Will Phillies be without four key players on opening day?

Will Phillies be without four key players on opening day?

The specter of COVID-19 will hang over the entire 60-game Major League Baseball season that is set to begin in three weeks.

Heck, it’s already hanging over Phillies training camp.

The Phils will officially begin their three-week training period on Friday. They will utilize Citizens Bank Park and the fields across the street at FDR Park.

The Phils have set a 54-man roster for camp — it can grow to 60 — but at least four players will not be there. Second baseman Scott Kingery and pitchers Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez and Tommy Hunter have all been placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Tuesday, and won’t be eligible to return until late next week at the earliest.

No reason or particular injury was given for placing any of the four players on the IL — baseball-related injuries are usually disclosed — and that is essentially confirmation that the four are dealing with something related to COVID-19 — either a positive test, symptoms of the virus or possibly human contact with someone who has already been infected.

“What I can tell you is they're on the injured list, and that's about all I can tell you,” manager Joe Girardi said on Thursday afternoon. “MLB has given protocols on how to handle it.”

For reasons of medical privacy, teams are forbidden to talk specifically about COVID-19 cases.

But Girardi was able to answer baseball-related questions about the players in question. Of particular pertinence: Will these four players be ready for the July 23 or 24 season opener?

“I don't have a timetable on those players,” Girardi said. “I can't really answer that question. As soon as I get an answer, I will give it to you.”

So, it’s at least a possibility that one or more of these players won’t be ready for the opener?

“I think you have to look at all possibilities,” Girardi said.

Further indication that Kingery, Suarez, Neris and Hunter are dealing with something related to COVID-19: Girardi said no player has reported to camp with any new injuries. Relievers Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson are both on the 60-day injured list with stated elbow injuries. Robertson had Tommy John surgery in August and is iffy for a return this season; Dominguez will have Tommy John surgery in the coming days. His elbow injury, suffered in June 2019, will end up impacting three seasons.

It’s very possible that Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter are, at this moment, completely healthy. However, a player on the COVID-19 IL must test negative twice and pass a medical review before he can return to the group. That could take some time and possibly prevent the players from getting enough practice reps in camp to be deemed ready for opening day.

The possibility of not having Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter at the start of the season is not insignificant.

Kingery is the team’s starting second baseman.

Neris is the team’s closer.

Hunter is an experienced setup man who takes the ball.

Suarez was a late-season find in the bullpen last year and a candidate for the fifth starter’s job back in March.

With an expanded roster, the Phillies could plug second base a number of ways if Kingery is not ready for the opener. Jean Segura could play there and rookie Alec Bohm could get a look at third — if the Phillies wanted to start his service time clock on Day 1. Holding him back a week would garner the Phillies an extra year of control before Bohm would become a free agent. 

The Phils also have a bunch of other players in camp (Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Phil Gosselin, Logan Forsythe) who can play second.

The bullpen would take a hit without three projected contributors, particularly Neris, but the Phils do have 29 other pitchers in camp so there will be choices. In a 60-game season, every game is vital, every win and loss magnified and multiplied. It’s not necessarily the time to start experimenting, but if Girardi were open to doing so … might it be worth seeing what Vince Velasquez looks like as a closer if Neris misses time?

Time will tell how long Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter will be out.

And don’t think there won’t be more players showing up with mysterious, unexplained trips to the injured list.

COVID-19 will hang over this entire season.

It's already affecting Phillies training camp.

"Do I think there will be players who get COVID-19? Absolutely," Girardi said. "I think with the protocols MLB has with the testing of players, the protocols before you come to the ballpark, and the protocols you do while you're at the ballpark, the contact tracing that we do, I think we will have cases. Hopefully, they will be really containable and we can pull this off.

"For me, it comes down to really how socially responsible we are as an industry, as a state, and as a country. I think we can do it."

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Phillies weighing options on Spencer Howard’s next start

Phillies weighing options on Spencer Howard’s next start

For weeks, we wondered when Spencer Howard would make his first big-league start.

Now, we wonder when he’ll make his second.

Friday is Howard’s day to pitch again.

But it’s also Vince Velasquez’ day to pitch.

So, who’s getting the ball that night against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park?

Maybe both. 

“We're going to prepare them both to start on Friday,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Monday, one day after Howard’s not-great-but-not-bad-either debut against the Atlanta Braves.

Girardi said he would name a starter by Thursday.

Whoever doesn’t start Friday's game could be used in multiple-inning relief that night.

“We could piggyback them,” Girardi said. 

The Phillies need to keep both Howard and Velasquez stretched out because they will need a sixth starter the following week because of a doubleheader against Toronto. Beyond that, the Phils have four doubleheaders in September so they will need six starters for most of that month.

