PT TOMORROW: NL East—Velasquez looks to paint the corners

Philadelphia Phillies

The book on the Phillies is that they lack SP depth—and that’s been true for a few seasons running. Adding Zack Wheeler (RHP, PHI) as a free agent helped, as the former Mets fireballer has shown flashes of true dominance. But Wheeler’s wife is due to give birth to the couple’s first child in a couple weeks, and the dad-to-be has expressed his reservations to Phillies execs about playing through the pandemic, apparently leaving the door open to opt out if he felt uncomfortable with how the health and safety situation evolved.

Right now, the team has only Jake Arrieta (RHP, PHI) inked into the rotation behind ace Aaron Nola (RHP, PHI) and Wheeler. After those three, two of Vincent Velasquez (RHP, PHI), Zach Eflin (RHP, PHI), and Nick Pivetta (RHP, PHI) will be penciled in to round out the staff. Reports have Velasquez pulling ahead of that pack with the help of a new pitch—a cutter—that has impressed new manager Joe Girardi (“He’s looked really good”) and catcher Jacob Realmuto (“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his change-up a lot more than he has in the past…we're not going to be so one-dimensional with him”).

Eflin has been battling back spasms, which could determine whether he begins the season in the rotation or cedes the spot to Pivetta. Eflin had a rollercoaster 2019, shifting back and forth between SP and RP roles before finally settling down and delivering a solid final eight starts (3.20 ERA, 4.52 xFIP). The results were good but the skills regressed, as he traded dominance (6 K/9) for GB% (52.5%). Pivetta got shelled in his most recent intrasquad appearance (3 IP, 5 R) and is most likely ticketed for the bullpen, but given Wheeler’s baby, Arrieta’s health (bone spur R elbow in ’19, “D” Health), and the uncertainty surrounding Velasquez and Eflin, we should expect to see Pivetta get a few starts.

The shiny new toy that everyone is excited about in Philadelphia is prospect Spencer Howard (RHP, PHI). BHQ has Howard pegged as the team’s #1 prospect, giving him a 9C rating and the realistic ceiling of a #2/#3. Armed with a four-pitch mix that all flash plus—including a fastball that touches 99—last year, Howard made mincemeat of opposing hitters with Single-A Clearwater (12.34 K/9, 1.29 BB/9, 1.77 xFIP) and Double-A Reading (11.15 K/9, 2.64 BB/9, 2.66 xFIP). He’s advanced, he has dominant stuff, and the Phillies will likely have a need in the rotation at some point; go ahead and target Howard in the later rounds.

 

Atlanta Braves

The Braves lost former rotation contender Felix Hernandez (RHP, ATL) a couple weeks ago after he opted out of the season for personal reasons. More recently, Cole Hamels (LHP, ATL) was sidelined with triceps tendinitis, costing him the Opening Day start against the Mets at the very least—and at worst, jeopardizing what could become a significant chunk of this truncated season. Even if Hamels is cleared to resume throwing, he won’t be able to get stretched out in time to throw more than a small handful of innings during the first couple turns in the rotation. All of this speaks to Hamels as an ongoing health risk.

Early on, the Braves announced their intention to tap their pitching depth and deploy piggyback starters to begin the season. With Sean Newcomb (LHP, ATL) already locked into the fifth spot, some players who are likely to see bumps in PT include Kyle Wright (RHP, ATL), Bryse Wilson (RHP, ATL), and Ian Anderson (RHP, ATL). Wright was in contention to crack the rotation during the spring and pitched well (13 IP, 7 H, 3 BB, 15 K). Wilson has thrown all of 27 IP in MLB and has a 7.00 ERA and 1.85 WHIP to show for it. He has an above-average fastball in terms of velocity (94.8 mph), but his slider and change-up are still works in progress. Anderson is the top SP prospect in ATL according to BHQ’s Chris Blessing; his mid-rotation ceiling is based more on pitchability than raw stuff.

Two more names to be aware of are Josh Tomlin (RHP, ATL) and Touki Toussaint (RHP, ATL). Tomlin was a serviceable starter in CLE in 2016-17; since then, his Dom has fallen below 6.0 and his FB% has risen while settling into a spot starter/middle relief role. His calling card is his preternatural Cmd (7.3 over 79 IP in 2019, career 4.7 mark). Toussaint was also in the running for a spot in the spring (8.2 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 8 K) but was placed on the COVID-19 list on July 4. He was reportedly asymptomatic, so while he may not be ready to go on Opening Day, he could still jump into the fray before long.

 

Miami Marlins

The Marlins appear to have most of their rotation sorted out. They will lead with Sandy Alcantara (RHP, MIA) on Opening Day, followed by some combination of Jose Urena (RHP, MIA), Caleb Smith (LHP, MIA), and Pablo Lopez (RHP, MIA). That would leave Jordan Yamamoto (RHP, MIA) and Elieser Hernandez (RHP, MIA) fighting for the fifth spot.

Smith (LHP, MIA) complained of a sore neck during an intrasquad game on July 9, but manager Don Mattingly doesn’t appear to be too concerned. If that’s the case, then you shouldn’t be, either—although bear in mind that Smith does have an “F” reliability grade for health. Urena will get another shot in the rotation after finishing 2019 as the team’s closer, though his sinker-heavy approach (55.7% in ’19) will keep his K ceiling low. Interestingly, Urena recently mentioned that he was working on throwing his four-seamer more. Could he be onto something? Perhaps, if you go by FanGraphs’ 2019 Pitch Info Values /100 values (0.50 wFA/C vs -0.16 wSI/C). Lopez left camp to mourn his father’s passing; he showed plenty of promise in the first half of ’19 (4.23 ERA, 3.87 xERA, 49% GB%, 8.6 Dom, 4.1 Cmd, 124 BPV) before a shoulder injury derailed his season.

