The first hint that the Phillies planned to stick with a five-man rotation came Wednesday, when Aaron Nola said he had not heard a peep about a six-man rotation since he arrived in Clearwater, Fla., for Spring Training.
Fine by him.
Fine by others, too.
“I’d rather pitch on normal rest,” Nola said. “It’s what we’re all used to, it’s what I'm used to. I want to make 33-plus starts a year. This year, too. That’s always been my goal. I want to throw, get past the 200-inning mark and 30 starts every year. It’s what I try and prepare my body for.”
There has been talk about Major League teams implementing six-man rotations following last season’s 60-game schedule. Pitchers used to throwing 175-200 innings finished in the 60-70 range last year. The idea of a six-man rotation is this: reduce the wear and tear on pitchers and give them extra rest as they rebuild arm strength. The Mariners already said their six-man rotation will return after using one last year. The Tigers have discussed rotating top prospects from Triple-A to the Majors to keep arms fresh. The Cubs are looking at their rotation differently, too.
“The idea of a set five-man rotation is not going to be real thing,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “I just think you’re better off getting your mind around that.”
Even teams like the Mets with established starters say they are open to using openers to help monitor workloads of starters.
The Phillies, however, think a traditional five-man setup can work, even coming out of a 60-game season.
“It becomes tricky,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “Some guys are going to go a long time between starts. I know there’s been a lot of talk about teams considering doing that, but right now we have not. We plan on having a five-man rotation. There’s days off that kind of create a sixth day at times. I would not be against it, if we get into a long stretch and we see some fatigue in our guys, inserting a guy for a couple times through to make it six so they can catch their breath and go from there.”
It makes sense. Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin anchor the top of the Phillies’ rotation. If the Phils are going to win in 2021, they are going to need those three on the mound as much as possible. Philadelphia's starters had a combined 7.0 WAR last season, according to FanGraphs, which ranked third in the Majors.
Nola, Wheeler and Eflin had a combined 5.5 WAR.
Nola threw 212 1/3 innings in 2018 and 202 1/3 innings in '19 before pitching 71 1/3 innings last year. Wheeler threw 182 1/3 in '18 and 195 1/3 in '19 before reaching 71 last season. Eflin threw 128 in '18 and 163 1/3 in '19 before pitching 59 last year.
“I can see it being a challenge for people that might be a little worried about it, but personally I’m not worried about it,” Eflin said. “I’ve always been a guy where I’ve always wanted the ball. So I’m just going to stick with that. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a deal for me, personally, because I feel like I've done enough in the offseason to prepare to make that next step from five-plus innings to however much this year. I feel like I'm in a good position and really ready to rock and roll.”
Eflin started his throwing program a month earlier than in offseasons past to make up for lost time in 2020.
He entered camp with nine bullpen sessions under his belt.
Previously, he might throw only three or four.
If the Phillies can successfully monitor Nola, Wheeler and Eflin, some combination of Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard can round out the final two spots. Girardi said again Friday it is an open competition. Moore and Anderson are starters who signed one-year contracts, but no promises were made.
“I communicated with them that they were fighting for the fourth and fifth slots with Vinny and Spencer,” Girardi said. “They welcomed the challenge. They were excited about being here. They understand what’s in front of them and what they need to do.”
The Phillies know what they need to do, too: give Nola, Wheeler and Eflin the ball as much as possible.
“We all want the ball as soon as we can,” Eflin said. “I think we've done enough preparation this offseason as a staff to be able to put ourselves in that position. I think we're going to kind of coast right into it and it'll just be like every other year.”