Countdown to Clearwater: 5 questions about Phillies pitchers


The Phillies open spring training in Clearwater, Florida next week. In preview, we take a look at five storylines:

Tuesday — Five new faces to watch 

Wednesday — Five questions on the position side 

Thursday — Five questions on the pitching side

Friday — Five prospects to watch

Saturday — Five people with something to prove

 Earl Weaver used to say the only thing that matters is what happens on that little hump out in the middle of the field. With that, we examine five pitching questions facing the Phillies as they head into camp:

Will they designate a closer?

With Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris and David Robertson, the Phillies have closer candidates, and it would not be a complete surprise to see someone take hold of the role as the season unfolds. But heading into camp, it seems as if the Phils will stay flexible, avoid hanging the label "closer" on any one guy, and play the matchup game in the late innings. That includes the ninth.

“We are likely to continue to use guys in a variety of roles late in the game,” general manager Matt Klentak said on the day he signed Robertson, who has three 30-plus save seasons in his career.

Nine different relievers recorded a save for the Phillies last season, led by Dominguez with 16. He certainly has the stuff to close, but he also has value as a kill shot when the game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning. Neris had a few difficult months last season and ended up in the minors. But he was a beast after rediscovering his splitter and his confidence and struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced over the final six weeks of the season.

Will Aaron Nola’s arbitration case cause problems?

Probably not. There were similar worries when Ryan Howard went to court over salary in 2008 and he ended up signing two long-term extensions with the club. Of course, he won his high profile, $10 million arbitration case after an MVP award and 105 homers and 285 RBIs the previous two seasons.

Nola's case will be heard on Feb. 14, the second day of official workouts, and he is expected to attend the hearing. The pitcher, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, and his representatives are seeking $6.75 million. They will build their case around the pitcher’s third-place finish in the Cy Young voting last season. If that doesn’t convince the arbitration panel that he is worth the money, maybe these stats will: Nola finished fourth in the majors in ERA (2.37) and quality starts (25) and fifth in innings (212 1/3) and WHIP (0.97) in 2018.   

The Houston Astros paid Dallas Keuchel $7.25 million in his first arbitration year after he won the AL Cy Young in 2016 and Nola’s side sees that as a legitimate comparable. The Phillies’ offer of $4.5 million seems to be more in line with what Matt Harvey ($4.35 million) and Jacob deGrom ($4.05 million) got in their first year of arbitration.

This is business: A player looking to capitalize on a big year and a team trying to toe the industry line. It’s difficult to see there being a lot of fallout from a process that both sides understand so well. And, either way, the team is likely to explore a long-term extension with Nola in the near future and the pitcher would be very interested in that.

Are they done adding?

Clearly, the team thought it needed more starting pitching, hence the offers it made to lefty starters Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, both of whom signed elsewhere. The Phils could still look to fill their lefty void by signing someone like Keuchel to a short-term deal. The team has also continually monitored the market for closer Craig Kimbrel. Even if the Phils don’t add another reliever, they may have to subtract from a crowded bullpen before the spring is over. Tommy Hunter has been shopped for a deal. The construction of this pitching staff will continue through July and you’ll hear the name Madison Bumgarner a lot if the Phils are within striking distance.

Whither Eick?

Jerad Eickhoff was the team’s best starting pitcher in 2016, but he’s been plagued by injury the last two seasons. Off-season surgery to address a condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome has Eickhoff back on track and ready to challenge for a rotation spot.

Who will step forward?

Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are all talented and they’ve all racked up valuable experience the last couple of seasons. Much of this team’s success will ride on one or two of these guys becoming consistently successful behind Nola and Jake Arrieta.

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