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Phillies choose Vince Velasquez as fifth starter

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The competition to become the Phillies' fifth starter ended Monday morning like this: Adam Morgan emerged from a meeting with team officials without an answer as to why he was demoted to the minors. Vince Velasquez, the winner, learned the news when a teammate told him Morgan was sent down. His phone lit up with a subsequent alert from a sports app.

In the end, upside prevailed. It is reasonable to wonder if there ever was a competition.

"Spring training performance is important for certain guys," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "But for those two guys, we both know who they are and what they're capable of doing. We just went with Velasquez."

After Velasquez dazzled for six innings against the Blue Jays, perhaps the most potent lineup in baseball, it was not hard to see why he emerged the winner. He has the stuff of a dominant starter. He spotted his powerful fastball. He threw a sweeping curveball. He fanned eight in six scoreless innings.

Velasquez, 23, was the centerpiece of the new front office's first big trade last December. When asked if that factored into the decision, Mackanin said, "Possibly." The Phillies will use a rotation of five righthanded pitchers.

Morgan, 26, did nothing to lose the job. Mackanin praised the lefthander's attitude. He beat the odds to return from a devastating shoulder injury and added a cutter to his repertoire this spring. For now, he will stand atop a stacked triple-A Lehigh Valley rotation.

"Not really getting an answer is probably the hardest part," Morgan said. "Just, 'Keep working.' OK. Other than that, it's just the nature of the beast, I guess."

Morgan, of course, will be back. The Phillies will use more than five starters this season, and he will be the first call when help is required.

"It was a very tough decision," Mackanin said. "It was a nice situation to have to decide something because we think the world of Morgan. He pitched very well this spring. We like both of them. We like Velasquez's power arm. We want to see him in the big leagues."

How Velasquez handles a rotation assignment is one of the season's great unknowns. He has not thrown more than 100 innings since 2013. Some talent evaluators see him as a potential closer, but the Phillies will provide him every opportunity to log more innings as a starter before exploring that path.

Velasquez has a checkered injury history. The Phillies, a source said, were concerned about some of the pitcher's medical examinations at the time of the trade with Houston. That forced the two sides to alter the trade parameters.

"It's all about health," Velasquez said. "My goal is to stay healthy for the whole season and to create that longevity."

Mackanin said both Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff will remain in Florida while the team heads north Wednesday. Those two pitchers will throw in a minor-league game in Clearwater on Saturday, and the Phillies will then determine who starts in the fourth game of the season.

Even if he stays healthy, Velasquez could be shut down with an innings limit. Can he make it through an entire season?

"That's a good question," Mackanin said. "We're going to find out. We need to find that out as soon as possible. We're building toward the future, and it's important for us to get him going and see exactly what we've got there."