CLEARWATER, Fla. – At the start of spring training, Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he didn’t want the pitchers competing for the team’s fifth starter’s job to feel as if they had to immediately dazzle him with results. The first few weeks of camp, and the first couple of outings in exhibition play, were for getting ready to compete, Girardi said.
Well, it’s March now.
The pitchers have broken in their new spikes. They have a few innings under their belts.
So, it’s safe to say the competition starts now.
With that, Vince Velasquez, one of the candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation, is slated to get three innings of work against the Atlanta Braves in North Port on Monday night. He will follow starter Zach Eflin, who is also slated for three innings of work. Barring something unforeseen, Eflin’s spot in the rotation is secure.
The Phillies have an off day on Tuesday so the fifth starter competition will resume Wednesday night when Nick Pivetta pitches against the Yankees in Tampa.
Pivetta and Velasquez are the primary candidates for the job, but that doesn’t mean they are the only candidates.
On paper, lefty Ranger Suarez has always been in the mix and after two starts his candidacy is probably gaining some legitimacy.
Suarez pitched three walk-free innings against the Baltimore Orioles in a 3-2 loss at Spectrum Field on Sunday afternoon. He gave up three hits, an unearned run and struck out three. He has yet to allow an earned run in five innings over two starts this spring. He has allowed five hits, a walk and has registered four strikeouts.
Girardi might not be grading the competitors on their early starts, but he’s been impressed with Suarez.
“Efficient. Ground balls. I thought he threw the ball really well,” Girardi said after Sunday’s game. “He has command of his fastball on both sides. He threw a slider. He threw his changeup. He can elevate. He did a lot of things.”
Suarez, 24, was groomed as a starting pitcher, but he was used as a reliever last season and recorded a 3.14 ERA in 48 2/3 innings over 37 games. In his final 15 appearances of the season, he pitched 15 innings and gave up just 12 hits and one run while walking two and striking out 10.
Girardi has said he wants to break camp with his 13 best pitchers and it’s difficult to imagine Suarez not being one of them.
Suarez would love a chance to start, but “it’s really about where they need me,” he said.
Using Suarez as a starter would give the Phillies a lefty in the rotation, but it would push both Pivetta and Velasquez to the bullpen, where neither really wants to be. Just a hunch, but It’s probably more likely that team officials will give either Pivetta or Velasquez a chance in the rotation and exhaust those possibilities before defaulting to Suarez.
Top prospect Spencer Howard is expected to push his way into the rotation at some point later in the season. Another prospect, lefty Damon Jones, could also be in the picture in Philadelphia at some point this season. He struck out two in an inning of work Sunday.
“He's interesting,” Girardi said of Jones. “He's 95 (mph) and it has run and sink to it. He has a really good slider. I know he's been a starter in the past. But, I mean, it's interesting.”
Girardi did not rule out the possibility of Jones making the big club as a reliever, but he added, “I think part of that is what you project him as down the road.” At the moment, the Phillies need to stash some starting pitching depth at Triple A. That makes it difficult to envision Jones making the club as a reliever. But he’s clearly impressed the manager and that’s never a bad thing.
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