Sometime in the next two weeks — before the Phillies begin a schedule of 60 games in 66 days — manager Joe Girardi will finalize his starting rotation by naming a fifth starter.
Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Eflin secured their places while the team was still in Clearwater, Fla. And the competition for that final spot was one of the key decisions looming in March before spring training was canceled.
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But the ramifications of that choice now feel much less critical. Yes, Girardi’s pick — likely either Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez — will be a starter while the others transition to the bullpen. But unlike in March, those roles could only be temporary during a shortened season played amid a pandemic.
“I think with what we’re dealing with, with the COVID-19, realistically you have to build up a number of guys,” Girardi said Thursday. “I don’t think you can say, ‘OK, these are my five starters and you build up guys just able to throw two innings.’ I think you have to have seven or eight ready to go.”
The virus has already affected the competition as Ranger Suarez, one of the contenders during spring training, last week was placed on the COVID-19 injured list. It would be naive to think another starter could not be lost either for testing positive for the coronavirus, displaying symptoms, coming in contact with an infected person, or just having their negative test lost the way outfielder Adam Haseley did.
The Phillies will start the season with five starters, as Girardi has said he’s not interested in a six- or seven-man rotation. But they’ll have a list of starters — either in the bullpen or at the team’s alternate training site in Allentown — waiting to fill in.
Through 60 games last season, the Phillies used seven starting pitchers. An eighth starter — reliever Jose Alvarez — was used during former manager Gabe Kapler’s short-lived “opener” experiment. Even in a pandemic-less season, the Phillies shuffled pitchers through their rotation during the first 60 games of 2019 due to either poor performance or injury.
Those same factors are to be expected again in 2020, but the Phillies now also acknowledge the likelihood that their rotation could be altered by the coronavirus.
“I just think you have to have those guys built up as much as possible when we leave here just because if there was an outbreak in the clubhouse or an injury,” Girardi said. “It could happen really quick. We saw what happened with Nola, right? We had to sit him down because we thought he was exposed. If he sees two other guys and plays catch with his buddies, it could happen fast.”
The Phillies will play the first two weeks of the season with a 30-man roster and the four additional spots will likely be shifted toward the bullpen. The Phillies could carry more than 10 relievers at the start of the season, two or three of whom could jump into the rotation. It is possible, Girardi said Thursday, for pitchers to remain stretched out even if they are in the bullpen.
In Allentown, they’ll have even more arms building up in case a need arises. That’s where Spencer Howard, the top prospect almost guaranteed to pitch this season, will likely begin the season. The Phillies, in a course of just 60 games, are preparing themselves for the chance they could need more than 10 starters to navigate the season.
“I’m thinking about having like three rotations in a sense in my mind. Where you have five guys going and then if we have enough -- I’ve got to check our roster -- we have another seven or eight guys going that are throwing on their fifth day in the other camp once the season starts,” Girardi said. “Because all of a sudden a guy could test positive and you need a starter and you’ve got to fill that one in and you’ve got to make sure you have the arms. Because eventually the roster is going to be 26. It’s not going to be 30 and you’re going to eliminate pitchers from that. So those guys have to be ready to go.”
The competition for the final spot reopened on Thursday as Velasquez started an intrasquad game at Citizens Bank Park. It was an encouraging start, Girardi said. J.T. Realmuto caught Velasquez and revealed that the pitcher is now throwing a cutter. Realmuto expects “big things,” he said. It was just three innings, but the afternoon was enough for Velasquez to keep himself in consideration for that final rotation spot.
But even if Velasquez is shifted to the bullpen in two weeks, he knows that he could be shifted back to the rotation just as fast.