Phillies would be foolish to remove Spencer Turnbull from the rotation when Taijuan Walker returns

Spencer Turnbull's surprising emergence in the rotation has created a great problem early in the season, making Walker's role unclear.
Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets - Game One
Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets - Game One / Adam Hunger/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies started the season shorthanded, with starting pitcher Taijuan Walker (right shoulder) and relief pitcher Orion Kerkering (right forearm) on the 15-day IL. Recent updates on Kerkering's minor league rehab stint suggest the Phillies could activate him as early as this weekend. The status and timetable for Walker have been unclear, until now.

Walker's spring training was a total train wreck. The right-hander was slowed by knee soreness at the outset of camp and later diagnosed with a right shoulder impingement after a combination of ineffectiveness and a major drop in velocity caused him to be shut down. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Scott Lauber, Walker was set to begin his rehab stint at Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Thursday.

Instead, due to wet weather, Walker was sent to Clearwater and pitched for the Threshers to mixed results. In a four-inning effort against Low-A hitters, the results were less than savory. Walker gave up two hits and two earned runs while striking out four and walking zero in his four frames.

Lauber's report that Walker will make four rehab starts makes sense, as Walker was already weeks behind other starting pitchers in camp before he was shut down in late March. The Phillies hope to see Walker build up his arm strength during these rehab starts and regain his velocity over the next few weeks. Walker's fastball saw an alarming drop in velocity to a spring training high of 92 mph in two abbreviated appearances, down from his standard 94-96 mph.

With Walker set to make four minor league rehab appearances, it's reasonable to believe that barring further injuries or setbacks, Walker could be activated in two to three weeks, sometime in early May. Will the controversial starter occupy a spot in the rotation when he returns?

Spencer Turnbull's red-hot start has created a good problem for the Phillies

When the Phillies placed Walker on the IL at the start of the season, it was assumed that Walker would complete a rehab assignment and return to the starting rotation when he was first eligible to be activated. What the Phillies front office and most fans weren't expecting was Spencer Turnbull's sheer brilliance during his first two starts in a Phillies uniform.

Turnbull has been a revelation since starting the season as Walker's replacement in the rotation. The Phillies signed the 31-year-old to a minor league contract this winter after the Detroit Tigers cut him loose. Injuries and ineffectiveness wreaked havoc on him during his last four seasons in Detroit.

Turnbull's signing elicited little reaction when news of his minor league contract was first announced in February, with many writing it off as Dave Dombrowski dumpster-diving for starting pitching depth at bargain basement prices.

After two dazzling starts, Turnbull and Dombrowski may have shifted that narrative in the opposite direction. Turnbull has exceeded any and all expectations two weeks into the season. The righty is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA, with 13 strikeouts and has only allowed one walk and five hits during his starts. Turnbull should be 2-0 after pitching six scoreless innings and allowing only two hits on Monday. However, the Phillies bullpen imploded during a nail-biting 5-3 extra-innings victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Manager Rob Thomson admitted in a sit-down with reporters that Turnbull could be a permanent fixture in the starting rotation.

“Sure. I mean, if he keeps putting up zeros, that’s tough to take him out of the rotation,” Thomson said on Thursday afternoon, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hagen. “But, we’ll see.”

What will Taijuan Walker's role be when he returns from the IL?

What does this all mean for Walker's future in the Phillies rotation?

Assuming all goes right for Walker in his rehab stint, Thomson and pitching coach Caleb Cotham will have an interesting decision to make when Walker returns. Turnbull is sure to get at least three more starts during this time frame. If he continues to pitch to his current level of dominance, the Phillies would be foolish to remove him from the starting rotation.

Two scenarios look likely.

One option sees Turnbull take over the spot in the rotation, with Walker heading to the bullpen as a long man/spot starter.

Or, they could do something more interesting. During Monday's telecast, Phillies NBC play-by-play caller Tom McCarthy theorized that Turnbull and Walker could piggyback in a role that would see both get bulk innings with one following the other.

Whatever the Phillies decide, having six viable starters battling for innings is a problem many teams in MLB would gladly accept right now with the recent rash of elbow injuries.