Phillies’ unsettled rotation: The latest, their options, roster ramifications

TAMPA, Fla. — There’s no fear like that of an unsettled rotation less than a week before spring training concludes. The Phillies — and every other team — spend a grueling six weeks at camp just building their starting pitchers. They began spring training with nine pitchers they were considering for a rotation job. They were excited about the possibilities.

Now, in the final week of camp, the Phillies are considering a left assist they signed as a potential “bulk guy” during the offseason to fill fifth in the rotation. If it’s not Matt Strahm, then the fifth starter could be Michael Plassmeyer, a well-travelled pitcher they acquired in a minor-league trade last summer.

What happens if another starter is injured?

“Yeah, it’s hard to say,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson. “I mean, we would have to put it together.”

The margin narrows a bit with the revelation that Ranger Suárez is still dealing with an infection in his left elbow. He was scheduled to host a bullpen session on Wednesday morning. That was cancelled. The Phillies sent Suárez for an MRI the day before, which showed no structural damage. The doctor recommended a little more rest for the left-hander. Thomson didn’t know when Suárez would throw again, but team sources suggested it could be as early as Friday.

Thomson would not drop Suárez from the original rotation plans. Still, it’s hard to imagine at this point.

“I can’t say no,” Thomson said. “I would say there is a strong possibility that he will not be ready. But that cannot be ruled out.”

Even if Suárez is vacated soon, he would be a two- or three-inning pitcher by early April. The Phillies might be better off waiting until he’s through.

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The Phillies lost Andrew Painter, Cristopher Sánchez and Nick Nelson to injuries this spring. On Wednesday morning, Thomson stood with his pitching coach Caleb Cotham to watch Sánchez test his sore triceps with a bullpen session on a side hill. “Looked great,” Thomson said. “I mean really good. It was really good.” So maybe Sanchez could play in a Grapefruit League game before the Phillies leave next week?

“I don’t know,” Thomson said. “We’ll see how he’s doing when he comes tomorrow.”

At this point, the Phillies will exercise all the caution they can. There are roster implications if Strahm slips into Suárez’s pivot point. That would open up a second bullpen job. The Phillies still have six helpers in storage who are not yet guaranteed a place. They are: Yunior Marte, Andrew Vasquez, Luis Ortiz, Erich Uelmen, McKinley Moore and Jake Jewell. The Phillies didn’t say so, but Marte appears to have earned a spot in the bullpen. He’s been impressing with his high-speed shots all spring.

Vasquez, Ortiz and Uelmen are all in the 40-man squad, giving them an advantage. Moore, who was acquired in a trade with 2017 first-round pick Adam Haseley last spring, has made his way into the picture. Though he doesn’t make the big league team now, Moore has positioned himself as one of the first call-ups this season.

Michael Plassmeyer (Mike Watters / USA Today)

The bigger, more pressing question is how the Phillies will deal with the rotation back in the early weeks of the season. Plassmeyer, 26, is perhaps best used as a point starter in the majors – not as someone who takes the ball every fifth day.

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The Phillies could send Plassmeyer to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to keep him on a starter’s routine as insurance against another violation of the rotation. That would mean Strahm, who has started 25 career games in the majors but only one in the last three seasons, somehow ranks fifth in the rotation. On Wednesday, it appeared the Phillies were headed in that direction.

That would remove Strahm from Thomson’s bullpen arsenal. The Phillies envisioned using Strahm as a multi-inning reliever, hitting at higher-leverage locations. Or, in Strahm’s words, a “Swiss Army Knife”. They had groomed him for that role and as part of that, Strahm has started two Grapefruit League games.

“As soon as Ranger comes back, whenever that is, Strahm goes back to the bullpen,” Thomson said. “And it’s still extended. So that would be good.”

Thomson would not call Strahm a starter. “We call him a tall, hulking guy,” Thomson said. “Whether he starts the game or comes in later, who knows?” The Phillies could try different solutions. If Strahm played the fifth game against the Yankees, perhaps the Phillies could open with a legitimate draft to face Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton at the top of New York’s lineup, and then turn to Strahm for quite a while after that.

You’d rather have five set starters. At first glance, that seems too ambitious.

It’s best never to stop Phillies baseball operations president Dave Dombrowski from seeking help through outside sources. Dombrowski said last week he was “always concerned” about depth of rotation. The setback against Suárez will only add to that.

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The Mariners may want to trade Chris Flexen, who had a 3.73 ERA in 137 2/3 innings last season but is the underdog in his scheduled rotation. He owes him $8 million this season. The Phillies may not see him as significant enough for an upgrade. There will be cuts from other camps in the coming days, and the Phillies may offer a country of opportunities right now. They haven’t been active in signing veteran guys for the Triple-A rotation this offseason; Jon Duplantier was the only one and he sidelined this spring with a hamstring injury.

The problem isn’t just fifth in the rotation; Bailey Falter competed with Painter for fifth place this spring. He may have started in 2023 when the sixth starter painter got a rotation job. Falter is now the fourth starter.

Taijuan Walker (Dave Nelson / USA Today)

Of particular importance is Taijuan Walker, who returned to the Phillies on Wednesday after several weeks with Team Mexico at the World Baseball Classic. Walker only threw once for Mexico, but in Wednesday’s game he managed to hit 76 pitches. The Phillies asked him to tinker on different pitches during his 4 2/3 innings against the Rays.

He’s expected to start the third game of the season, Sunday Night Baseball vs. the Rangers, and the Phillies need him as a mid-rotation stabilizer.

“Just take the ball every fifth day and try to get six, seven innings,” Walker said. “I try to go as deep as possible on every outing. Really, just stay healthy. Just take the ball.”

That sounds really good for the Phillies right now.

(Top Photo by Ranger Suarez: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)


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