarado harness his powerful but erratic left arm. Often, they have simplified it to this: Forget about locating, throw the ball down the middle and let the pitches do their thing.

That hasn’t worked well with his fastball. Teams have hit .419 with a .581 slugging percentage against it. So, when Alvarado entered the second game of Friday’s doubleheader in a pressure situation, he threw more cutters than he ever has in a single outing.

Washington hitters swung and missed at five of the 16 cutters. They made weak contact against it. Alvarado can throw his fastball 102 mph, but the cutter is a better pitch. He throws it harder than most pitchers throw their four-seam fastballs.

So, he will throw it more.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Alvarado said through a team interpreter. “Honestly, I think they can hit the sinker better than the cutter. Even though the sinker has more velocity. But I’ve seen how uncomfortable the hitters can get with my cutter. I have plenty of confidence in all my pitches.”

Goosebumps

Jean Segura reclined in a leather chair inside the Phillies clubhouse last week and lamented his current state. Segura has pins in his fractured right index finger. He might return by September.

“To be honest, I am really jealous,” Segura said. “I’m really jealous because that’s the run the boys have been doing right now offensively. They’re having fun. I can definitely see that on TV. They look happy. They look relaxed. The best thing is they enjoy playing ball right now.”

He raised his left arm. There were goosebumps.

“I’m not lying,” he said. “I’m jealous to not be available.”

Phillies second basemen are hitting .225/.287/.525 in 87 plate appearances this month, their first without Jean Segura. It’ll work if they can maintain the power. Segura, who turns 33 next March, has an uncertain future. The Phillies hold a $17 million option for 2023. They’re likely to pay $1 million to buy it out.

Segura has played the most games among active MLB players without appearing in the postseason.

“I mean, I was playing well (before the injury),” Segura said. “I was hitting a lot of balls hard this year, more than (in years past). And I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe I’m getting stronger.’ The situation about my contract, this is my last year here probably. But not. I cannot control that. I love this team. I would love to finish my career in Philadelphia because I still … look, it’s not a lie.”

Segura looked at the goosebumps on his arms again.

“I think this type of group is going to do something really big,” he said, “because of the talent we have in the locker room.”

From indy ball to the majors


Michael Kelly made his big-league debut Thursday in Washington. (Brad Mills/USA Today)

When there was nowhere else to go, Michael Kelly found a job in 2019 with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. He walked 63 hitters in 89 1/3 innings there, but he wanted to keep going. He was the 48th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. No one would have faulted him for walking away almost a decade later.

Kelly was still without a job when the pandemic stopped baseball in March 2020. So, he bought a training facility in Chattanooga, Tenn. “It was a great deal,” Kelly said. He trained at Fury Academy in the mornings and gave baseball lessons in the afternoons. He still wanted to play, but this was a way to think about life after baseball. He spent all of 2020 out of organized baseball.

He filmed his bullpen sessions and sent videos to teams, along with Rapsodo data, before the 2021 season. No one called. Then, in May 2021, he went to Double A with the Astros organization. He was a full-time reliever. Some of the metrics were good; the Phillies offered him a minor-league deal.

And, Thursday, he became the 22,708th player in Major League Baseball history. He pitched a scoreless inning at Nationals Park in a blowout.

“It was awesome,” Kelly, 29, said. “I mean, a lot of years in the making. It was pretty exciting.”

His parents and wife were in the ballpark to see it. Kelly’s time in the majors was short-lived; after another outing Sunday, the Phillies demoted him to Triple A to comply with MLB’s 13-pitcher limit, which goes into effect Monday. But he made it.

“I just love baseball,” Kelly said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

The new replay man

Last summer, as Riley Wilson worked to recover from another injury, he began to meet with as many different people in the Phillies organization as he could. “Because,” he said, “I knew after I was finished playing, whether it was in 20 years or 20 minutes, I wanted to do something in baseball.” He was a lefty reliever, signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Virginia.

The Phillies released him last December.

“I had a feeling that I was probably done,” Wilson said. “I mean, I was 25 years old. I pitched 10 innings above rookie ball. So I could kind of see the writing on the wall.”

He applied for jobs across baseball, including some with the Phillies. Later in the offseason, the Phillies hired him to help their advance scouting group, which compiles trends and strategies for upcoming opponents. It was an entry-level role, but a good opportunity.

Wilson just had no idea that, by June, he would have a direct effect on actual Phillies games.

“It’s awesome,” Wilson said.

When the Phillies fired Joe Girardi and elevated Thomson to interim manager, a chain reaction made Wilson the club’s new eyes in the video room, deciding when or when not to challenge a play. Mike Calitri, the quality assurance coach, was in his first year as the replay man. Before, whenever Thomson was on the phone to ask for a challenge decision, Calitri was on the other end.

Now, Calitri, the new bench coach, is calling Wilson.

“It feels like you’re in the game almost,” Wilson said. “I’m not too far removed from my playing career, but before the game, it feels like you’re going into a game. Because you have an impact on the game, of course. You still prepare the same way as you do when you were playing.”

Wilson’s father played in the minors with the Padres and never made it to the majors. His older brother, Tyler, did. He pitched in 42 games for the Orioles. Now, Riley is in the majors—just behind the scenes.

“I would have loved to do it pitching,” he said, “but that was a little bit of a pipe dream.”

(Top photo of Ranger Suarez: Brad Mills/USA Today)

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