What is the Phils' short- and long-term pitching situation?

March 15th, 2022

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies still need a big bat in left field if they want to compete with the best teams in the National League. 

They need to pitch well, too. The Phils like their chances there because they like their rotation. It might be their greatest strength, in fact, with a mix of former All-Stars and NL Cy Young Award candidates who can pitch deep into games.

“We want our seven [innings],” Philadelphia right-hander Aaron Nola said on Tuesday. “I feel like every one of us has done that in our careers. We know how to get to that point. That’s what we want to do.”

But it is a rotation with short- and long-term uncertainties. NL Cy Young Award runner-up Zack Wheeler entered camp already behind schedule after experiencing right shoulder soreness in December. He threw off a mound on Monday at BayCare Ballpark for the first time since last season, but he will not pitch on Thursday as scheduled because he has the flu. The Phillies hoped that Wheeler could pitch the first week of the season, if not on Opening Day. 

But now?

“I don’t really know,” Phils manager Joe Girardi said. “As of right now, I really don’t know. But it’s not the most opportune time to get [the flu]. You can sometimes cover when you don't have a short Spring Training, but it's hard when you do.”

Left-hander Ranger Suárez is scheduled to arrive at camp on Wednesday. He is late because of visa issues. The Phillies heard that Suárez has been throwing in Colombia, but they will not know how truly ready he is until they see him.

The Phils will not rush Wheeler or Suárez. They need them for the long haul. So if they miss the first week, they miss the first week.

But right-hander Zach Eflin is ahead of schedule, which is good news. He threw an up-down bullpen session on Tuesday morning. In September, Eflin had surgery to repair the patellar tendon and insert a small anchor into the kneecap in his right knee. At the time, the Phillies said he might not return until sometime from March to May. But Eflin said he has thrown off a mound seven to nine times already, so he expects to be ready by Opening Day.

“I don’t think I could be in a better position, physically and mentally,” Eflin said. “I went into the offseason training as if I would be ready the first week of the season, regardless of what anybody was telling me. I’m just glad I prepared that way. ... If you ask me, I’m ready to go.”

Nola and Kyle Gibson are on schedule. Nola threw 25 pitches in live batting practice on Tuesday at Carpenter Complex, facing Rhys Hoskins, Alec Bohm, Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura. So assuming Eflin stays on course and Wheeler and Suárez get back on track, the Phillies could feature a rotation that can rack up innings like few in the Majors.

But there is some long-term intrigue with this group.

Wheeler is under contract through 2024, while Suárez is under team control through ‘25. But Nola is entering the final season of a four-year, $45 million contract, although he has an affordable $16 million club option for ‘23. It would take something unexpected for the Phillies to decline it, but the option is there. Eflin will be a free agent for the first time after the season, which makes this a huge year for him. He should have no shortage of suitors, if he stays healthy and pitches well.

Gibson is a free agent after the season, too.

“Every year is big, but I think I’ve missed enough time during my tenure here that I feel like, especially this offseason, the mentality was to be ready the first week and really give the team every bit of me,” Eflin said. “So that’s kind of been the process throughout the whole thing. Just show up prepared and ready to go, not even think about surgery and just go pitch.”

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Nola said. “But I love this place. I’m just going to take this year like I do every year and go out and try to win.”

It is a rotation that is talented enough to carry the Phillies to the postseason for the first time since 2011. They will need some help, of course. They will need to stay healthy, too.