Phillies 5th Starter Battle Down to Two

The Philadelphia Phillies have held a spirited battle for their 5th starter role, which now appears down to just two arms.

When the Phillies acquired left-hander Brett Oberholtzer as part of the Ken Giles trade with the Houston Astros, he immediately became a favorite to win the 5th starter job with the club, at least at the outset of the 2016 season.

That was for a few logical reasons. First, the 26-year old Oberholtzer was the candidate with the most experience and success in Major League Baseball. The Delaware native has tossed 253.2 innings over parts of three big league seasons in which he had made 42 starts.

Another factor that pushed Oberholtzer to the front of the race were that he was left-handed, and the other four rotation members entering the season – Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff – are righties.

Also, the southpaw is out of minor league options, so the Phils were pretty much guaranteed to carry him in some role, barring major injury or a complete performance meltdown in spring.

Not only did Oberholtzer not have that meltdown, but in fact he has pitched well. Over his first eight Grapefruit League innings across three appearances he has allowed no earned runs and eight hits, with a 4/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

While Oberholtzer has certainly not been dominant, he has been effective enough to maintain his lead in that 5th starter race. Or so it seemed. Instead, the Phils have decided that his best role would be out of the bullpen.

Oberholtzer was a bit disappointed in comments to Philly.com’s Jim Salisbury: “I guess it’s a little, because I’ve been so efficient this spring and in my big-league career so far,” he said. “But things can change. As for right now, I’m going to be a reliever. My job is to still get outs. I couldn’t be happier to be with this team and have a job in any role.

Now the 5th starter fight becomes a mano-a-mano battle between 26-year old lefty Adam Morgan and 23-year old righty Vincent Velasquez. Morgan is seen as more experienced, and has that left-handed component. Velasquez is viewed as ultimately more talented.

It’s difficult to say how the Phillies will decide between the two, as there are good arguments for both. Morgan was the team’s 3rd round choice in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft, and has pitched in parts of five minor league seasons with the organization. He made his big league debut a year ago, and had mixed results across his first 15 career starts.

Velasquez was the 2nd round choice of the Houston Astros in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft, and pitched in parts of five minor league seasons in the Houston organization before also making his big league debut last year. He generally pitched well over his first 19 appearances in the Major Leagues, making seven starts.

So far this spring, Velasquez may be the most impressive pitcher to take the mound for the Phillies. He has allowed 13 hits over a team-high 14 innings, and perhaps more impressively has a 16/4 K:BB ratio. Morgan has pitched well himself, having allowed just four hits across his first nine innings. He has struck out two and walked two batters. 

In the end, the decision may simply come down to whether the Phillies want to go with their most talented option. If Velasquez keeps pitching this way, he may force their hand in that direction. The loser of the battle will not suffer Oberholtzer’s fate of a bullpen role, but instead will head to AAA Lehigh Valley to become part of the loaded IronPigs roster.

The upcoming Phillies rotation has Morgan scheduled to take the mound for a start on Thursday in Lake Buena Vista against the host Atlanta Braves. Velasquez is next scheduled to take the mound for a minor league game on Tuesday.

The pressure may now be on the more veteran Morgan to keep performing well. Velasquez, who also came to the Phillies in that same Giles deal with Houston as brought Oberholtzer, is seen as a big piece of the rebuilding program. Morgan is more of an organizational arm who will always have to keep producing to remain in the rotation as more of the young, talented prospects become Major League ready.

Of course there is always the possibility that both pitchers could come north with the team. That would require something going wrong for at least one of the already locked-in starters. The fact is that Morton, Hellickson, and Eickhoff have not received much game action this spring due to various factors. If any is found to be not ready at the start of the season, both Morgan and Velasquez could make the team, at least temporarily.

Will the Phillies take the perhaps more conservative route, opting to give an organizational guy who offers a left-handed option the job, and let Velasquez have a little more time to develop in the minors? Or will they decide that the future is now, and that Velasquez’ talent is simply too hard to ignore? Each has about 2-3 more spring starts with which to influence that decision.