Worried about Taijuan Walker? Who the Phillies can turn to for help if he isn't ready for Opening Day

The Phillies starter has had an erratic spring, leading to questions about his readiness for the season.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets - Game One
Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets - Game One / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies have had a spring training that has seen two major story lines develop as camp has stretched into the final full week of Grapefruit League play. The bullpen has come into focus with injuries potentially opening up three spots that Rob Thomson will have to fill before the team leaves Clearwater. The outfield has drawn the majority of the headlines as many contemplate who should patrol center field when the season begins.

Enter a new problem. What should the Phillies do after Taijuan Walker's horrific performance on the mound in two shambolic spring training appearances? All of a sudden, the club's five-man rotation to begin the season is a major question mark.

If you're not familiar with what went down against the Baltimore Orioles in his last start, here's a quick summary of Walker's evening: 2/3 inning, three hits, two walks, two home runs, and a spring training ERA that now stands at 16.88. What's worse, after Walker was shelled in the first inning and gave up a three-run home run, he was removed but returned later in the inning (that's normal in spring training). It didn't get any better as Walker allowed another home run and a walk before being pulled for good. Yikes!

According to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, Walker's velocity was still well below normal during this start.

The numbers during his last start were alarming, but Walker is still scheduled to make his next spring training start against the Cincinnati Reds on Monday. According to the hurler, in a story from Zolecki, Walker likes where his velocity is currently at and thought his pitches were solid against the Orioles.

“It’s getting there, just a lot slower than I would like,” said Walker per Zolecki. “I feel like each start it’s crept up. I don’t know. I’ve been putting a lot of work in. I’ve been working hard. Really, really hard.”

“I feel good, the body feels good, it feels a lot better than when I came into camp,” continued Walker. “I feel like my body is moving so good right now. Very athletic. Moving quick. Again, we’ve really been busting our [butts], working really hard.”

With the clock ticking down on spring training, it's not wrong to be concerned about Walker's readiness for the start of the regular season. Phillies manager Rob Thomson took a surprisingly optimistic tone when speaking about Walker's spring training performances.

“He’s trying to find it,” said Thomson per Zolecki. “Hopefully he does in the next week or two.”

Next week would be great, but "in the next week or two?" Cue the record scratch sound effect. If Walker has another outing like he did in his last start, should the Phillies place him on the IL to begin the season and let him regain his velocity in extended spring training? Who should the Phillies carry to fill the fifth spot in the rotation? There are some names that stand out who could be tasked with picking up that role to begin the season.

Could a Walker "injury" open up a rotation spot for one top prospect?

The Phillies are obviously hoping Taijuan Walker is healthy enough to begin the season in the big league rotation, but injuries to key veterans have a way of opening doors for other players on the roster who have a chance to make a good impression. Could one top pitching prospect be that option?

Mick Abel has impressed during spring training. Abel missed time when he fell victim to the flu bug that made its way through the Phillies clubhouse. He came back to full health and dominated in his two innings of work in the Spring Breakout showcase on March 16 vs the Detroit Tigers. He was recently optioned to minor league camp.

The No. 2 prospect in the Phillies system could really capitalize on this type of opportunity. Top pitching prospect Andrew Painter won't contribute this season as he continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery, and Griff McGarry is trying to regain his control with a role that better suits him. Abel has a direct path to the big club if an opening presents itself. It will be interesting to see how the Phillies handle Abel's workload this week.

Veteran depth pieces could fill an open rotation spot

A pattern that emerged late in the offseason was the Phillies' frequent signings of veteran starting pitching depth. While the Phillies have a set five-man rotation, minor league pitching depth is a necessary part of any ballclub.

The Phillies have brought back David Buchanan after a lengthy stint abroad in the KBO. Starting the season in the major leagues would be a nice full-circle moment for Buchanan if he can contribute to the rotation and find a role. Spencer Turnbull was signed to a minor league deal after spending the majority of his career in the Detroit Tigers rotation. Kolby Allard and Max Castillo were also signed as minor league pitching depth, but both were recently reassigned to minor league camp.

Taijuan Walker's erratic spring has now brought the Phillies' rotation depth under the magnifying glass. Do they bring Mick Abel to Philadelphia to begin the year and see if he can handle major league hitters? Or will they turn to some depth options with big league experience but mixed levels of success? The last week of spring training has come with many question marks of how the team will settle its roster for Opening Day.