His back against a wall, the Phillies’ direct and focused new manager did his best to deflect and obscure. He left the impression of a man eager to serve two masters: his front office and himself.

Considering the constitution of the front office, those two masters will be one and the same much sooner than later.

Among the topics Joe Girardi addressed before the annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner Monday night:

  • Jake Arrieta, who underwent bone spur surgery on his right elbow in August, will be the No. 3 starter.
  • Zach Elfin, the team’s second-best pitcher after he began to ignore his former pitching coach and former manager, is somehow not necessarily the No. 4 starter.
  • Ranger Suarez has a chance to earn a spot in the back of the rotation, perhaps largely because he faces southeast when he pitches.
  • Vince “Four Innings” Velasquez, with his enticing velocity and his infuriating inconsistency, seems headed for the back end of the bullpen, a move Girardi executed in 2014 with Dellin Betances, then a Yankee and now a Met.
  • Andrew McCutchen, who blew out a knee in June, will be cleared to start spring training — a development that will both strengthen and clarify the Phillies’ outfield situation and their clubhouse dynamic.
  • Either Scott Kingery, the super-utility third-year player who is an excellent second baseman, or Jean Segura, whose shortstop job was given to free agent Didi Gregorius, will play third base. At this point, it sounds like it will be determined by a rock-paper-scissors shootout.

Girardi also said electronic cheating is bad, and that the NL East is good, but those things went without saying. What he can control — player roles and his evolving evaluations — do not go without saying. So he said.

All of these things matter, but none of them is certain — assuming, for instance, that Cutch’s knee holds up and Arrieta makes it through spring training without elbow, knee, or banana-hammock issues.

None of these things matters too much, however, since regardless of its composition, execution, and health, there’s no way the Phillies will play October baseball. Another playoff-free season should take care of general manager Matt Klentak’s tenure, which will clear the path for Girardi to pick Klentak’s successor, which will enable Girardi to mold the club in his own image. Which will mean no more dithering in January. Joe likes certainty, and he’s not certain of much right now.

For argument’s sake, though, we will examine each of the topics with appropriate gravity.

For Jake’s sake

Jake Arrieta hasn't lived up to the big contract the Phillies gave him two years ago.
Heather Khalifa / File Photograph
Jake Arrieta hasn't lived up to the big contract the Phillies gave him two years ago.

Arrieta was 54-24 with a 2.71 earned-run average and he averaged 198 innings his last three seasons with the Cubs. This convinced the Phillies to give him a three-year, $75 million contract at the age of 32. He’s 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA and has averaged 159 innings in the first two seasons of that contract.

“As of right now, we feel good about where his health is,” Girardi said, with what appeared to be authentic eagerness. “We’re going to see a lot more in a few weeks when he gets off the mound and he starts to ramp up and get ready for his season.”

Is that a blessing or a curse?

Zach not back?

"I, personally, think that Eflin has established himself as a dependable piece of a major-league rotation.”

You know said that? Not Joe Girardi. In fact, he didn’t talk about Eflin at all until he was asked.

Rather, that vote of confidence came from Gabe Kapler on the day Eflin made his last start of 2019. In his last seven starts, Eflin, a slim 25-year-old, overcame both the “heavy body” that he believed hindered him midseason and the heavy-handed coaching from Chris Young, an analytics disciple who’d told Eflin to scrap his sinker and throw more four-seam fastballs high in the strike zone. Eflin’s ERA was 2.83 through his first 14 starts but jumped to 10.46 in his next six, which landed him in the bullpen for two weeks. Eflin eventually scrapped Young’s instructions and went 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA in his last seven starts. Neither Kapler nor Young remains with the Phillies. Eflin might wind up wishing they were.

“We like the way that Zach threw the ball at the end of last year, and we look at him as a starter,” Girardi said, then hedged. “We have to take the best staff that we can take. I like what he offers. He’s different.”

Yes. He’s good.

Ranger danger

More than Elfin’s emergence as a bona fide big-league starter, Girardi seems intrigued by the potential, and perhaps the left-handedness, of Ranger Suarez. Three weeks before pitchers and catchers report, the Phillies have no other lefthanders among their candidates as starters (though Girardi mentioned that there can be “good buys” as February approaches and arrives).

Almost exclusively a starter through 2018, including his first trip to the majors in 2018, the 24-year-old Venezuelan pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the Phillies in 2019, and was occasionally excellent in his 37 outings. Called up in early June, Suarez gave up one run in his last 15 appearances.

Notably, when talking about the back of the rotation, Suarez was the first name Girardi brought up: “Ranger Suarez gained some great experience last year.”

Sounds like he’ll gain a lot more this year.

Vinny Velo in the ’pen?

Velasquez averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 53 starts the last two seasons. That’s a manager’s nightmare.

Velasquez’s fastball can hit 99 mph coming out of the bullpen, he can pitch multiple innings, and he might be the best athlete on the team. That’s a manager’s dream.

Asked directly whether he sees Velasquez as a starter or reliever, Girardi replied that he could handle “both,” but then gushed about how short-time starters like Velasquez can become “dominant” as back-end relievers, the way the Yankees converted Dellin Betances, a minor-league starter, into a major-league reliever at the age of 23.

Velasquez, 27, has balked at being a bullpen piece in the past, but the reference to Betances was a clever name drop by Girardi. Velasquez probably wouldn’t mind following Betances’ path: He’s a four-time All-Star who will make at least $22.85 million from 2018 to 2020.

Cutch coming back

Andrew McCutchen tries to catch a live drive against Colorado in May.
Yong Kim / File Photograph
Andrew McCutchen tries to catch a live drive against Colorado in May.

The Phillies collapsed soon after McCutchen tore his right ACL in a rundown June 3 in San Diego. They lost their centerfielder, their leadoff hitter, and, perhaps most important, their clubhouse mayor. Both he and they hoped he’d be back for spring training, and that now seems certain.

“He’s on schedule,” said Girardi, though he won’t let McCutchen, now 33, play very long or very often at the start. “We might take his spring training a little bit slower than someone who’s not coming off an injury."

That usage pattern will probably bleed into the season, since McCutchen will be just 10 months removed from surgery. But a little McCutchen is much, much better than none.

Who’s on third?

Probably Kingery, unfortunately. Girardi insisted that players need to be “comfortable” with their assignments, and that Segura “has played second before, so obviously he’s going to have more comfort level at second than he is at third base.”

Sounds like another year before Kingery finally gets to play the position God made him for.