Projections love Phillies rotation, which might have been baseball's best in 2023

Projections love Phillies rotation, which might have been baseball's best in 2023 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Phillies' starting rotation began establishing itself as one of baseball's best somewhere around the midpoint of the 2023 season.

When it was all said and done, Phillies starting pitchers allowed the second-highest rate of soft contact in MLB with the fourth-highest groundball rate, they allowed the fifth-fewest baserunners per inning, had the fifth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio and ranked first in both Fangraphs' and Baseball-Referecens' Wins Above Replacement metric.

The Phillies return the same five starters they used for the bulk of 2023 in Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker and Cristopher Sanchez. This starting staff is again projected to be one of the five best in baseball, according to ZiPS and Steamer, two of the primary public projection systems.

The Phils' starting rotation is in the mix with staffs like the Dodgers, Braves and Mariners.

Now, there's a good deal of variance within the Phillies' rotation. You need only look at the year-to-year polarity for Nola since 2018, the month-to-month differences for Walker in 2023, the drastic difference in Wheeler's ERA from 2022 to 2023 despite similar overall performance, and the unknown of how Sanchez will follow his surprising breakthrough.

As a duo, Wheeler and Nola have been rocks for the Phillies for four straight seasons, combining to miss seven starts. It's incredible, really, when you consider their heavy workloads, the length of the last two postseason runs and the frequency of pitcher injuries. The Phillies tried to lighten their loads a bit after the trade deadline by utilizing a six-man rotation and have given them each an extra day between starts as often as possible. They'll continue to find ways to try to keep Wheeler and Nola fresh. Expectations have shifted the last three years and anything short of a World Series trophy will result in disappointment, so the Phillies are more concerned about Wheeler and Nola having bullets left in October than they are in pushing them an extra 15 pitches in May.

Wheeler is signed through the end of the 2024 season, Suarez through 2025, Walker through 2026, Sanchez through at least 2028 and Nola through 2030. The Phillies would love to extend Wheeler but he seems more likely to test free agency. Why wouldn't he? If he stays healthy and does what he's done the last four years, what's stopping a team from offering him $35-40 million a year for four years even though he'd be starting that contract in his age-35 season? He's proven to be one of baseball's biggest difference-makers when it's mattered most.

Walker's situation also bears monitoring. He was on the Phillies' postseason roster for every round but did not appear in a game as a starter or reliever. His only role was bulk relief if a game went deep into extra innings. That did not sit well with Walker, who made his dissatisfaction known on social media.

In the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract, Walker went 15-6 with a 4.38 ERA that was slightly below the league average. Despite the appearance of mediocrity, there is real value in getting 173 league-average innings from a member of your rotation. Many teams don't possess that from the No. 3 spot and Walker is being paid third starter's money.

From May 7 through August 28, he went 12-3 with a 3.33 ERA, allowing three runs or fewer in 17 of 20 starts. Before and after that long stretch, he struggled. The Phillies will need more consistency from him in 2024. He was not sharp early in games, particularly in the first inning. Walker carried a 7.04 ERA in the opening frame, allowing 11 more runs than in any other inning. He requires more time to get loose than other starters and tried various methods to warm up faster but couldn't find the right solution.

The projections don't love Walker, with an expected ERA hovering around 4.80, close to a full run higher than Suarez and Sanchez. Those two lefties are so important to the Phillies not just because of their ability but their contract situations. Suarez is entering his second of three arbitration years, and while he's getting more expensive, he's still expected to earn less than $6 million in 2024. He made $2.95 million last season. Sanchez will make between $750,000 and $800,000. With so many huge salaries on their payroll, it's crucial that the Phillies have been able to get so much production out of Suarez, and recently, Sanchez.

In a way, the 27-year-old Sanchez can be the key to the Phillies' rotation in 2024. If he continues to command a changeup that had one of the five lowest opponents' batting averages in baseball after his permanent call-up in June and keeps filling up the zone, he has a chance to become a mid-rotation stabilizer himself. Sanchez pitched 95 innings after being promoted on June 17. He struck out 91 and walked 14 with a 3.32 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, numbers that would get you $150 million in free agency if you compile them year over year. He showed it for a half-season. The next step is showing it over a full season.

There's a world where Sanchez builds on his 2023, raises the Phillies' ceiling and protects them against a potential Walker decline. There's also a world where Sanchez regresses, but either way, it's his job to begin the season and will be his unless he falls on his face.

The offseason has not been especially exciting for Phillies fans, with the only big move coming before Thanksgiving when Nola was re-signed, but there are at least 25 teams and maybe more that would trade rotations with the Phils.