CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Coming off a season in which he led the majors in innings, the National League in strikeouts and was second in Cy Young voting, Zack Wheeler figured to be a slam dunk to the Phillies' opening day starter on April 8.
That's not going to happen.
Wheeler disclosed on Sunday that he dealt with some soreness in his right shoulder when he started his offseason throwing program in December. The soreness dissipated quickly, the pitcher said, but caution put him behind schedule. He has yet to throw off a bullpen mound but could do so as early as Monday.
"It's feeling good," Wheeler said after throwing on flat ground at Phillies camp Sunday. "I just got off to a slower start throwing-wise. Just a slower start, really. I threw and it was a little sore, so I shut it down, started throwing again and I'm just a little behind because of that. It's nothing concerning.
"We had time, I knew we had time, so I wanted to play it safe and make sure I built up like I usually do, like I need to, and just be safe with it."
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged that Wheeler was "a little behind" schedule.
"Normally, this is (manager Joe Girardi's) announcement, you would expect Zack Wheeler to be your opening day starter based upon what he's done," Dombrowski said. "I can't tell you he's at that point where he'll be ready."
Nearly a month remains before the season starts. It's not out of the question that Wheeler could be ready to start sometime during the first week of games, just not the opener. With a shorter camp this season, due to the lockout, starting pitchers might be on stricter innings limits the first time or two through the rotation. If all goes well for Wheeler over the next month, he could make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season as he builds his workload.
"Yeah, hopefully," Wheeler said of being ready to go during the first week. "I can usually build up pretty quick. Throwing feels fine and my arm feels strong so we're moving in the right direction."
Both Dombrowski and Girardi said the plan was to go slow with Wheeler this spring anyway after his heavy workload (213⅓ innings) in 2021.
"So I kind of just fell into it," Wheeler said. "You know, throwing 60-something innings (in 2020) to 200-plus last year, it took a toll, but I worked hard this offseason on the strength of my shoulder and my arm and everything just to keep it strong going into this year and hopefully do the same thing."
Wheeler isn't the only Phillies starting pitcher whose status for the first week of the season is up in the air.
Ranger Suarez will be slightly behind schedule. He's had visa issues traveling from Venezuela but could be in camp later this week. He could be in line for an abbreviated season debut during the first week, depending on how he progresses over the next month.
On the plus side, Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson and Zach Eflin are all in camp, and Eflin, whose 2022 season was cut short by knee surgery in September, is ahead of schedule in his recovery. The right-hander has already thrown several bullpen sessions and is on target to open the season on time. This is a big season for Eflin, who will be a free agent next winter.
As far as starting pitching depth, the Phillies have lefty Bailey Falter and others and there's a possibility more could be brought in off the free-agent market.
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