Taijuan Walker's alarming problem won't keep him from returning to Phillies rotation

The Phillies starter hasn't exactly been lighting up the radar gun.
Philadelphia Phillies starter Taijuan Walker's velocity has been down during his rehab starts
Philadelphia Phillies starter Taijuan Walker's velocity has been down during his rehab starts / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies have been without starting pitcher Taijuan Walker (right shoulder impingement) since placing the right-hander on the 15-day IL before the start of the regular season. According to multiple reports from MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, the Phillies will activate Walker this week and he will make his first start on Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The return of Walker to the Phillies rotation will have a domino effect. According to Zolecki, fellow right-hander Spencer Turnbull will reportedly head to the bullpen following his final start on Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds. Turnbull's electric performances over four starts have many Phillies fans in disbelief over the potential shake-up.

While the move certainly comes down to having one too many arms for too few spots in the rotation, Turnbull's innings restrictions following three injury-plagued seasons due to Tommy John surgery is a motivating factor in the Phillies and manager Rob Thomson's decision.

Turnbull's last start on Friday against the Chicago White Sox was a thing of beauty. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning before allowing an opposite-field single to Gavin Sheets. When all was said and done, Turnbull exited after seven innings without giving up a run on one hit and two walks while striking out six to earn his second win of the season.

Turnbull's preference would be to remain in the rotation, but it's become abundantly clear that this decision is out of his control. Speaking to the media following his last start, Turnbull seemed to accept his impending move to the bullpen like a professional.

“I obviously want to make it [the decision] as hard as possible,” Turnbull said, per Zolecki. “I want to start. I want to give the team the best chance to win when I’m out there. Obviously, I don’t want to pitch bad, so I’m going to go out there and do the best I can and let the results take care of themselves. All those decisions aren’t really up to me. I’m just here to help the team win, whatever role that is.”

The return of Walker and Turnbull's shift to the bullpen will be a bitter pill for Phillies fans to swallow. Over the course of four starts, Turnbull is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA, with 22 strikeouts in 22 innings and an impressive 0.77 WHIP. While nothing is permanent, Walker has a chance to reestablish his place in the rotation if he can get off to a great start this weekend.

Taijuan Walker returning to rotation despite one alarming problem

All eyes were on Taijuan Walker's final rehab start with Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Sunday. The end result should be cause for alarm for Phillies fans hoping Walker's return will strengthen an already dominant starting rotation.

In 6 1/3 innings, Walker allowed seven hits, four runs (all earned), three walks, and one strikeout while earning the victory. If we're being honest, the box score from this one has numerous red flags ahead of his return from the IL.

Walker's alarming decrease in velocity continued during this start. Known to previously reach as high as 96 mph on his fastball, Walker's velocity on Sunday left a lot to be desired. According to a Statcast breakdown of Walker's pitches, his four-seam-fastball only reached a high of 90.4 mph.

Of his 97 pitches during his six innings on the mound, only three had a recorded velocity above 90 mph. He mostly hovered in the mid-to-high 80s with his splitter and four-seam fastball. That diminished velocity could be a significant problem against major league hitters should Walker not reclaim his mid-90s fastball.

After making three of his four scheduled rehab starts, unless he was holding something back in his final Triple-A tune-up, it's curious why the Phillies wouldn't require Walker to make one more start for Lehigh Valley to make sure he's ready to contribute in the rotation.

Either way, Walker's return to the rotation will be something to watch as the Phillies head to the West Coast this weekend for a series against the San Diego Padres.