There are less than three days until the Philadelphia Phillies begin MLB Spring Training play against the New York Yankees in Tampa. Once the spring games begin, the drama will begin to surround the team. The Phillies are a team with question marks at just about every aspect of the roster heading into the 2017 season. After countless offseason acquisitions, the front office has put together a contending baseball team that Pete Mackanin will be responsible for guiding to what is expected to be a season of major improvement.

One of the least important, but most exciting, decisions that will be made before April 5 in Cincinnati concerns the Opening Day starter. In 2016 Mackanin did not have a difficult choice to make in regards to the rotation’s ace. Jeremy Hellickson got the nod, and deservedly so, because he was by far the pitcher with the best combination of skill and experience on the staff. However, entering this season, the story is much different. There are now three pitchers that have proven they are capable of taking the hill for the first contest of the 162-game hike: Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, and Clay Buchholz.

Due to injuries and inexperience, Aaron Nola should not be in the conversation to start in the opener at the Great American Ballpark. He has yet to prove himself as the rotation’s top hurler, but he will have a large opportunity to skyrocket to the top of the rotation by season’s end. And although Clay Buchholz has been an Opening Day starter and is a former all-star, he will not get the start over Hellickson or Eickhoff. Barring an injury or out of body Spring Training dominance by Nola or Clay, it will be a two horse race for the top of Pete Mackanin’s rotation.

After trade deadline rumors, qualifying offers, and a talk of draft pick compensation, Jeremy Hellickson enters 2017 as a Philadelphia Phillie. He topped the team’s rotation throughout the 2016 season, and was about as solid as could have been expected when the team traded for him before during last offseason. Hellickson went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in his first year at Citizens Bank Park, and he matched the highest innings total of his career. However, the 29-year-old will turn 30 about three days into the season, and there are questions as to whether or not his age aligns with the team’s timeline in becoming a contender once again.

Although Jeremy Hellickson may not complete the 2017 season in Philadelphia, his experience and composure make him a solid candidate to take the mound at the start of the season. He will look to build upon his best season in 5 years, and the Phillies will hope that he will be able to raise his trade value as much as possible before the trade deadline comes around. The safest option for Opening Day starter is undoubtedly Hellickson, and Mackanin has tended to stay fairly conservative in most of the team’s moves since taking the managerial position in 2015.

Jerad Eickhoff exceeded expectations in a significant way during his 2016 season. He finished the year with an 11-14 record and a 3.65 ERA. However, the most impressive stat of his last season was his 197 1/3 innings pitched. At just 25-years-old, Eickhoff proved that he could possessed a durable major league arm while also leading the team in earned run average. As he heads into his 26-year-old and third major league season, the 6’4″ right-hander will be tasked with providing the same consistency and dependability that he showed in 2016.

After his strong showing in 2016, Jerad Eickhoff has put himself in the thick of the conversation to be at the top of the Phillies’ rotation for the beginning of the season. He is a young pitcher who will be a part of the starting pitching staff for years to come, and he will be responsible for mentoring some of the prospects as he gains more big league experience. In addition to his safety on the roster and future veteran mentality, Eickhoff is arguably the best pitcher on the team, and his ceiling is sky-high.

Pete Mackanin will have to go down one of two paths when making his decision for Opening Day starting pitcher. He could choose the seasoned veteran who may not be on the roster after July. That option would be for the experienced pitcher who brings composure and consistency whenever he hits the mound. He could also select the younger arm, who has only played one major league season and may not be prepared to become the ace of a rotation However, the young gun is coming off a promising first full season, and the honor to pitch on opening day could give confidence to a player who is a part of the team’s future plans.

There is no “wrong” option for the manager to make in regards to his starter for the first game of the year. In fact, the idea that two pitchers have played well enough to earn consideration for the spot should be a positive for Phillies fans in and of itself. Naming an Opening Day starting pitcher has no real effect on the team or on either of the men in the running for the spot. It can provide confidence for a pitcher, or it can just be an opportunity to step into the spotlight on one of the most exciting and highly anticipated days of the grueling MLB season.

With that being said, Jerad Eickhoff should be the starter on Opening Day in Cincinnati. This is a chance for Pete Mackanin to toss a young pitcher into the spotlight and give him a moment to shine. Eickhoff could become one of the best pitchers on the next World Series team in Philadelphia, and starting an opening game could be a part of his growth into a dominant pitcher. Jeremy Hellickson is the safe option, but he does not have much of a future in Philadelphia. There is an option to grant a vote of confidence for one of the team’s most promising young pitchers, and Pete Mackanin should choose it.

Whether the start goes to Hellickson or Eickhoff will probably not matter after the game is over. But it could. Give the nod to Jerad, Pete.

Photo by Arturo Pardavila III (via Wikimedia Commons)

Jack Pontin

High School Senior from New Orleans, LA. Contributing Phillies and Sixers articles, as well as game coverages.

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