Perhaps the most intriguing arrival at this year’s Phillies Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida will be that of the 22-year-old Mick Abel. Abel, the consensus second-ranked prospect in the Phillies’ farm system, is approaching the biggest season of his professional career: for the first time since being drafted 15th overall in 2020, Abel has a real shot at cracking the big league roster. The question is when will it happen?

For the past few seasons, Abel has been overshadowed by fellow right-hander Andrew Painter, the top prospect in the Phillies’ organization and at one point the top pitching prospect in the sport. Painter was set to make the Opening Day roster last year, before going down with Tommy John surgery in July. He will likely miss all of 2024. It is in Painter’s absence that a spot in the rotation has become a real possibility for Abel.

Barring a surprise signing of a free-agent starting pitcher, however, the Phillies’ starting rotation is largely set: Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola lead the way, with Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker and Cristopher Sanchez rounding out the group of five. It is a rotation that is projected to be in the upper tier of Major League clubs and one that President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski is rightfully comfortable with, so much so that he has stated Abel will likely not break camp with the team. It’s clear that there is no immediate pressure for Abel to crack the starting rotation in 2024. 2024 is not a “make it or break it” campaign for the young right-hander–if Abel merely has a good year at AAA Lehigh Valley and builds upon the success he had in AA Reading, including the implementation of a two-seam fastball and gyro slider into pitch mix, that would be just fine. If everything goes to plan, there will be no need for Abel in the starting rotation in 2024.

However, this is Major League Baseball. In a 162-game season, hardly anything ever goes to plan. If Sanchez, who started 18 games in 2023, goes down with an injury or isn’t up to par, the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs. The same can be said for the rest of the starting rotation–depth is perhaps the one thing the group lacks. So, what does Abel need to do to prove that he should be the next man up?

The first and most important thing is to improve his command. Abel’s talent has never been in question–at six-foot five, he boasts an impressive five-pitch mix, with a 4-seam fastball that averaged around 96 mph and flirted with triple digits and two distinct breaking balls. In 23 starts last year–22 at AA Reading and 1 at AAA Lehigh Valley–Abel missed plenty of bats, averaging 10.5 k/9 and racking up 132 strikeouts in 113.1 innings. The only issue is that he missed the plate nearly as much–his walk rate per 9 innings was 5.2, the second highest in his career and the reason he failed to routinely pitch deep into games. In 23 starts last year, Abel pitched six innings or more only five times. Yes, his pitch count never reached 100 and in the big leagues he may not be expected to last more than five innings. But in AAA, he surely will. Inefficiencies in the Minor Leagues will only prove more glaring in the Majors. For Abel to prove capable of pitching at the big league level, he has to show the ability to consistently locate all of his pitches for strikes.

However, there is reason enough to believe that he can do so. In his first 18 starts of 2023, Abel posted a 4.94 ERA with a 13.7% walk rate. Later in the year, he tinkered with his pitch arsenal, adding a two-seam fastball and replacing his sweeper with a gyro slider. In a four-start stretch from August 23 to September 13, Abel saw his ERA  plummet to 1.17 and sported an improved walk rate of 12.6%. Still not perfect, but a marked improvement from earlier in the season. 

The important thing for Abel is that time–and talent–are on his side. The young right-hander won’t turn 23 until August, the clock on his career has not yet started to click. 2024 doesn’t have to be his year. But it very well could be.

 

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