Velasquez and Howard each started one of the games in Sunday’s doubleheader against the Braves. The Phillies lost both games. Velasquez pitched four innings and allowed three hits, a run and three walks. He struck out six. Howard pitched 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs and a walk. He struck out four. He threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of 22 hitters but was tagged for a pair of homers by Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. 

There are reasons why the Phillies might choose Howard to start Friday’s game over Velasquez: 

- Howard represents the future and could be a foundation piece in the Phillies’ rotation for years to come. Why not start grooming him now?

- Velasquez has been inconsistent in the rotation for four-plus seasons. He does have some experience working out of the bullpen.

Another potential reason: The Mets have never seen Howard while Velasquez is 2-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 11 career starts against them. There aren’t many secrets in this era of data and video scouting, but the Mets’ lack of firsthand familiarity with Howard could help the pitcher. 

Stay tuned.

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Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Phillies fans have been clamoring for Spencer Howard for a little while now. They've heard about the velocity, the swing-and-miss slider, the knee-buckling curveball, the diving changeup, the beyond-his-years command. The organization has been just as excited.

With a couple of doubleheaders this week, you could smell Howard's debut. It became apparent that the Phils would need a sixth starter and who better than Howard, the top pitching prospect in the organization who was already on the doorstep of the majors and who probably would have been here on opening day if not for service time considerations.

This was a big day for the Phillies. Two games against your division rival, the NL East favorite. Sweep the doubleheader and you win the series against the Braves. Split and you have a chance to win it Monday night.

Instead, the Phillies were outscored 13-2 in a pair of losses. They hit .146 on the day, went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position and the bullpen allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 5⅓ innings.

Still, there was excitement in the air because of Howard's long-awaited debut, which came Sunday afternoon in Game 2. After a couple of scoreless innings, the Braves welcomed Howard to the majors. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. took him deep, and Howard allowed four runs over 4⅔ innings. The Phillies lost the game 8-0, a few hours after falling to the Braves 5-2.

There are far greater sins than being beaten by two of baseball's best. Given the circumstances — Howard hadn't pitched against another actual team in months and his own throwing schedule was changed this week to accommodate the Sunday start — it wasn't that bad. (The Phillies' offense was much worse.)

"Spencer, for his first start, I thought he did pretty good," manager Joe Girardi said. "He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on (in the first inning) and he's able to not give up a run. He didn't fall apart, which sometimes it's tough to slow a young person's mind down when it's their first start or first year. I thought he handled it pretty well."

Howard did not feel sharp. He added that he'd rather get hit on a day like today than on a day when he does feel sharp because that, after all, could be symbolic of a larger issue than being rusty and making a few mistakes against a strong lineup like the Braves.

"I wouldn't say I felt sharp," the 24-year-old rookie said. "Just a little out of sync with mechanics. Left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues. Overall, it was a decent day, awesome to compete again."

It was obviously strange for Howard to debut with no fans or family members in the stands. Not how a little kid dreams about making his first start in The Show. Howard dreamt of pitching a shutout in his first start in front of mom and dad. 

But it's 2020, so c'est la vie.

"The cardboard cutouts actually made a difference, surprisingly," Howard said. "Coming back in the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises, it was OK actually. I wish all my friends could be here but I know they're all watching and that's all that matters."

The question now becomes: Who makes the next start five days from now? Will it be Vince Velasquez, who allowed one run in four innings in Game 1 Sunday, or Howard?

"Right now, my plans are for Vinny to make that start," Girardi said. "I have not talked to anyone. We're going on a five-man rotation, Spencer came up and threw the second part of a doubleheader. I'll sit down and talk to our coaches and (GM Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice) and we'll make a decision.

"We didn't come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation. We didn't come out and say that. We said we're going to evaluate every day what's best for our team."

It is possible the Phillies, with such a bad bullpen, could make Howard a multi-inning reliever. They wouldn't use him as a closer but as a pitcher capable of picking up six, maybe even nine outs as a reliever when the situation calls for it. Long-term, Howard will be a starter. But given the struggles and lack of plus stuff in the Phillies' bullpen, Howard could make a big impact as a multi-inning reliever in a short season if the Phillies go that route.

It seems unlikely, if only because the Phillies still have five more doubleheaders and will need a sixth starter again. But it's on the table. Most everything is on the table until the Phillies find out a formula for a bullpen that has an 8.10 ERA with 44 hits allowed in 30 innings.

"It's something that we've talked about," Girardi said. "It's something we will continue to talk about. What we do and how we have the best makeup of a pitching staff."

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