Arrieta is over. He was a Cy Young Award winner five years ago, but that was with the Chicago Cubs. He has been a huge disappointment since signing a three-year, big dollars free agent contract with the Phillies. His time is past.
Howard isn’t fully ready. He is the Phillies top pitching prospect, but has made fewer than a handful of starts in Major League Baseball and hasn’t looked particularly impressive in any of them. He now has a spot in the big-league rotation largely because of the failure of others. His time is coming…down the road.
But whatever the fans feel about these two pitchers, one thing is absolutely certain. The ultimate fate of the 2020 Philadelphia Phillies season would appear to rest squarely on their right arms.
The Phillies offensive attack has averaged 5.6 runs-per-game, third in all of baseball and nearly a full run better than the 4.78 they averaged in the 2019 campaign.
Relief pitching – the weak link all year – has been bolstered by the addition of four new arms within the last week via trade and the move of Vince Velasquez to the bullpen.
The starting rotation is led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, a pair of true aces who have pitched at that level almost every time out. Zach Eflin has developed into a legitimate strikeout pitcher. The Phillies have won four of his five starts, and he appears on the verge of settling in as a long-term member of the rotation at age 26.
Now, as the calendar has flipped to September 1, the Phillies are at the exact .500 mark with a 15-15 mark. That means they are also exactly halfway through the scheduled 60-game regular season.
The Phillies are tied with the Miami Marlins for second place in the National League East Division, three games behind the front-running Atlanta Braves. The top two teams in each division will make the postseason, as will two other Wildcard teams. Their current record has the club tied with the Marlins and Saint Louis Cardinals for fifth overall in the NL, so as of now they are a playoff team.
What the Phillies really want is to not be struggling for one of those last playoff spots. It would be much more ideal if they could go on the kind of run that would push them a half-dozen or more games above the .500 mark. They may already be on that run, having gone 10-6 over the last few weeks.
Matt Gelb, a beat writer with The Athletic who covers the team, sat down and scrawled out a likely Phillies rotation for this final month, one that would keep Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin on an every-five-days regular rotation turn. Manager Joe Girardi may not actually follow Gelb’s plan, and circumstances including weather, COVID-19, and injuries could interject themselves into any such best-laid plans.
However, using Gelb’s work as an outline, it would appear that Arrieta would make five more starts and Howard would make four. In addition, due to numerous doubleheaders, the team is going to have to find a 6th starter three times and a 7th starter twice.
Arrieta has gone 2-4 with a 6.49 ERA and 1.557 WHIP, allowing 31 hits over 26.1 innings across a half-dozen starts with an 18/10 K:BB ratio. Howard is 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.860 WHIP, allowing 24 hits over 16.2 innings with a 15/7 K:BB. If they are going to eat up nine of the Phillies final 30 games, nearly one-third of the remaining schedule, both pitchers simply must perform better.
And when the time comes for those 6th and 7th starter opportunities, a couple of other arms are going to have to step on the mound and keep the Phillies in those games. Look for Velasquez, Ranger Suarez, Cole Irvin, and possibly JoJo Romero to get those opportunities, with the bullpen hopefully rested and aligned to pitch at least half of those bonus starts.
The Phillies buried themselves a little with a 5-9 start to this whacky pandemic-shortened season. But they appear to have righted the ship and shored up their primary weakness. Over this final month it will be up to the back-end rotation pitchers Arrieta and Howard to step up and turn this from a .500 nail-biting finish to one where the Phillies could actually be fighting for a division crown.