Phillies 5th Starter: Oberholtzer Favored

Jun 27, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Brett Oberholtzer (39) pitches against the New York Yankees in the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 27, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Brett Oberholtzer (39) pitches against the New York Yankees in the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Phillies will have an interesting, competitive battle in spring training for the 5th starter role in the pitching rotation.

As pitchers and catchers begin their first workouts this morning, the working assumption among all of the experts and insiders that follow the team closely is that the first four spots in the 2016 starting pitching rotation are already set.

Newcomer Jeremy Hellickson from Arizona, newcomer Charlie Morton from Pittsburgh, and returning sophomores Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff are pretty much penned into those first four rotation slots in some order.

That leaves the fifth starter role still to be decided. This is a spot that is frequently skipped over early in the season. If manager Pete Mackanin wants to go with his four best as often as possible, giving them a normal four days of rest, then the fifth starter would only be needed twice in April.

The Phillies have three off-days built into the schedule during that first month of the 2016 regular season already. Assuming no cancellations for inclement weather or other circumstances, a fifth starter would only be needed on April 13th at home vs. the San Diego Padres, and again on April 18th at home vs. the New York Mets.

Of course, the skipper may decide to spread his starters out a bit the first few weeks, giving them more rest early in the season. In any event, as the calendar flips into May the need for a fifth starter will come on a much more consistent basis.

The fight for that fifth starter role is likely to come down to four pitchers: returning starters Adam Morgan and David Buchanan, and a pair of arms received in the Ken Giles trade with the Houston Astros, Brett Oberholtzer and Vincent Velasquez.

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Velasquez is the youngest, and may be the most talented of that foursome. The 23-year old was the 2nd round choice of the Astros in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of high school in California. He made his big league debut last June 10th, and pitched in 19 games for Houston, making seven starts.

The 26-year old Oberholtzer is a native to our area, growing up as a Phillies fan in Delaware. The left-hander was the 8th round selection of the Atlanta Braves in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft, and has pitched in parts of three big league seasons, making 42 starts among his 45 appearances.

Buchanan was the Phillies 7th round selection in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of Georgia State University. The right-hander will turn 27 years old in May, and has gone 8-17 in 35 appearances, all of them starts, over parts of the last two seasons with the Phils. He has allowed 229 hits over 192.1 big league innings with a 115/61 K:BB ratio.

The left-handed Morgan was the Phillies’ 3rd round selection in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of Alabama. He will turn 26 years old at the end of February, and made his big league debut a year ago, going 5-7 over 15 starts. He allowed 88 hits in 84.1 innings with a 49/17 K:BB ratio.

Earlier this week, our followers here at TBOH were polled as to who they believed would end up the winner in this battle, and Oberholtzer was the clear choice, taking 50% of the vote among the four candidates:

While I believe that Velasquez is indeed the most talented of the group, and could well take the job with a sensational spring, I would tend to agree with the poll results in making Oberholtzer the leading contender for the role.

Oberholtzer is the most experienced of the group, and he is out of minor league options. He certainly has proven ability. The odds are great that he will break camp and head north with the Phillies in some role.

If he is beaten out for the fifth starter job, Oberholtzer is sure to become a lefty option out of the bullpen. Finally, he is left-handed, which would provide a contrast to the expected first four starters who are all righties.

Morgan is also a lefty, which is the reason that I think the real battle will come down to he and Oberholtzer in the end. Morgan was up and down during his rookie season with the Phils a year ago. Eight of his 15 starts were of the Quality Start variety (at least six innings, three earned runs or fewer allowed) and he came close a couple of other times out.

Buchanan is really only included here because he has made those 35 starts over the last two seasons. But in that time he has underwhelmed, and appears to simply be an organizational pitcher who will fill a role at AAA, with availability as an experienced arm should injuries strike at the big league level. He is the long shot candidate, as I see things.

Alec Asher will come to camp as a member of the 40-man roster, but the 24-year old was clearly not ready for the big leagues in his seven start audition last season after coming over as part of the Cole Hamels trade package from Texas. Asher went 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA, allowing 42 hits in 29 innings. He is likely ticketed for AAA Lehigh Valley.

Three of our TBOH Phillies Top 10 prospects have been given spring training invitations, but for Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, and Zach Eflin it is really all about being around the big league environment, getting some initial action in during the Grapefruit League against Major League players, and starting to prepare mentally for a future role.

All three of those pitchers are potentially exciting parts of the future Phillies rotation. Thompson and Appel have a chance to pitch in a 2-3 role, while Eflin is a legitimate back-end rotation option. Any of the three could see Citizens Bank Park later in the summer, but all three should realistically expect to make up 3/5 of the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs rotation for the first few months of the 2016 campaign.

So if you are laying odds on the fifth starter role, assuming health to all of the starting pitching options (always a dangerous assumption), then you can expect that Oberholtzer and Morgan will battle for a chance to become a lefty option, while Velasquez tries to show that he is not only more talented, but also fully ready to assume a big league role immediately.

There is more reason to be excited about the young, up-and-coming starting pitching options than at any time in recent memory. While the combination of current talent and minimal experience will likely work against the team in 2016, the future is looking much brighter for the Phillies on the mound.

Next: Matt Harrison Out for 2016