The Phillies began the spring with one opening in their starting rotation but may now have two, at least temporarily. Ranger Suarez left Team Venezuela and returned to Clearwater last week when he reportedly felt something in his forearm after an exhibition start against the Astros.
While the injury doesn't sound serious and Suarez hopes to return in early April, he is unlikely to be ready for opening day. It is March 14 and he hasn't appeared in any spring training games. Suarez' most work prior to leaving briefly for the World Baseball Classic was a simulated game he threw the day of Andrew Painter's first spring start on March 1.
Suarez will need a chance to build up his arm and that usually requires multiple starts in either an exhibition or rehab setting. Even if Suarez were to resume throwing by, say, Friday, and even if he required only three tune-up outings, the earliest he could join the Phillies' rotation would be at the end of their second series or the beginning of their third.
The Phillies won't actually need a fifth starter until their sixth game of the season because of the built-in off-day on March 31, the day after the opener. Aaron Nola could start opening day in Texas on March 30 and be ready on regular rest for the Phillies' series finale at Yankee Stadium on April 5. But given the team's high expectations, Nola's huge workloads the last five seasons and the fact that holding him an extra day would enable him to pitch in the Phils' home opener on April 6, we could see a fifth starter appear in the fifth game of the season as he normally would.
Bailey Falter has already claimed one spot because of the Painter injury. Fellow lefty Cristopher Sanchez, who made his first Grapefruit League start of 2023 Tuesday afternoon against the Braves, could temporarily end up with the other job out of camp until Suarez is ready.
Sanchez allowed four runs on a double, three singles and a walk in his first inning Tuesday after pitching two scoreless innings earlier this spring. The 26-year-old is on the Phillies' 40-man roster and has appeared in 22 games the last two seasons, four of them starts. He won two of his three starts in 2022 by pitching five scoreless innings against the Nationals in July and allowing three runs over six innings to the Reds in August.
The Phillies acquired Sanchez from the Tampa Bay Rays in November 2019 for infielder Curtis Mead, who was then in Rookie ball. Mead has turned into one of the better prospects in baseball, entering the year ranked No. 33 by MLB.com and No. 36 by Baseball America. He advanced to Triple A last season and hit a combined .298/.390/.532 in 331 plate appearances between Double A and Triple A. The 22-year-old may end up making an impact with the Rays as early as this year.
Beyond Sanchez, the Phillies aren't brimming with options. There's also Michael Plassmeyer, a 26-year-old lefty who relies more on finesse and pinpoint command. Plassmeyer has pitched seven scoreless innings this spring but was not sharp his last time out, walking four and allowing two hits to the Yankees over 1⅔ innings on Saturday.
The only other candidate in camp to potentially start for the Phillies is Nick Nelson, their long reliever last season. Nelson has been mentioned as a starting option but hasn't been stretched out in camp. He's appeared twice for an inning apiece on February 25 and March 9. He even appeared somewhat surprised when Rob Thomson revealed early in camp that he was a candidate to start.
If the Phillies don't like what they see from Sanchez or Plassmeyer, if they find out that Suarez could miss meaningful time or both, they could explore the free agent and trade markets. There is little left in free agency: Mike Minor, Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy, Michael Pineda -- all veterans with recent track records of struggles.