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Fifth-Starter Battle: Velasquez, Oberholtzer charge ahead

st 2016Monday provided an opportunity for Phillies fans to watch two players on the 25-man roster bubble compete in a game setting, as Vincent Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer, combined, pitched six shutout innings against the Pirates in a 1-0 win.

It’s still very early to make any conclusions on any position battles; that said, let’s look at what we have so far from those – including Velasquez and Oberholtzer – competing to make the opening day starting rotation.

Vincent Velasquez – He’d rather go by “Vince,” or – praise – “Vinny from Philly,” which immediately earns intangible points for the 6’3”, 23-year-old right-hander who pitched 55 innings last year for Houston.

So far Velasquez has merely pitched five Grapefruit League innings. The numbers: 6 H, 2 ER, 6 K, BB. Command is the biggest issue for Velasquez – he has the stuff, but can he throw the stuff for strikes? Monday he seemed to harness the stuff much better, working into a few deeper counts but limiting bad pitches. The hits against him weren’t very hard – mostly moderate grounders up the middle that sneaked into the outfield. Even better, while he’s not known to be a ground-ball pitcher, Velasquez induced two inning-ending double plays against the weak Pirates offense.

The potential is high for Vinny from Philly. His fastball sneaks past unsuspecting hitters, and his changeup and breaking pitch (a curve) snap very well. If he continues to pitch this well and show improved command as the spring continues, he may have to be the favorite to enter the season in the rotation.

Brett Oberholtzer – Over five innings thus far, Oberholtzer has pitched well, giving up just four hits and a walk with three strikeouts. He hasn’t surrendered many fly balls, which bodes well for any pitcher who plans to make Citizens Bank Park his home.

The 26-year-old left-hander has an easy style but only two effective pitches – fastball and changeup. That means it’s likely Oberholtzer won’t be a long-term solution for the rotation, but if Velasquez struggles with his command, it’s likely the Delaware native gets the call north, to last at least for a month or two. He can manage for a little while with the small arsenal while the Phils look at their other arms a little closer.

Adam Morgan Starting Thursday against the Yankees, Morgan had a good outing. The numbers may say 2 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, but he surrendered a single to Carlos Beltran and a home run to Alex Rodriguez. Otherwise, he tossed outs – four of them grounders.

Morgan will get three innings Tuesday against Pittsburgh; he’s considered a top competitor for that fifth starter spot with Velasquez and Oberholtzer. To trump them both Morgan will have to stay very consistent and throw plenty of ground ball outs.

David Buchanan – Starting the game March 2 against Toronto, Buchanan was exactly what he usually is (2 IP, H, K). He also started Monday against a Japanese college team, lasting three innings and surrendering four hits and a walk while striking out two. Again, very Buchananesque.

Buchanan is a dark horse in that, if Velasquez, Oberholtzer and Morgan don’t impress enough, it’s possible he gets the call for the first few trips around the rotation. That wouldn’t really hurt the Phils, but it would be a sign that the club isn’t quite happy yet with their younger arms.

Alec Asher – Also pitching against the Yankees on Thursday, Asher handed in a mixed bag of a performance – 2 IP, 3 H, ER, 4 K, 2 BB. He nearly had a great outing, striking out Slade Heathcott and A-Rod, but he surrendered a single to Mark Teixeira, a double to Chase Headley, a walk to Gary Sanchez and a final walk to Rob Refsnyder.

The book on Asher is he has good stuff (fastball, slider, decent changeup, curveball) but still lacks great command. He also has a tendency – as we saw last season and in the spring outing – to be too fine. Sometimes he gets strikeouts, sometimes he gives up bases-loaded walks. That can’t happen. He needs to be more decisive, and more training could help there. Asher probably starts the season in triple-A to polish up.

Severino Gonzalez – It’s been crickets for Gonzalez after getting the call in the Phils’ first spring game. In that game, against Toronto, he surrendered two runs on two hits, a walk and a hit batsman in two innings. He struck out one.

That Toronto game showed us what we’ve seen a lot from Gonzalez: He makes it look challenging out there. His stuff is hittable. He has spotty control. It’s actually a little surprising he’s still in this race. That said, he’s a last gasp option and not likely to be on the 25-man roster this year, unless injuries thin the pitching corps quite a bit.

Mark Appel – Over two innings against the Yankees that Thursday, Appel had a tough go of it, walking four (including three in one inning) and giving up a run. His help came in one inning by a big ground out, and in another inning by Jorge Alfaro’s arm.

It’s likely Appel starts the season in triple-A. He needs to cut down on those walks, obviously, and show the stuff that could make him a devastating strikeout pitcher (jury still out on that).

Next: Morgan gets the start Tuesday against Pittsburgh. He’s at the top of the fifth-starter race with Velasquez and Oberholtzer, and it’s most likely one of them gets the call north to start the season with the Phils. There’s an outside chance Oberholtzer or Morgan gets to be a long-innings reliever, too.

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