Much to the chagrin of much of the Philadelphia Phillies' fanbase, the team elected to tender a contract to right-hander Vince Velasquez for the 2021 season.
The Phillies didn't non-tender any of their arbitration-eligible players, though Velasquez and Rhys Hoskins didn't agree to one-year deals, so the Phillies are currently on pace to head to arbitration hearings with both.
Don't get it twisted, the thinking in tendering a contract to Velasquez probably wasn't that new pitching coach Caleb Cotham will be the one to finally unlock Velasquez's high-end potential. With all due respect to Cotham, four pitching coaches have tried before him, and though he's shown flashes, Velasquez has a 4.72 ERA in parts of six major league seasons and has never been able to consistently pitch deeper into games. At this stage of his career, the 28-year-old may simply be what he is.
Still, the Phillies desperately need starting pitching depth. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are one of the best one-two punches in the sport, and Zach Eflin had something of a breakout year in 2020, posting a 3.39 ERA in 11 games, 10 of which were starts. However, after those three, the Phillies have next to no certainty in their starting rotation.
Jake Arrieta, who has made 64 starts for the Phillies over the past three seasons, is a free agent, and there's no indication that the organization plans to pursue a reunion. For as much hope as there is about Spencer Howard, he's now had arm injuries in consecutive seasons, and only threw 24 1/3 innings in 2020, so the team will almost certainly have him on an innings limit in 2021. At least two spots in the starting rotation need to be filled out, and that's assuming that the top three options all stay healthy, which is hardly a certainty if baseball does indeed play a full 162-game season a year after a pandemic-shortened 60-game slate.
And so, Velasquez, projected to earn between $3.8 million and $4.8 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, is back for a sixth season in Philadelphia. In many senses, his standing as one of the longest-tenured players on the team is an indictment of the organization's inability to consistently develop major league-caliber starters, creating a situation where former top prospects have nine lives with the team.
Meanwhile, Hector Neris was a much simpler decision to bring back, even if the 31-year-old has been frustrating at times over the last six campaigns.
The Phillies declined Neris' $7 million option for 2021 earlier this offseason, a move that proved to be wise as they ultimately settled for $5 million Wednesday to avoid arbitration.
On the surface, Neris struggled in 2020, posting a 4.57 ERA in 24 games. Still there's evidence that he ran into some bad luck, and things would have evened out over the course of a normal season. Opponents hit .381 on balls they put in play against Neris, a seemingly unsustainable clip. Neris' 2.50 FIP is also a pretty good indication that his ERA would have dropped if there had been more time in 2020.
Ultimately, what this comes down to is that Neris has 72 career saves and is a season removed from posting a 2.93 ERA in 68 games. While they may opt to sign someone else to close games, the Phillies are not in a position to let anyone with a track record of success in high-leverage situations go.
Following the 2021 season, both Velasquez and Neris can test free agency for the first time in their careers. Unless they are excellent this upcoming season, chances are 2021 may be their final year in red pinstripes. However, given where the organization is currently, it's hardly a surprise that both will return to Joe Girardi's team for another campaign.