CLEARWATER, Fla. — It was Jake Arrieta’s day to start on Sunday, but the right-hander was sent Sunday morning to pitch three innings in a simulated game on the backfields of the Carpenter Complex. He’ll open the season as the No. 3 starter. Arrieta says he’s healthy, therefore there’s little intrigue about him this early in camp.
The Phillies instead gave Sunday’s big stage to Ranger Suarez, who pitched three strong innings at Spectrum Field in a 3-2 loss to the Orioles. It provided the Phillies a closer look at the left-hander who has emerged this spring to be a legitimate contender for the final spot in the team’s rotation.
The team’s roster battles are limited this spring to the final bench, bullpen spots, and the fifth starter. Sunday was a chance to get a feel on the rotation race between Suarez, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez.
“Efficient. Ground balls. I thought he threw the ball really well,” manager Joe Girardi said. “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 was a reliever last season for the first time in his career and he handled the transition well. The soft-tossing left-hander had a 3.14 ERA in 37 appearances. But Suarez said he’s been a starter his entire life, and the Phillies will give him a chance in Clearwater to prove he should have that role.
Suarez has not allowed a run in his first five Grapefruit League innings and a strong spring could make the fifth-starter decision a difficult one.
“If they give me the opportunity, I’ll try and take advantage of it,” Suarez said.
It’s way too early to evaluate, Joe Girardi said, but it’s safe to say the Phillies were impressed Sunday by the inning of work from prospect Damon Jones. The left-hander struck out two batters in the eighth inning and retired the side in order.
Jones reached triple A last season as a starter, but he could move this season to a relief role. The Phillies’ bullpen is extremely thin, especially after Girardi said after Sunday’s game that Tommy Hunter will begin the season on the injured list and Victor Arano’s status is “probably a maybe” for opening day.
The Phillies could be forced to move Jones to the bullpen. They will open minor-league camp this week, but expect Jones to stay on the major-league side for a while. A strong camp could put him in the opening-day bullpen.
“He’s interesting,” Girardi said. “He throws 95 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.”
Jake Arrieta was in so much pain last season that he had to alter his throwing mechanics to alleviate the discomfort caused from a bone spur on his right elbow. So the right-hander is working this spring on fine tuning his delivery and resetting his form to how he threw before last season.
“Last year, I was trying to throw with my whole body,” Arrieta said. “I was trying to muscle it there because I didn't necessarily have the action and the arm speed that I would typically have. More shoulder turn, trying to drive the ball to the plate with more body effort.”
He pitched three innings on Sunday morning against a lineup comprised mostly of prospects, including last June’s first-round pick Bryson Stott. Jay Bruce was the lone major-leaguer in the simulated game at the Carpenter Complex. Arrieta threw 54 pitches, felt pain free, and continued to progress towards the season.
“I’m trying to make things move when I just need it. It develops naturally,” Arrieta said. “Mainly with the curveball. It has great action. Everything has great action. I’m just a little quick on the front side. Moving laterally. It’s finishing outside the zone. So, just tightening that up — the feel on the front side. All of the feedback is great. The changeup action is like a split. The cutter is really good. I’m throwing quality strikes. Commanding the sinker on my glove side, that’s the hardest thing to command for anybody. Opposite of the throwing side. Down in the zone. That was good today.”