To say that 2018 will prove to be a make-or-break year for Vince Velasquez is putting it lightly. After impressing his new team in the first half of 2016, highlighted by a 16-strikeout shutout in April, Velasquez has been unable to recapture the magic that he seemed to have during his first few months with the Phillies.
After posting a 2.75 ERA over his first nine starts of 2016, Velasquez wound up finishing the year with a 4.12 ERA while also missing time due to injury. Last year, recurring elbow and finger injuries sidelined him to making just 15 starts, over which he had a 5.13 ERA. He only managed two wins and, despite throwing just over half the amount of innings in 2017 as he did in 2016 (72 compared to 131), suffered more losses (seven) than the previous year as well (six).
No matter how you look at it, Velasquez’s previous season was ugly across the board, and it’s understandably difficult to get excited about the prospect of him pitching again this year. It has been over a year and a half since we’ve seen him have any sort of consistency, but the Phils have still been treating him as a prospective starter in camp.
There’s obviously a lot of spring baseball left to go and pretty much nothing is set in stone yet, but even this early, Velasquez’s inconsistencies aren’t the only thing that may end up keeping him off the starting rotation. The Phillies already have an ace in Aaron Nola, they may end up bringing in Jake Arrieta if recent rumors are to be believed, Jerad Eickhoff is set to come back from injury last year and there are still a number of other prospective starters on the roster in Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Mark Leiter Jr.
With the many candidates, there simply isn’t enough room in the starting rotation to fit everyone, which opens up some other possibilities for pitchers like Velasquez. Between his recent struggles and the fact that there’s plenty of competition for starting spots, perhaps the Phils would be better off trying him out as a reliever instead of a regular starter.
Injury was a concern for Velasquez when the Phils first acquired him from the Houston Astros, and it’s become clear since that the concern was legitimate. Given his frequency of disabled list stints in the last two years, limiting him to not throwing more than an inning or two per game could help reduce that risk. It’s not as if putting him in the bullpen will suddenly prevent him from ever being hurt again, but it does still seem to be a less risky option than having him try to throw six or seven innings every time out. Plus, he’d still be able to throw batters off with his wide variety of pitches, including a nearly 100 mph fastball, as they wouldn’t be able to get adjusted to him in just one inning.
Despite the potential advantages of having Velasquez becoming a reliever, however, I’m a bit conflicted as to whether to throw my full support behind the idea. His performance has obviously been frustratingly inconsistent since mid-2016, and the longer he goes on like this, the greater the need will become for the Phillies to figure out how best to handle him. That being said, it could also be useful to give him one last chance to prove himself as a starter, because we’ve certainly seen that he has some great stuff, and it would be an absolute shame to see that go to waste.
If there’s any chance that Velasquez can recapture the promise we saw during his first few months in Philly, I’m inclined to say that he should be given a chance to do so, but I’m just not sure if he realistically will be able to or not. That is why 2018 is going to be so important for him. His career is at a crossroads right now, and how he performs in the upcoming season will ultimately determine where he goes from here.
A strong season will likely put Velasquez back on track to becoming the starter he was meant to be, but another repeat of 2017 will probably kill any chances of that happening again. Moving him to the bullpen could be seen as the safe thing to do, but something tells me that “safe” is not going to be what defines Gabe Kapler’s tenure as manager. Whatever the team ends up deciding to do with Velasquez, we can only hope that it leads to a better season in 2018.