By Sam Bush
Pitchers and catchers arrive at the Phillies’ Clearwater spring training camp in 30 days, so it’s not premature to ask:
Who will be the Phils’ opening day starting pitcher?
In 2016, Jeremy Hellickson got the nod in Cincinnati because of his experience in the major-leagues.
Clay Buchholz has three more years of experience in the majors compared to Hellickson, so if manager Pete Mackanin based it on age Buchholz would start. However, the Phillies may decide to stray away from their veterans in favor of their younger pitchers.
The only pitcher who started more games than Hellickson last year was Jerad Eickhoff, who made 33 starts in 2016. He also led the team in ERA and innings pitched, and walked the eight-fewest batters per nine innings among all qualified starters.
CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury said the honor belongs to Eickhoff because “he’s earned it with his conduct and example. The guy approaches his craft with a maturity, dedication, work ethic and seriousness that is reminiscent of Roy Halladay.”
Salisbury also argued that Eickhoff has shown he can face off against the best, pitching against Cy Young winner Max Scherzer twice and now-Boston lefty Chris Sale. In those three starts, he allowed just six earned runs over 19 innings.
What about Aaron Nola (above).
Before he went off the rails in 2016, Nola, in his first 12 starts of the season, had struck out 27.2% and walked 4.8% of opposing hitters. He allowed a .209 batting average and carried a 2.65 ERA, 2.75FIP, and 0.99 WHIP. If the Philies really do consider him the ace of the future, it would only make sense that he would start the first game of the season.
However, he may not even be ready to start the year after missing the last two months of the 2016 season. The team may want to ease him back into things after not pitching in any live games for so long. They may also opt to have him start the home opener, which is the fourth game of the season, as he did last year.
There are several candidates to start Opening Day, although none stands out as the favorite. Hellickson, Eickhoff, and Nola all offer their own drawbacks and advantages, so it will be interesting to see what the team does as the first game of the season draws closer.