Hog Blog: Arms race in clearwater

With bevy of good arms in Phillies camp, expect Pigs to boast strong rotation in 2018

Jake Thompson could be back with the IronPigs to start the 2018 season. (Cheryl Pursell) (Cheryl Pursell)

By Pat McCarthy / Lehigh Valley IronPigs | February 16, 2018 5:27 PM

In this week's Pork Barrel Blog, IronPigs media assistant Pat McCarthy takes a look at the Phillies' pitching rotation possibilities and what they mean for the IronPigs' 2018 rotation.

Camp is in full swing so over coming weeks, we will break down some of the position battles and the potential impact they have on the Phillies and IronPigs. We begin with the starting rotation that has a true battle for the first time since 2009 when Chan Ho Park and JA Happ battled for a starting spot.

Aaron Nola is truly the only "lock" for the Phillies, with Vince Valasquez, Jared Eickoff and Nick Pivetta heavy favorites to be in the rotation come Opening Day. But that leaves the final spot in the rotation wide open. The Phillies have a number of players on their 40-man roster who have big league experience and could fill that role.

Ben Lively is the early favorite. He made 15 starts for Philadelphia last season and was one of the top rookie pitchers in quality starts. Jake Thompson was once considered the top-pitching prospect in the Phillies organization but struggled with Lehigh Valley after being the IL Pitcher of the Year in 2016. Thompson, 24, was recalled to Philadelphia in September and was very effective in his eight starts posting an ERA just above 3.

After a strong 2016 many people thought Zach Eflin would open the 2017 season in the Phillies starting rotation, but injuries limited Eflin to just 11 starts in 2017, matching his big league start total from the previous season. Eflin has a very high ceiling and, at just 23-years-old, could crack the rotation with a strong spring and prove the pair of complete games he tossed in his rookie season were not a fluke.

Mark Leiter is another candidate for the job after a very impressive rookie year. The 26-year-old will likely open the season with the Phillies either in the bullpen as a long reliever or as a full time starter. Making 26 appearances and 11 starts for the Phillies, Leiter tallied three wins and 4.96 ERA in his 90.2 big league innings.

The darkhorse amongst the bunch is IL All-star and non-roster invitee Tom Eshelman. Had the 23-year-old been eligible for the Rule 5 Draft the Phillies would likely have protected him on the 40-man roster. But because of the limited space and the need to protect those who could have been selected, Eshelman was left off and invited to big league camp as a non-roster player. That said, if Eshelman proves he is worthy of a spot in the big leagues, do not count out the possibility of the righty being added to the active roster and opening the season with the team.

The Phillies recently brought in former Blue Jay and Pirate Drew Hutchison on a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. Hutchinson's best season came back in 2015 with Toronto when he made 28 starts and went 13-5 and tossed a complete game shutout. Last season with Indianapolis, the 27-year-old went 9-9 with a 3.56 ERA in 26 starts for the Indians.

Any of these players who do not make the rotation could form an incredibly strong Triple-A staff for new IronPigs Manager Gary Jones if the Phillies elect to send them to the Lehigh Valley. Every one of these pitchers has had great success in the IL and could be part of a stout rotation that heads to Pawtucket on April 6. Depending on how things go, the Pigs could be looking at a rotation with a former 15 game winner, a pair of Paul Owens Award winners and an IL Pitcher of the Year.

This highly talented pitching group may not be complete, either. It's all speculation, but there are a number of big-name free agents out there that the Phillies could potentially land.

The team has already been linked to Jake Arrietta, though it's unlikely that they sign the former Cy Young winner. The Phillies have shown they are willing to spend by bringing in Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter on short term deals with while still giving out enough money to make it worth their while. So if the Phillies can convince Arrietta's agent Scott Boras that it is worth it for the former TCU Horned Frog to come to the City of Brotherly Love for say 3 years at 20-25 million a year plus some incentives it may make some sense for the Phillies to bring in the 31-year-old.

Other names out there include Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn, who are both younger than Arrietta but come with much more risk. Both have had success in the bigs but are coming off Tommy John surgery. It has become "normal" for a pitcher to have gone under the knife but the Phillies window is about to be wide open with their young crop of talent and they want to make sure they are spending their money wisely.

Keep an eye out for the next Hog Blog breakdown of the bullpen and catching battles in camp and the impact they could have on the IronPigs.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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