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What lies ahead for Phillies' starting staff?

Arrieta: 'We have to pitch better as a rotation' in 2020
@ToddZolecki
September 28, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies’ front office spent Wednesday with manager Gabe Kapler and his staff in a conference room at the team’s hotel just outside Washington. There, they discussed everybody on the 40-man roster, including the starting pitchers. It will not be the last time. The rotation severely disappointed this

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies’ front office spent Wednesday with manager Gabe Kapler and his staff in a conference room at the team’s hotel just outside Washington. There, they discussed everybody on the 40-man roster, including the starting pitchers.

It will not be the last time.

The rotation severely disappointed this season. It must improve next season if the team plans to compete with the Braves, Nationals and Mets in the National League East. The front office believed it entered the year with one of the top 10 rotations in the Majors, based upon key metrics it uses to evaluate talent and performance. But the rotation will finish ranked toward the bottom in those categories. It could play a role in the job status of Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young.

“We have to pitch better as a rotation,” said Jake Arrieta, who went 8-8 with a 4.64 ERA in 24 starts this season. “That just kind of sets the tone for everything. We didn’t do that consistently throughout the season.

“Somebody always has to get blamed in situations like this. Frankly, we didn’t make [Young] look very good based on the way we threw the ball. It wasn’t necessarily [former hitting coach John] Mallee’s fault when he was let go. It was time for a change. But I think 'CY' and 'Kap' do a great job. They communicate well and they give us the information we need and perform. Honestly, we just didn’t perform very well. Naturally, it reflects on them in certain regards.”

Right-handers Aaron Nola and Arrieta figure to be two-fifths of the Phillies’ rotation next season. Nola is the ace. Arrieta is entering the final season of a three-year, $75 million contract. He underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow last month, will begin playing catch in a couple weeks and will be ready to roll come Spring Training.

“Now I’m going to be in position to pitch like I’m capable of,” Arrieta said. “That’s a great feeling. The surgery is going to put me in a position where I can get back to where I was a couple of years ago.”

The three remaining jobs in the 2020 rotation are less secure. Right-hander Zach Eflin allowed three runs over 7 2/3 innings in Saturday night's 9-3 win over the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. He has distanced himself from righties Vince Velasquez (7-8, 4.91 ERA) and Nick Pivetta (4-6, 5.46 ERA). Eflin is a smart bet to be in next season’s rotation.

Left-handers Drew Smyly (3-2, 4.45 ERA with Philly) and Jason Vargas (1-4, 5.37 ERA as a Phillie) finished the season in the rotation. Smyly will be a free agent this offseason. The Phillies have a $2 million buyout or an $8 million club option for Vargas. Anything can happen, but it seems likely the Phillies will look toward other free agents to fill any remaining holes in the rotation. Names include Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Dallas Keuchel, Wade Miley and Cole Hamels.

The Phillies plan to have another big offseason, which puts them in the running for Cole.

Whether or not Kapler and Young return, it will be interesting to see if the Phillies adjust their pitching philosophy. They stressed four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone for pitchers like Eflin, Velasquez and Pivetta. Eflin ditched the approach later in the season because he tired of pumping fastballs, looking for swings and misses, when he believed he could get batters to swing at his sinker earlier in the count and get groundouts. Velasquez and Pivetta had success at times, but if they missed with their location, it cost them.

“Baseball is a very complex game, but at the same time, you get guys out the same way you always have,” Arrieta said. “That’s not going to change. If you want to boil it down, you’re trying to get ahead of guys and keep them off-balance. I’m not a huge fan of the overemphasis on fastballs up with curveballs below the strike zone because, frankly, if guys can’t pitch down and away, they’re not going to be able to consistently throw the ball in the same spot up.

“Down and away has always been one of the best pitches in the game, and it always will be. That still needs to be taught. That has to be muscle memory, second nature. You have to be able to throw glove side down. That’s never going to change. And that makes the fastball up at the top of the zone more effective. But if you’re just allowing guys to consistently sit and look elevated up in the zone, when you do miss two balls down [in the zone], those are home runs. Trying to go up 0-0, 0-1, 1-0 -- no, no. Down and away is good. Let’s not forget that.”

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .