As far as Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak is concerned, there's not much of a controversy about what role Jerad Eickhoff will have when he's ready to return to the team.
“He’s earned that [returning to the starting rotation],” Klentak said to Matt Gelb of The Athletic on Tuesday. “So, we’re going to set our sights on him joining the rotation. We still have a few weeks until that day comes, but when that time comes, we’ll make the best decision we can based on the information that we have at that moment. A lot can change between now and his activation date.”
Eickhoff, who was expected to be the Phillies No. 3 starter at the beginning of the season, opened the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. Earlier this month, manager Gabe Kapler had been noncommittal when asked about whether Eickhoff would return to the rotation when he was healthy. Klentak didn't entirely guarantee Eickhoff will return to the rotation, but he sure sounded like he's leaning in that direction.
The 27-year-old righty allowed five hits across 3.1 innings in his first rehab appearance at Double-A Reading on Tuesday. Though he can return to the major league rotation whenever the Phillies feel he's capable of doing so, it wouldn't be a surprise for the Phillies to be as patient as possible with Eickhoff, who they don't have to put back on the 25-man roster until June 13.
There had been some thought that the Phillies may option Eickhoff at the end up his rehab stint, due to the success some other arms have had in his absence. Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are locks to remain in the rotation, as they've produced at an All-Star caliber in the early going. Nick Pivetta, who tied his career-high with 11 strikeouts against the Orioles Wednesday, is presumably a lock as well, as he's posted a 3.72 ERA and 3.10 FIP.
That leaves Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin as the two possibilities to lose their rotation spot when Eickhoff returns.
Velasquez, who is pitching Thursday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, does have a 5.05 ERA and a 4.34 FIP. However, he's coming off of a 12-strikeout performance and has flashed the ability to go deeper into games by being more aggressive against hitters. Velasquez has struggled in some starts in 2018 - he's allowed four or more earned runs in three of his eight starts - but he's also allowed one run or less in three starts. His xFIP of 3.84 also suggests that he's due for some positive regression.
Meanwhile, Eflin's knees are finally healthy, and it's given him a firm base on the mound. He's made just two starts at the major league level in 2018 - he replaced Eickhoff's replacement, Ben Lively, who is also on the disabled list - but he's been extremely impressive in his small sample size. Across 12.2 innings, Eflin has posted a 0.71 ERA and a 2.83 FIP. Perhaps more interestingly, all of his pitches have seen increased velocity thus far. His fastball, which averaged 93.7 miles-per-hour a year ago, has averaged 95.3 miles-per-hour thus far. His changeup, among other pitches, has also seen an uptick in velocity.
Both Velasquez and Eflin have two minor league options remaining. The problem may solve itself before Eickhoff is ready to come back, but if it's still unclear who should be optioned at the end of Eickhoff's rehab stint, Velasquez may have an edge. The Phillies have invested two seasons of Velasquez in the rotation thus far, and he was the biggest piece acquired from the Houston Astros for Ken Giles, the first major trade that Klentak made. While Eflin was acquired for franchise icon Jimmy Rollins, that move was made by Ruben Amaro Jr.'s front office.
One other option that some, including Gelb, have discussed is limiting Velasquez's innings. Given his injury history and that he only threw 72.0 innings in 2017, this will have to happen at some point. It could involve skipping a start occasionally, or more likely, a move to the bullpen. The move to the bullpen, much to the chagrin of some, would be done more with the thought of making sure the Phillies don't overexert Velasquez. Still, if it feels like he's close to figuring things out as a starter, the Phillies may allow him to ride things out, even if it forces them to move him to the bullpen down the stretch run of the season.
It does feel like in the interim that the Phillies may be forced to option a starter worthy of being in the rotation to Triple-A. Whether that's Velasquez or Eflin, it's important to remember there will likely be more chances to rejoin the rotation. If Eflin is optioned, there will likely come a point in the season where he returns to the rotation because the Phillies aren't comfortable pushing Velasquez's innings. There will, unfortunately, always be injured to starting pitchers.
Given that the Phillies rotation seemed like a major question mark heading into the season, it's perhaps a good problem to have that the Phillies may end up with too many pitchers worthy of being in the starting rotation. Better that than not having enough - which has been one of the team's problems in previous seasons.