PHILADELPHIA >> It was New Year’s Eve, 2015, when the door was kicked down. Soon, the rush inside would be consistent and frenzied. Soon, the Phillies’ strategy would be clear: If they were to recover as viable major-league contenders, they would do so with strength in pitching numbers.
At first, the idea seemed mild, with aged clubhouse irritant Marlon Byrd being moved in late December of 2014 to Cincinnati for a 23-year-old minor-league right-hander named Ben Lively. Soon, though — through trades, salary dumps, drafts, free-agent what-the-hecks and a policy that would be carried forth by two general managers — the franchise would be deep in intriguing pitchers.
So to various Phillies outposts they would rush: For spent shortstop Jimmy Rollins, there would be Zach Eflin; for Jon Papelbon, who by the end of his Phillies career would take to making rude hand gestures to the customers who’d made him $50,000,058 wealthier, there would arrive Nick Pivetta. Cole Hamels would go, but not cheaply; for a former World Series MVP, the Phillies would acquire, among other values, pitchers Jake Thompson, Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff.
Rotten baseball had won the Phils the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft. With that, they had already begun the arms collection by selecting Aaron Nola. Ken Giles, a fine closer but a luxury for a club not yet built to have many ninth-inning leads, would yield Vince Velasquez, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer and Mark Appel. And even if they were imported as likely trade-deadline lures, there would be the signings of veterans Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Clay Buchholz.
“You always hear about prospects,” Larry Bowa was saying recently. “But you know that not all of them make it.” That’s what his 50-plus years in professional baseball had accurately revealed. Yet that’s what made the Phillies’ approach to rebuilding so intriguing. Like a horse player leaving a betting window with two handfuls of tickets on the same race, the Phils knew most would wind up shredded on the floor. But all it would take would for one, two, maybe three of them to hit, and … cha-ching.
That was an unacceptable first half of a season the Phillies unfolded before this All-Star break, one filled with baserunning follies, hacked-at strike-threes, injuries, bullpen collapses, sinking prospects and more losses than any team in baseball. Not since World War II had the Phillies been as unsightly. “Ugly,” was Andy MacPhail’s description, and he runs the baseball operation. Yet … yet … yet somewhere in that mess, the Phillies have begun to show the formation of a young pitching rotation that is encouraging … and, understandably widely overlooked.
“Well, it is,” Pete Mackanin said, before high-tailing-it to the shore for a four-day reprieve. “These guys have been giving us innings. We may or may not have front-line, top-of-the rotation starters. But we’ve got a few guys that have a chance to be. It’s just good to see Lively, Nola, Pivetta. (Mark) Leiter’s done well. Eickhoff. We’re going to get Velasquez back in the second half.
“I’m looking forward to the second half.”
As the Phils hit the break, their starters had allowed three or fewer runs in their last eight starts. Over their final 20 games, they had a 3.21 ERA. Sunday, when he’d returned after a back injury, Eickhoff, 27, located his breaking pitches and struck out eight in five innings. The day before, Nola, 24, went eight innings and fanned nine. In seven innings Friday, Pivetta, 24, struck out nine with no walks. Lively, 25, recently had four consecutive quality starts.
From that mob of pitching newcomers, there is becoming clarity. Not that it has happened by pure baseball design. Rather, it has been from that chaos theory. Lively didn’t arrive in that long-thought-out plot to maximize the haul from Hamels; he was the toss-in from Cincinnati for Byrd. When Papelbon went, few raved about Pivetta. Yet he has been the Phils’ most intriguing pitcher of late. Nola, yes, arrived on a first-class ticket. Healthy, he is beginning to show why. Velasquez was in the Giles haul, has had arm troubles, but has struck out 53 in 50 innings. Eickhoff was just one of the arms acquired for Hamels. But one might be enough.
So maybe Thompson was less than ready. And Appel may never pitch to his pedigree as the No. 1 overall player selected in a draft. Buchholz and Morton were failed investments. Oberholtzer and Asher are gone already. Hellickson should be traded by month’s end. But Eshelman is having a good year in the minors. Eflin, when healthy, has had some moments. The Phils are even drawing more than expected from Leiter, a late-round, 2013 draft stab.
“I’ve liked just watching what Nick Pivetta did and what Lively has done,” Eickhoff said. “Nola was fun to watch in his last start. Guys are just pounding the strike zone. That’s what it’s all about. I’m just very fortunate to be a part of that.”
He’d be more fortunate to be a part of a two-million-yahoo carry-on on Broad Street some October. That’s not happening soon. But if baseball rebuilding starts with pitching, the Phillies quietly have begun to realize something: Strength in numbers can work.
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