CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies held their second workout for pitchers and catchers Thursday morning, but it's possible that the final piece of their starting rotation has yet to arrive.
Several free-agent arms are available — including Jake Arrieta — and Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said he has been busier this spring than in previous years because of the glut of free agents still unsigned. The Phillies have a rotation lined up with Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and whoever wins the fifth-starter competition. The Phillies could certainly use another pitcher.
"We're open to adding a starter if it makes sense for us, but even if we don't, we are confident that this starting pitching group is going to take a step forward because they are really talented and they're healthy," Klentak said. "We're watching them now, and they look great. The starting pitching market being as slow to develop as it has has allowed us to get to Clearwater and watch our guys and evaluate them and see the look in their eye and see the electricity in their pitches and regain that confidence in our young starting pitching."
The playoffs, Klentak said, are no longer the "pipe dream" they were in recent seasons. The Phillies have a young lineup and spent $34 million this winter to improve their bullpen, but the rotation has questions.
Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta — the three pitchers expected to slot behind Aaron Nola — combined for a 5.32 ERA last season. The Phillies still have to name a fifth starter, but their other pitchers, besides Nola, are just as much an unknown. Adding a starting pitcher would limit the risk of entering the season with such lack of clarity and could be the move that puts the Phillies in the hunt for a playoff berth.
"I think we're always looking to upgrade," manager Gabe Kapler said. "But I think there's a healthy balance to be had there. If we see a significant upgrade and Matt feels like it's going to make our roster strong, then by all means I think we should go after it and attack it. At the same time, if you bring somebody in, then that means that one of your young arms — and we have a tremendous amount of confidence in those young arms — may not get an opportunity. It's a difficult position to be in, but one thing that we've said throughout the offseason and will continue to say is that 'the search hasn't stopped.' And we're going to be relentless about the pursuit of upgrading when we can."
The Phillies are wary of signing a pitching to a long-term deal, knowing the pitfalls that loom with the back end of a contract for a pitcher already older than 30. Arrieta will turn 32 in March. Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, the two other top arms on the market, are each a season removed from Tommy John surgery.
The team has the payroll flexibility to sign any of them, and Klentak said Thursday that its payroll will soon return to the level it reached during the Phillies' last run of success. They are cautious of how that long-term deal could affect them in a few seasons when the playoffs might be clearly within reach. Perhaps the asking prices — and, more importantly, the years of the contract — will drop as spring training continues.