On Thursday, pitchers and catchers reported to Clearwater for their first official workout. That same day, the Phillies top three pitching prospects toed the rubber in front of team reporters and the organization’s development staff. Each flashed their potential and gave a glimpse into what the future may look like. But in the present time, Andrew Painter wore number 76, Mick Abel was in 74, and Griff McGarry had 71 on his back. The high numbers are usual for non-roster invitees to Spring Training––only Painter won’t be wearing 76 for much longer.
It’s no secret that Painter, the organization’s top prospect and MLB PIpeline’s No. 6 overall, is pitching for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. We’ve heard it all––Painter could be the first teenager to throw a pitch for the Phillies in 42 years, has a plus-plus fastball with above-average secondary pitches, and is mature for his age. All this pressure on a 19-year-old pitching phenom in a big market city like Philadelphia can be an overwhelming weight to carry. That’s why Zack Wheeler asked the Phillies’ brass to put Painter’s locker next to his.
Normally, non-roster invitees to camp have their lockers lined up on the other side of the clubhouse. But in this extreme case where Painter is competing for a big league job, he finds himself next to the team ace. While Wheeler is sure to be an advisor to Painter and guide him through the everyday life of big league camp, the two are also very similar pitchers in terms of their pitch arsenal and makeup.
This is not to say the two are the same pitcher––Painter has yet to throw a pitch in the bigs and putting ace-level expectations on the kid right out of the gate is wholly unfair. However, when diving into what makes each of them successful––Wheeler is the perfect locker mate for Painter.
Like Painter, Wheeler was drafted out of high school in the first round as a tall, lanky pitcher with a power fastball and good feel for his breaking pitches. He would make his major league debut at the age of 23 with the New York Mets and excelled in his first couple of years in the bigs, flashing his potential as a future workhorse at the top of the rotation. He was not without injury troubles in his mid-twenties, but came back stronger and eventually earned a big paycheck with the Phillies.
What’s most interesting between the two pitchers is the pitch arsenal. Both Wheeler and Painter have a power fastball that sits in the upper 90s, a slider, curveball, and changeup. The only difference between the two is Wheeler throws a sinker and Painter is adding a cutter to his repertoire––something the Phillies pitching development staff has had success with in developing.
For example, over the past couple of years, Aaron Nola has added a cutter to his mix and the pitch may have saved Jose Alvarado’s career, who became one of the most dominant relievers in baseball after a brief stay in Triple-A last season. Alvarado was rewarded with a three-year contract extension yesterday.
Painter spoke about throwing a cutter to reporters on Thursday. The pitch, he explains, has been a work-in-progress over the last few months. One of the righty’s few struggles in the minors has been throwing his slider in on lefty hitters because of the pitch’s sweeping tendency. A cutter, Painter hopes, will be a sharper pitch that’ll ride in on the knuckles of lefties. This is an area Wheeler specifically excels in. When the Phils’ ace was drafted, his off speed pitches acted similar to Painter’s––great movement, but not as sharp in terms of spin and velocity as they are today. Wheeler’s slider now averages in the low 90s and can be thrown anywhere at any time to anyone. Painter will be sure to pick Wheeler’s brain on how to improve the sharpness of the pitch.
Once again, all this is not to say Painter will debut in the bigs and immediately pitch like Wheeler. He is just 19––there will be growing pains. But, having Wheeler as a locker mate is a pretty good thing for a kid who has ace potential.
Photo: Miles Kennedy/Phillies Team Photographer