In the end, six years of occasionally tantalizing stuff but ultimately unfulfilled expectations came down to one calculation: With their playoff hopes dimming, the Phillies preferred bullpen games over Vince Velasquez.
Rather than bringing back Velasquez from the injured list at a time when they lack a No. 5 starter, the Phillies removed him from the 40-man roster Saturday by designating him for assignment.
It was the ultimate indignity for a pitcher who made the second-most starts for the Phillies since 2016 but led the team in second chances, always seeming to reclaim a starting-rotation spot after fumbling it in each of the last three seasons.
“We just felt it was the move to do,” manager Joe Girardi said one day after the Phillies’ bullpen allowed 11 runs in a loss to the Colorado Rockies. “We’re going more with the bullpen game than a fifth starter and use relievers in those situations. We just felt it was the best thing to do.”
If he clears waivers and doesn’t agree to stay in triple A, or if he gets claimed by another team, Velasquez will wrap up his Phillies career with a 30-40 record and 4.93 ERA in 133 games, 116 of which were starts. He had a 5.95 ERA this season, including an 8.40 mark in his last 11 starts before going on the injured list with what the team described as a blister on his right middle finger.
But Velasquez got so many chances because the Phillies have an almost impossible shortage of pitching depth. They might have non-tendered him last winter but instead went through the salary arbitration process and brought him back for $4 million.
Velasquez began the season in the bullpen as effectively the No. 6 starter behind veterans Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. When Moore faltered, Velasquez entered the rotation and posted a 2.31 ERA in six starts.
It turned out to be a tease. Again.
“He started off so well for us when we put him in the rotation,” Girardi said. “But he had just struggled.”
The final straw for Velasquez with the Phillies may have come on July 24. He gave up six runs and got only seven outs in a 15-3 pummeling at home against the Atlanta Braves, then questioned why Girardi lifted him in the third inning.
“Only 53 pitches. I have a lot of arm left, man,” Velasquez said after what turned out to be his last start at Citizens Bank Park. “I know I have more room to kind of make those improvements and go deep as far as I possibly can. It kind of threw me off guard being taken out early, but Joe made the decision.”
Velasquez made his next start six days later in Pittsburgh and gave up five runs in two innings in a 7-0 loss. The Phillies traded for starter Kyle Gibson earlier that day and put Velasquez on the injured list a few days later.
The Phillies sent Velasquez on a protracted minor-league rehab assignment that began Aug. 17 at high-A Clearwater. He moved to triple-A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 2 and gave up two runs in 6 ⅔ innings over two starts. He struck out nine batters Wednesday in Worcester, Mass., two days before the Phillies’ bullpen-game blowup against the Rockies.
With as many as four more starts for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, Girardi said the Phillies remain committed to the bullpen-game strategy. They called up right-hander Adonis Medina from triple-A Lehigh Valley to provide multiple innings out of the bullpen. Relievers Enyel De Los Santos and Ramón Rosso were sent down after pitching Friday night.
Velasquez’s years with the Phillies were marked by inconsistency.
Acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros that represented the first big move of former general manager Matt Klentak’s tenure, he struck out 16 batters in a three-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres in his second start for the team in 2016. But he never recorded an out in the eighth inning as a starter again.
Velasquez went at least six innings and gave up less than four runs in only 33 starts. He completed six innings only 35.3% of the time. Among 110 pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2016, Velasquez is tied for the eighth-highest walk rate (9.6%).
“You weigh in everything when you make decisions like this,” Girardi said. “Roster spots, effectiveness, role. It’s everything.”
At last, although Velasquez was eligible for free agency after the season, the Phillies finally decided they had seen enough.