Phillies' Dominant Young Rotation Could Be Catalyst for Surprise Year

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2016

Phillies right-hander Vincent Velasquez
Phillies right-hander Vincent VelasquezMatt Slocum/Associated Press

Watch your backs, opposing hitters. There's a gang of gunslingers in the National League East, and they've got their sights aimed at you.

We're not talking about the New York Mets, though their starting rotation is indeed sterling despite some early hiccups.

No, we're going to sing the praises of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Perhaps you're wiping coffee off your screen after a cinematic spit take. These are the Phillies, after all, the club that lost 99 games last season. The former juggernaut that collapsed under the weight of its expensive, fading veterans and appeared destined for a painful, protracted rebuild.

It's early. No one is anointing the Phils as NL favorites. But, largely on the strength of its arms, Philadelphia could exceed expectations and give a hope-starved fanbase something besides cheese steaks to chew on. 

It begins with Vincent Velasquez, acquired this winter in the trade that sent closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros

Velasquez has mostly dominated for the Phillies after arriving from Houston in the Ken Giles trade.
Velasquez has mostly dominated for the Phillies after arriving from Houston in the Ken Giles trade.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Even after taking the loss in the Mets' 11-1 drubbing of the Phillies on Tuesday, the 23-year-old right-hander owns a minuscule 0.93 ERA. Overall, he's surrendered 11 hits and two earned runs over 19.1 innings with 29 strikeouts.

He made franchise history in his second start of the season, a complete-game shutout against the San Diego Padres, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Vincent Velasquez nearly made Phillies history in MLB's first complete game of the season https://t.co/1xT2agCSv3 https://t.co/S8fStWG2Vv

"It looks like we made a pretty good trade," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said after that game, per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki and AJ Cassavell.

Speaking of trade acquisitions, Jerad Eickhoff—acquired from the Texas Rangers in the Cole Hamels deal—has posted a 1.89 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 19 innings. 

Eickhoff doesn't overpower with high-90s heat, but he throws a plus curveball that catcher Cameron Rupp said the 25-year-old right-hander will "live and die on," per Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer

Then there's 22-year-old Aaron Nola, a first-round pick by the Phils in 2014. Nola has given up 12 earned runs in 19 innings and owns a 0-2 record, but he's also compiled an impressive 23 strikeouts. 

Former first-round pick Aaron Nola joins a talented young starting five.
Former first-round pick Aaron Nola joins a talented young starting five.Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

Add 29-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, who's struck out 14 in 14.2 innings over three starts, and you've got the makings of a special group.

In 2011, the Phillies featured a vaunted super-rotation that included Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hamels. That team, not coincidentally, won 102 games.

The 2016 starting five is a long, long way from matching that rotation's track record. We're still squarely in small-sample territory.

Last season, though, everyone assumed the Washington Nationals would run away with the NL East. Then the Mets crashed the party, largely on the strength of their burgeoning arms. 

Plus, 2015 witnessed two other youthful squads—the Astros and Chicago Cubsarrive ahead of schedule. 

There's no guarantee the Phillies will follow suit. They're 6-9 entering play Wednesday, after all.

But marry that promising pitching to an offense led by third baseman and emerging star Maikel Franco, and suddenly it's plausible to picture the Phils as something other than division doormats.

Sure, you can inject a dose of pessimism.

That same offense entered Wednesday second-to-last in baseball with a .211 average. 

It's entirely possible these young pitchers could sliplike so many others have—as the league inevitably adjusts. Eickhoff and Hellickson, in particular, lack the pedigree to stand credibly in the can't-miss category.

Then again, Phils starters have opened 2016 with a head-turning output, as NJ Advance Media's Joe Giglio explained:

Heading into play on April 15, the Phillies rotation owned the following numbers: 10.71 SO/9, 1.71 BB/9 and a 2.14 ERA.

Here's some perspective on just how ridiculous those numbers are. In the entire history of baseball, only 12 individual seasons have ever happened where a starter had at least 10 SO/9, 2-or-less BB/9 and an ERA under 3.00. Martinez (1999, 2000 and 2002) and ex-Phillies great Curt Schilling (2001, 2002, 2003) are the only pitchers to do it three separate times.

Schilling's name has been evoked, which means we're getting serious.

Possibly, we're getting too serious too soon. The list of pitchers who have wowed for a few starts and then fizzled is too extensive to repeat here.

The Phillies, though, have a good thing going. The potential is palpable. Their gunslingers are lined up.

Now, it's time to see how hardand fastthey can squeeze the trigger.

All statistics current as of April 19 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.