CLEARWATER, Fla. — Joe Girardi, for the first time as Phillies manager, will address his team Wednesday morning before the pitchers and catchers shuffle out of the team’s spring-training clubhouse for their first workout of camp.
And the message, Girardi said, will be brief. He’ll set expectations, detail workloads, and outline what the group can expect over the six weeks of spring training.
“I don’t want to bore the pitchers and catchers because they’re here long enough,” he said Monday.
A good portion of Girardi’s crowd Wednesday morning will be pitchers who are trying to secure one of the final spots on the Phillies roster — veterans trying to hang on and prospects trying to crack the majors. The manager has a message for them, too.
“This is a time of preparation,” Girardi said. “It’s a time of competition, too, but the competition does not start tomorrow. It’s a chance for the players to get in shape and prepare to compete.”
The Phillies appear to begin spring training with one vacancy in their starting rotation and two in their bullpen. There are four pitchers vying for the last remaining rotation spot and even more jockeying for the last spots in the eight-man bullpen. The competition might not begin Wednesday, but it’s not too far off from starting.
Here’s a look at the races:
Favorites: Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Eflin.
Contenders: Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Cole Irvin, and Ranger Suarez.
The season will likely be defined by what the Phillies can get from starting pitchers not named Nola or Wheeler. The two starters at the top of the rotation will be responsible for roughly 40% of the team’s starts, while the rest are handled by pitchers who enter Clearwater with questions. How those questions are answered should decide whether the Phillies contend for their first postseason berth since 2011.
The Phillies did not add a starting pitcher after signing Wheeler in December, leading them to have an internal competition for the final spot in the rotation. They have not publicly assured Eflin of his place, but it’s hard to imagine them not keeping the right-hander in the rotation after he posted a 2.83 ERA in his final seven starts of 2019.
The real contenders for the No. 5 spot are likely Velasquez and Pivetta, with one of the two transitioning during camp to a relief role. But it might not be wise to discount Suarez, whom Girardi has repeatedly praised this offseason. He is left-handed, pitched well last season as a reliever, and throws in the low-90s, which Girardi likes as Suarez presents a different look from the other starters. He’ll have a chance this spring.
Spencer Howard, the team’s top pitching prospect, will be in camp, but Girardi said Tuesday that the right-hander will be on an innings limit this season. Howard should reach the majors in 2020, but it’s unclear how the Phillies will use him.
Favorites: Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez, Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, and Pivetta or Velasquez.
Contenders: Anyone with a live arm in the Clearwater area.
Hunter took a physical Tuesday morning in Clearwater and will have a major-league deal if all goes well. His deal — the only major-league contract the Phillies gave to a reliever this winter — puts him on the roster. Morgan and Dominquez are expected to be healthy after suffering injuries last season, but nothing is guaranteed. Pivetta and Velasquez each worked last season as a reliever, and one of them will return to the bullpen once the rotation is set.
That leaves the eight-man bullpen with two openings. The Phillies added three relievers — Robert Stock, Deolis Guerra, and Reggie McClain — this offseason through waiver claims, and signed six veteran relievers this winter to minor-league deals, effectively turning their bullpen competition into an open tryout. Some of the pitchers, such as Drew Storen and Bud Norris, did not pitch in the majors last season. Others, such as Francisco Liriano, pitched well last season while others — such as Anthony Swarzak, Blake Parker, and Trevor Kelley — had mixed results.
The Phillies scoured the margins for relief help, hoping one or two show enough this spring to crack the opening-day roster. But the real intrigue in Clearwater could be with the prospects who were invited to camp. Pitchers such as Garrett Cleavinger, Connor Brogdon, Addison Russ, and Damon Jones might not be in Miami for the season opener, but they could reach the majors in 2020.
Cleavinger struck out 14.5 batters per nine innings last season, which was enough for the Phillies to add him to the 40-man roster in December. Brogdon, Russ, and Jones all struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings and come to Clearwater as nonroster invitees. The Phillies have struggled recently to develop starting pitching, but they suddenly have a cast of relief prospects with impressive strikeout rates.