'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Vince Velasquez lit up the room like he lights up radar guns Wednesday morning. He talked enthusiastically about how good his arm feels, about how he has come into Phillies camp with a new mentality after last season’s struggles. He mentioned that his musical tastes include The Temptations. He talked about eating healthier this winter, learning “a few little Mexican recipes” from his mom and cooking for himself.

The 25-year-old pitcher sounded a lot like he’d spent the winter worshipping at Gabe Kapler’s altar of positive energy.

In a way, he had.

“We communicated a lot,” Velasquez said of his new manager. “Like we were buddies. Like, ‘What’s up, how are you doing, how’s your day going?’"

Mind you, Velasquez spent the winter in Southern California and Kapler in Philadelphia.

But Kapler made a point to keep in touch with his players via text.

“It was frequent,” Velasquez said. “Not every manager would hit you up on a regular basis to check in on you and see how you were doing. A little small talk like that can give you that little boost.”

Now that camp is open, Kapler is doing his communicating face to face. He bounces from the field to the clubhouse to the weight room as if he's on an imaginary pogo stick.

Velasquez remains impressed.

“It’s amazing how one person or just one human being can change your ways by creating a different vibe,” Velasquez said. “I love it. It’s amazing how much he brings to the clubhouse and just how live it is right now. This is the first day and we’re already bumping music. We have a whole different approach going into spring training and that’s something that enlightens us and gives us something to look forward to. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a really interesting year, a really fun year.”

Last year was not fun for Velasquez. For the second straight season, he failed to harness the electricity in his powerful right arm. He struggled to pitch through the middle innings. And he had health issues. A blood clot in his pitching arm ended his season in early August. He is healthy now — and firing. Kapler gushed about seeing Vinny Velo throw in the bullpen on Tuesday.

“Velasquez stands out to me as a guy who looks incredibly healthy and strong,” Kapler said. “The stuff was coming out with electricity. He was commanding his pitches. His presence was strong.”

Having so much down time last season forced Velasquez to take stock of himself as a pitcher. He said he reflected on the times when he would struggle and how those struggles would cause him to lose focus. He believes he will look back at those struggles as growth experiences.

“Injuries don’t really help as far as doing what you need to do to get back out there, but they do help you learn from standing on the sidelines and looking from the outside in,” he said.

He added that he has learned techniques to slow the game down when things are going haywire. For example, he said he now can back off the mound and sing a song to himself. Something from The Temptations.

“I’m old school,” he said with a laugh.

Velasquez came to the Phillies in December 2015 as the centerpiece of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade. Ken Giles went to Houston in that deal and helped the Astros win the World Series in October.

The Phillies banked on the potential of a power arm when they acquired Velasquez. He showed that potential when he struck out 16 San Diego Padres in April 2016. Big things were expected from Velasquez last season, but he sputtered. He made just 15 starts and averaged less than five innings. His ERA was 5.13. His walk rate jumped to 4.3 per nine innings from 3.1 in 2016 and his strikeouts slipped to 8.5 per nine from 10.4.

The combination of Velasquez’s power stuff and his inconsistencies has led to almost constant speculation that he could end up in the bullpen someday. He might be an excellent one-inning guy someday, maybe even a closer. But that conversion is not in the current plan. Starting pitching is valuable and the Phillies, for now, remain committed to developing a starter. Velasquez is happy about that, but he knows this is a big year in proving himself.

“It is,” he said. “But I know what I'm capable of. I feel like I can really fulfill this spot and do what I like to do and that's be a starter. I have nothing but confidence.”

Despite averaging under six innings per outing last season, Velasquez has set a high personal bar for the coming season.

“Two-hundred innings,” he said. “I’m really excited. I don’t have the exact words to put it into play, but I’m really looking forward to having a bounce back year.”

Phillies' opening day roster decisions not getting any easier

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Phillies' opening day roster decisions not getting any easier


CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies are going down to the wire with their opening day roster decisions.

Manager Gabe Kapler & Co. got another look at pitcher Drew Hutchison and bench candidates Jesmuel Valentin and Roman Quinn on Saturday in a game against the Tigers in Lakeland. None of the three hurt their chances of making the club in a 4-1 win over the Tigers.

Hutchison, a Lakeland native, pitched four scoreless innings. He gave up one hit and survived three walks. He struck out three, including Miguel Cabrera with runners on second and third with one out in the third inning. 

Hutchison, 27, made 74 starts from 2012 to 2016 with the Blue Jays and Pirates. He spent all of last season with the Pirates’ Triple A club and signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies last month. The Phillies have given the right-hander a good look and he has responded well. He has given up 12 hits and six runs in 19 2/3 innings for a 2.75 ERA. However, he has walked eight while registering 17 strikeouts.

Hutchison’s best chance to make the club could be as a long man in the bullpen. Ben Lively is also in the running for that job. Jake Thompson could also be in the picture. He is converting to the bullpen but has built up his pitch counts.

Valentin, a strong candidate for a utility job, started at first base with a borrowed mitt from Rhys Hoskins. Valentin has a first baseman’s mitt and a catcher's mitt on order. He could be the emergency third catcher. Valentin had a good game. He made a nice defensive play and had two hits and a walk. He has played seven positions this spring.

Quinn had two hits, scored a run and swiped three bases. He could open with the big club or be sent to Triple A for playing time. He has impressed Kapler with his electricity and figures to impact the big club at some point, maybe as soon as opening day.

Scott Kingery had two more hits, raising his average to .392 (20 for 51). He will likely open in Triple A but could be up by the third weekend of the season. Delaying his arrival until then would push his potential free agency back until after 2024.

• Rhys Hoskins stayed back in Clearwater and got a bunch of at-bats in a pair of minor-league games. He swatted a pair of opposite-field homers in a Triple A game.

The Phillies host the Orioles on Saturday. Nick Pivetta will start.

Phillies set date for Jake Arrieta's regular season debut

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Phillies set date for Jake Arrieta's regular season debut

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Phillies have announced their plan for Jake Arrieta.

He will make his regular season debut on April 8 at Citizens Bank Park against the Miami Marlins.

That is a Sunday afternoon game.

Arrieta has a career ERA of 3.28 in day games as opposed to 3.77 in night games. Opposing batters have hit just .214 against him over his career in day games.

“He loves pitching in day games,” manager Gabe Kapler said in announcing the plan for Arrieta, who signed a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies on March 12.

Even though Arrieta showed up to camp in excellent shape and had been throwing on his own, the Phillies had promised to be cautious in getting him ready for the regular season. Arrieta will start Tuesday in Clearwater then pitch again on April 2, probably against minor leaguers in Clearwater, before his debut against Miami.

Arrieta had hoped to pitch during the first week of the season. The way things line up, he will miss just one start. The Phillies could stash him on the disabled list as he builds arm strength until they activate him before the April 8 game.

“Jake’s on board with this,” Kapler said. “He’s such a competitive dude, he wants to get out there immediately. But he has a strong understanding of the long view and what will keep him healthy and strong over the whole season and through the next three or four years. He understood that the best thing for his body is to build up a little more and get a nice slow, easy ramp and come out firing for us on April 8 against the Marlins.”

Arrieta has made four lifetime starts against Miami. He is 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in those games. Over 26 innings, he’s allowed four runs and 16 hits while walking four and striking out 26.

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. The order of the rotation is unclear after that, though the Phillies could get by with four starters until Arrieta is ready. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez will be in the rotation. Zach Eflin, Ben Lively or Drew Hutchison could round out the rotation during the first seven games. Lively or Hutchison could also work out of the bullpen.

Pivetta will start against the Orioles on Sunday.