The question looms in the National League East: Who has the best chance to challenge the favored Nationals, who won the title in 2017 by 20 games over the second-place Miami Marlins?
The Marlins have no chance. The Mets are banking on the health of pitchers Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard to help Jacob de Grom in the rotation. The Braves’ and the Phillies’ hope is development of young pitching.
But, the Phillies, who finished last with 66 wins last season, strengthened their case to at least be a second-place team when they signed starter Jake Arrieta, 32, to a three-year $75 million contract that could end up being worth millions more.
The Phillies, with former Orioles executives Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak running the team, finished 37-38 in the second half of last season. They added first baseman Carlos Santana on a $60 million contract and that will boost the team’s weak .315 on-base percentage from a year ago.
They signed two relievers - Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek - to fortify a setup core that gets to closer Héctor Neris, who has a power fastball and was 16-for-16 in save chances the final two months of 2017.
And, they have a developing nucleus that includes outfielders Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro and shortstop J.P. Crawford.
The rotation has Arrieta, Aaron Nola and a list of questions.
Even though scouts say Arrieta, a former Oriole, is sliding, he posted a 2.28 ERA for the Cubs in the second half of last season. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 with a 1.77 ERA, including 0.75 in the second half. He also led the league with 33 starts, four complete games and three shutouts.
Since his Cy Young season, Arrieta’s ERAs have been 3.10 and 3.53.
The Phillies need consistency starts from Nola, who had a 1.71 ERA in one 10-start stretch last season. He finished at 3.54.
The rest of the rotation has promise. Vince Velasquez has a filthy slider, but his injuries turned 2017 into a wasted season. A healthy season would also help Jered Eickhoff, a curveball pitcher who had back issues last season.
Velasquez and Eickhoff made good impressions in 2016. Velasquez had 152 strikeouts in 133 innings. Eickhoff had a 3.65 ERA in 197 innings.
Velasquez arrived in a trade from Houston for Ken Giles, the Astros’ closer. The Phillies got Eickhoff and Nola from Texas in a trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Rangers.
There’s also a list of prospects who could be pitching in the final two slots in the rotation, including Nick Pivetta, acquired from the Nationals for closer Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015, and Ben Lively, considered the Phillies’ top pitching prospect.
Pivetta had a 6.02 ERA last season in the majors, but the Phillies are impressed with his stuff and that he had 140 strikeouts in 133 innings.