The Philadelphia Phillies have a serious battle on their hands for the role of the 5th starter in the pitching rotation.
As spring training opened in Clearwater a few weeks ago, the first four spots in the 2016 rotation were nearly guaranteed to belong to veteran newcomers Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson and young holdovers Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff.
Assuming those four were healthy, they would be heading north with the Phillies when the team broke camp in early April. That health issue has actually already popped up with Eickhoff, though it appears that he is now getting back on track.
The interesting battle was going to be for the 5th starter slot, which is being contested by a pair of holdovers, righty David Buchanan and lefty Adam Morgan, and a pair of newcomers in righty Vincent Velasquez and lefty Brett Oberholtzer.
That battle is getting more and more interesting, and the pitchers may now be beginning to sort themselves into tiers. Yesterday it was Morgan and Oberholtzer taking a turn on the mound, and each was very impressive in keeping himself at the top of those tiers.
The 26-year old Morgan went four innings against the New York Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. He shut the Bronx Bombers out on just one hit, striking out a pair and walking just one. Morgan was so efficient that he faced just one over the minimum in his appearance.
After walking Aaron Hicks with one out in the bottom of the first, Morgan got veteran Carlos Beltran on a foul-tip strikeout. Didi Gregorious singled to lead off the bottom of the 3rd, but then with one out, Jacoby Ellsbury lined into a 4-3 inning-ending double play.
That was all Morgan would allow on the afternoon. He struck out Hicks to begin the bottom of the fourth, and ended his outing by retiring all-star veterans Beltran on a fly out and Mark Teixeira on a grounder to first base.
The Phillies would get an RBI double from Ryan Howard in the top of the 1st inning to jump on top 1-0. In the top of the 2nd, Nick Williams delivered an RBI double, and then came home himself on an RBI single off the bat of Cesar Hernandez. That would be all the scoring in the game as the Phils went on to a 3-0 victory.
Oberholtzer followed Morgan to the mound. The 26-year old has no minor league options remaining, and has been considered the front-runner for the spot for that very reason. At the very least, his performances this spring are certainly clinching him a spot on the big league staff. Now it’s a question of whether that will come as a starter or in the bullpen.
During three shutout innings yesterday, Oberholtzer allowed four hits and walked one batter. He allowed two of the hits with one out in the 5th when Chase Headley and Starlin Castro had back-to-back singles. But Oberholtzer worked out of that with no damage.
After a 1-2-3 inning in the 6th, Oberholtzer got into trouble in the 7th, allowing a one-out ground rule double to Carlos Corporan and a two-out single to Castro. But he again worked out of that jam, and left with the team shutout still intact. Luis Garcia and Reinier Roibal would finish it up, each tossing a shutout frame.
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So far this spring, Morgan has allowed just four hits and two earned runs over nine innings. He has struck out two and walked two batters. Oberholtzer has allowed eight hits and no earned runs over eight innings, with four strikeouts and one walk. Those two have established themselves at the front of the 5th starter race.
Just behind them is the 23-year old Velasquez, who has allowed 10 hits and four earned runs over nine innings, striking out nine and walking three. He is coming off a solid outing against a tough Blue Jays squad.
Buchanan, easily the least talented of the group, has experience on his side with 35 big league starts over the last two seasons. However, those starts haven’t been impressive. He has a 5.01 career ERA, and has allowed 229 hits over 192.1 innings. This spring, he has allowed five hits and two earned runs over four innings thus far.
Alec Asher remains in big league camp, and will get the start this afternoon against the Baltimore Orioles. However, his performances last season while with the Phils and thus far this spring would appear to have him ticketed for AAA Lehigh Valley at some point.
Asher went 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA over seven starts in the big leagues in 2016, allowing 42 hits in 29 innings. This spring the 24-year old righty has allowed six hits and three earned runs thus far in five innings.
As I view it, Oberholtzer has done nothing to give up his role as the leader for the 5th starter role. But he only has that lead thanks to the lack of options. Otherwise, Morgan would be at least dead-even with him. Those two are at the top for now. Velasquez is in 3rd, with Buchanan and Asher looking as if they will head to AAA by the end of camp.