Before the Phillies could get into a pennant race again, they had to rejoin the arms race. It seemed in a blink of an eye they went from having Four Aces in their starting rotation to five blank spaces.
That absurdly low 2.86 ERA the starting rotation posted in 2011 has not been below 4.41 in the last three seasons, and the Phillies' starters have not posted an ERA in the top half of baseball since 2012.
That should change immediately with the pending free-agent addition of Jake Arrieta. With Arrieta and Aaron Nola at the top of their rotation, the Phillies have a chance to be a top-10 starting rotation again.
How important is that? Last season, eight of the 10 teams to reach the postseason had starting-rotation ERAs that ranked in the top 10 in baseball. The number was seven in 2016 and 2015. You want to be good, you better have starting pitching. That, of course, is not breaking news. We knew that long before any team had an analytics department.
Never miss a local story.
The Phillies' best immediate hope beyond the new top duo of Arrieta and Nola is that Jerad Eickhoff rebounds from the shoulder strain that prematurely ended his difficult 2017 season. If he can pitch like the guy who was the team's best starter in 2016, the Phillies have a potential top-10 rotation. It's not a stretch at all to think that can happen, although the team would surely like to see Eickhoff perform better in his remaining Grapefruit League starts than he has in his first three.
Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta hold the keys to taking the Phillies' rotation to the level of the elite. They have the power arms capable of blowing away opposing hitters. What we have yet to see from either of the 25-year-old right-handers is the consistency needed to be among the best in the game. Glimpses of greatness have far too often been followed by lapses in concentration that lead to walks, home runs and elevated pitch counts. In the still-early stages of spring training, Velasquez has shown improvement; Pivetta has not.
The title of best rotation in the National League East still belongs to the Washington Nationals, the only team in baseball that has had a starting-pitching ERA of 3.70 or lower each of the last six seasons.
Arrieta, 32, and Nola, 24, do not match up with mighty Max Scherzer, 33, and Stephen Strasburg, 29. And the Nats' Gio Gonzalez, 32, is far and away the best third starter in the division, if not all of baseball. There's every reason to believe that the Nats will continue to have one of the best rotations in baseball for the foreseeable future because Scherzer is signed through 2021 and Strasburg is signed through 2023.
Only Gonzalez, whose velocity dipped some in 2017, figures to be out of the mix after this season because he is eligible for free agency at the end of this year.
Believe it or not, the Phillies had the second-lowest rotation ERA in the NL East a year ago, but only because somebody had to. Four of the bottom 10 teams in baseball were from the division.
On paper, however, the New York Mets still have the second-best rotation. Reports out of Port St. Lucie, Fla., say that Thor – Noah Syndergaard – is consistently hitting triple digits on the radar gun after being limited to seven starts a year ago by an arm injury.
If he returns to 2016 form and Jacob deGrom continues his development as one of the top pitchers in the league, the Phillies' top pair of Arrieta and Nola will rank a notch below the Mets' top tandem. But after Syndergaard and deGrom, the Mets have become a rotation of enigmas with the biggest one being whether Matt Harvey will ever be dominant again.
The advantage the Phillies have over the Nationals and Mets is a greater abundance of pitching prospects. If Velasquez and Pivetta do not perform out of the gate, they will be pushed by Zach Eflin, Ben Lively and Mark Leiter Jr., all of whom have big-league experience. If guys like Sixto Sanchez and Franklyn Kilome climb the minor-league ladder fast enough, the Phillies could have the best young rotation in the division by 2020.
The only NL East team that can compare to the Phillies in terms of pitching prospects is the Atlanta Braves. Julio Teheran, 27, has yet to develop into the ace they thought he would become and the rest of the Braves' projected rotation this year is a roll call of spot holders for top prospects like Kyle Wright and Mike Soroka.
As for the Miami Marlins, they will have a starting rotation because baseball requires it. It will be surprising if it's not the worst in baseball.
The Phillies, meanwhile, now have a veteran presence at the top of their rotation and a potential rising star in Nola. They are back in the arms race and might even have a chance to be in the wild-card race.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bob Brookover is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.