PHILADELPHIA -- There was a minor kerfuffle last spring when the Phillies announced that veteran Jeremy Hellickson would be their Opening Day starter. Some thought, based on his work the previous season, Jerad Eickhoff deserved it more.Among those, by the way, was Hellickson. But, he added, Eickhoff would undoubtedly get
PHILADELPHIA -- There was a minor kerfuffle last spring when the Phillies announced that veteran Jeremy Hellickson would be their Opening Day starter. Some thought, based on his work the previous season, Jerad Eickhoff deserved it more.
Among those, by the way, was Hellickson. But, he added, Eickhoff would undoubtedly get that honor multiple times in his career.
Well, things can change quickly in baseball. Eickhoff's mechanics were out of whack early. That led to nerve irritation which led to numbness in his fingers and elbow, leading to him missing the final month of the regular season while on the disabled list.
It's also one of the reasons there's been so much focus on the Phillies' quest to add a proven starting pitcher. That could still happen, but with the first workout for pitchers and catchers in Clearwater, Fla., less than a month away, the reality is that it might not.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The 27-yer-old Eickhoff, in town to take part in the team's offseason promotional activities, said Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park that he's healthy and has ironed out the problems in his delivery. That's why he believes he can bounce back from four wins, a 4.71 earned run average and 128 innings last season after 11 wins, a 3.65 ERA and 197 1/3 innings in 2016.
And let's take a look at the bigger picture, a group photo that includes Aaron Nola (who will be 24 on Opening Day), Vince Velasquez (25), Nick Pivetta (25), Zach Eflin (23), Ben Lively (26), Jake Thompson (24) and Mark Leiter Jr. (27).
It's fair to assume there are spots reserved for Nola and Eickhoff if they're healthy. The rest all had their moments, but none has been consistent enough to lock down a spot before camp opens. That's what has led the Phillies, sensibly, to explore all options to add another starter.
Here's the thing, though. While there are exceptions, pitchers tend to develop more slowly than position players.
Example: The reigning Cy Young Award winners are Max Scherzer of the Nationals and Corey Kluber of the Indians.
From 2008 through 2011, Scherzer was 36-35 with a 3.92 earned run average while being traded from the D-backs to the Tigers. It wasn't until he was 27 and in his fifth big league season that he harnessed his potential to become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Kluber was 2-5, 5.35 ERA in 12 starts in 2011 and 2012. He turned 27 the following April and has won the Cy Young twice in the last four years and also finished third in the balloting once.
Another example: Jacob Arrieta turned it around when he was 28. In his first four years, mostly with the Orioles, his ERA was 5.23. It's been 2.67 since then, and he won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015.
Example: Greg Maddux was a combined 8-18, 5.59 in 1986 and 1987. Tom Glavine was 33-41 with a 4.29 ERA in his first three seasons. John Smoltz was 2-7 and posted a 5.48 ERA as a rookie. All three are now in the Hall of Fame. The list goes on.
That doesn't mean that every young pitcher who gets off to a slow start will blossom into a Hall of Famer or perennial All-Star, of course. But it does mean that it's silly to write off a youngster if he doesn't dominate from the moment he steps onto a big league mound for the first time, either.
"We have some guys who are extremely promising for any number of reasons," Phillies first-year manager Gabe Kapler said Tuesday. "Nick Pivetta lights me up because of his ability to miss bats at the top of the zone. Watching his video from last year, his slider can be electric at times. Eickhoff is very, very interesting on a number of levels. Across the board we have a lot of 'What are we going to see?' rather than what we can depend on."
So, if general manager Matt Klentak doesn't find a deal for starting pitching he feels is beneficial, the worst thing that happens is that these youngsters will get a chance to build on the mixed success they've had so far at the big league level. And that's even before thinking about 23-year-old right-hander Tom Eshelman, who was 10-3, 2.23 in 18 starts after being promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last year.
Leiter believes that all the arms needed are already on the roster.
"Sometimes people are just looking for big names. Sometimes people are just looking for status," he said. "But I think if you give some of our guys a chance and let them grow, you're going to see some really good pitching.
"[Making the jump to the Major Leagues] is a big adjustment. You're facing the best of the best and they've seen a lot of pitching. You've only seen some big league hitters on rehab or whatever. But when you get the chance to keep competing (against them), you see that you belong and you can compete at this level. This year should be a lot of fun and hopefully we surprise a lot of people."
Eickhoff threw off the mound for the third time this offseason on Monday. When he finishes he sends a video tape of the session to pitching coach Rick Kranitz, whose feedback has been positive.
"I have a lot of confidence," Eickhoff said. "There are a lot of guys who have done a lot of things and still have a lot to prove ... We're going to be OK regardless."
No matter what, Kapler is anxious to start.
"I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look," he said.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.