CLEARWATER, Fla. — Play ball? Almost.

For a week now, the Phillies have worked out daily in the Florida sun. Most of the action — pitchers’ bullpen sessions and fielding drills, infield practice, baserunning drills, live batting practice — occurs on the back fields of the Carpenter Complex. In a few days, though, the Grapefruit League will get underway and the focus will shift to 8,500-seat Spectrum Field.

There isn’t a shortage of competition in Phillies camp. For a team with a payroll that is pushing the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, there are several jobs available on the 26-man roster, particularly at the back of the rotation, on the bench, and in the bullpen.

Oh, and opening day is only 36 days away.

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

Nick Pivetta will start the Phillies' Grapefruit League opener on Saturday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Nick Pivetta will start the Phillies' Grapefruit League opener on Saturday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.

Taking the fifth: No. 5 starter battle begins early

Nick Pivetta moved from Canada to California this winter to train alongside several young, more accomplished starting pitchers. He overhauled his mechanics, worked on his changeup, and rebuilt confidence after a disappointing 2019 season.

In three days, he will begin to see if any of it worked.

Pivetta will start the Phillies’ first spring-training game Saturday against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., manager Joe Girardi announced. Evidently, Girardi doesn’t see any sense in waiting to kick off the competition to be the No. 5 starter, one of the more intriguing battles in camp.

“I think it’s important that all these guys that are competing for the last spots get a ton of looks, and we can afford to do that,” Girardi said. “We have a number of games; we have split-squads. We’ll look at people.”

Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Jake Arrieta will represent three-fifths of the starting rotation. Based on his performance last season, including a strong September, right-hander Zach Eflin appears to have at least the inside track on a spot.

That leaves Pivetta to compete with fellow right-hander Vince Velasquez, who is lined up to start Monday against the Orioles at Spectrum Field. (Nola will start Sunday at home against the Pirates.)

Ranger Suarez and Cole Irvin, both lefties, also figure to get a look for the No. 5 spot. Lefty prospect Damon Jones is a dark-horse candidate.

Girardi offered unsolicited praise for Pivetta following the pitchers’ first workout last week. Asked specifically about the 27-year-old, Girardi noted an improved changeup. Pivetta said he picked up changeup tips this winter from Chicago White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito, who has one of the best in the majors.

“I think that’s a really important thing for me moving forward, especially if I want to be a starting pitcher,” Pivetta said. “I need that fourth pitch.”

If Pivetta and Velasquez are the finalists for the No. 5 spot, the runner-up could wind up in the bullpen. But both pitchers also can be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers, so the Phillies might prefer to stash one of them in triple A as rotation depth.

“I can’t tell that’s what we’ll do, but I’ve got to tell you, in all the other years that I’ve managed, we thought about that,” Girardi said. "But we start right away in our division, and it’s a tough division. You’ve got to think about that, too.

“The bottom line is we’re going to want our 13 best pitchers to go with us and we have to kind of put that puzzle together.”

The rundown

After J.T. Realmuto’s arbitration hearing today, the real intrigue begins. Will the Phillies lock up the All-Star catcher to a contract extension? I outlined a few relevant details to making a deal.

Here’s a fun story on Phillies reliever Robert Stock, who has a 99-mph fastball and a YouTube video that saved his career, as Matt Breen writes.

After watching Damon Jones throw a bullpen session last season, Phillies reliever Tommy Hunter said he was reminded of Andrew Miller. But as Bob Brookover writes, it was a video of another big-league pitcher that helped put Jones on the prospect track.

In case you missed it, infielder Jean Segura said he lost 14 pounds since the end of last season. He shared his secret. (Spoiler alert: It involves alcohol.)

Segura, Scott Kingery, and eventually Alec Bohm are all part of a muddled infield picture. Brooky tried to make sense of it all.

Important dates

Today: Realmuto faces Phillies in an arbitration hearing in Phoenix.

Friday: Hector Neris’ arbitration case will be heard, also in Phoenix.

Saturday: Grapefruit League opener vs. Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

Sunday: Spring home opener at Spectrum Field vs. Pirates, 1:05 p.m.

March 26: Opening day vs. Miami at Marlins Park, 4:05 p.m.

Bryce Harper goes through baserunning drills during a Phillies spring-training workout in Clearwater, Fla.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Bryce Harper goes through baserunning drills during a Phillies spring-training workout in Clearwater, Fla.

Stat of the day

Looking back at how he played in his first season with the Phillies, Bryce Harper wouldn’t have changed much. He hit 35 homers, drove in a career-high 114 runs, and posted an .882 OPS that was consistent with his final year in Washington.

But he did fall short in one area. For only the second time in five seasons, he didn’t draw 100 walks.

“It really bugged me last year when I was at 99 and I didn’t get it,” Harper said.

Harper led the majors with 130 walks in 2018. He walked 108 times in 2016 and 124 times in his MVP season of 2015. He was on track for 100 walks in 2017 but missed six weeks with a knee injury and finished with 68.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Of the players the Phillies signed to minor league deals — [Francisco] Liriano, [Anthony] Swarzak, [Drew] Storen, [Bud] Norris, [Neil] Walker, [Josh] Harrison, [Logan] Forsythe, etc. — who do you think has the best chance to make the team out of spring training and make an impact with the team this season? —@dannmaal, via Twitter

Answer: Thanks, Dan, for the question and for being a regular reader of Extra Innings. Until Grapefruit League games begin, it’s impossible to handicap the competition among non-roster invitees. All of the players that you mentioned have big-league experience but settled for minor-league deals because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or other reasons. Now, they must prove themselves all over again.

That said, I could see at least one reliever and one position player winning a job. Liriano is interesting because a) he’s left-handed and b) he had some success last season with the Pirates (3.47 ERA, lefties hit .194 against him). I’m intrigued, too, by Walker, a switch-hitter with pop who can back up Rhys Hoskins at first base and was almost a league-average hitter last season with the Marlins.