Yamamoto is presumed to have a leg up on Hernandez for the last spot in the rotation. Here’s the thing: last year, Yamamoto managed to outperform his results considering his middling skills (9.7 SwK%, 50 FpK%, 91.5 Vel) and luck (24% H%). Hernandez posted impressive SwK (11.7), FpK (65), and BPV (109) but struggled with fly balls (49% FB%, 2.2 HR/9). Both pitchers have warts, but Hernandez’s more exciting skills overall suggest a higher ceiling. Of course, both back-end options could eventually give way to Sixto Sanchez (RHP, MIA), the Marlins’ top prospect, who has shown a rare blend of stuff and command on his way up the minors and profiles as a potential #1 starter.

 

New York Mets

Mets fans and fantasy GMs held their collective breath on July 15 as Mets ace Jacob deGrom (RHP, NYM) underwent an MRI on his ailing back. The results came back clean—a huge relief—although deGrom’s availability for Opening Day is still in question as of this writing. The reigning NL Cy Young winner was aiming to throw 100 pitches to kick off the season against the Braves on July 23. Even if he’s able to stay on schedule, he may not be quite as stretched out as he’d originally hoped. For now, folks can take solace in the fact that deGrom has dealt with similar back issues in the spring before (2016, 2018) without serious consequence.

The deGrom scare was an unwelcome reminder of the team’s general lack of SP depth, especially with their #2 Noah Syndergaard (RHP, NYM) recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Mets have gone from a surplus in the rotation in 2019 to a bunch of question marks at the back end. The team will be counting on Marcus Stroman (RHP, NYM) to continue to deliver mid-rotation value; he was able to bump up his dominance after last year’s mid-season trade to New York (9.1 K/9 vs 7.2 with TOR) thanks to an increase in his SwK in Aug (11.0) and Sep (11.7). Interestingly, he achieved this while throwing more sinkers (34% w/TOR vs 40% w/NYM) and significantly fewer sliders (35% w/TOR vs 22% w/NYM).

When Rick Porcello (RHP, NYM) and Michael Wacha (RHP, NYM) signed during the offseason, each player insisted he was brought on to start in spite of a lack of spots. Now, they’re both projecting to make the rotation. From a playing time perspective, Porcello has been one of the most durable starters over the past decade-plus, resulting in well-earned “A” grades in Health and PT/Exp. Wacha, on the other hand, scores an “F” in Health and “B” in PT/Exp, having spent 114 days on the IL between 2018-19 due to oblique and knee injuries. When paired with the brittle Steven Matz (LHP, NYM) and his identical “F” and “B” scores, the Mets will have to hope that the health fairy is extra kind to them over the 60-game sprint.

Behind the front five, odds are Walker Lockett (RHP, NYM), David Peterson (LHP, NYM), and Corey Oswalt (RHP, NYM) will see at least some action. Lockett lives and dies by his ability to induce ground balls, as his dominance is well-below average. Peterson had success with the Mets Double-A affiliate in 2019 (9.47 K/9, 2.87 BB/9, 52.6% GB%, 2.91 xFIP); he has four pitches but none grades out better than average. Oswalt was solid in Triple-A last year (8.20 K/9, 1.56 BB.9) but has yet to translate those skills to MLB success (career 6.43 ERA in 71 IP).

 

Washington Nationals

With the Mets short-staffed, the Nationals have the most dominant rotation in the NL East by far. Max Scherzer (RHP, WAS), Stephen Strasburg (RHP, WAS), and Patrick Corbin (LHP, WAS) are in contention for best top-three in MLB.  Behind them, 36-year-old Anibal Sanchez (RHP, WAS) should have a better chance of delivering at least league-average results over an abbreviated number of innings. Austin Voth (RHP, WAS) has been a sleeper favorite for many touts. And then…well, there isn't a whole heck of a lot. Behind the Big Three, Washington’s rotation may be no deeper than any of their division rivals’. Let’s have a look at Sanchez, Voth, and what other SPs may come.

There are a few knocks on Sanchez, but one of the biggest may have been neutralized by the shortened season. He logged 166 IP in 2019, which was the most in a season since 2013 (182). We can reasonably assume that reaching a full season’s workload (60-65 IP) will be easier with the bar significantly lowered. But what about his performance? Sanchez has successfully delivered two straight profitable seasons since moving to the NL, although last year’s 3.85 ERA was undermined by a much less attractive 5.10 xFIP. A large part of that gap was probably due to his plummeting Dom (8.9 in 2018 vs 7.3 in ’19). However, his SwK showed much less variance over the same period (10.9 in 2018 vs 10.4 in ’19), suggesting that we could expect to see Ks bounce back some—assuming a repeat of that SwK rate, of course.

Voth quietly put up a spiffy 3.30 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 44 IP with WAS in 2019. Sure, he got a wee bit lucky (26% H%, 73% S%), but the skills really stood out: 9.1 Dom, 13.0 SwK, 104 PV. According to Arik Florimonte’s capsule in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster, Voth achieved that sterling swinging strike rate with the help of three different secondary pitches each achiving a 20% SwK or better. That, my friends, is remarkable; whether it’s repeatable is the $64,000 question. What doesn’t appear to be in question, however, is Voth’s path to playing time, especially after Joe Ross opted out of the season.

Voth’s main competition right now is Erick Fedde (RHP, WAS), who threw 51 pitches over four scoreless innings on July 15. Fedde was behind Voth when the plug was pulled on spring training, and if manager Dave Martinez bases most of his decision on that and other past performance, our money is on Voth logging more PT in 2020—and delivering better results.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.