When Vince Velasquez put on his red Philadelphia Phillies cap for the first time in Spring Training of 2016, he made clear that he wanted to be a starting pitcher, not a reliever. Over three years later, with much less leverage, the 26-year-old righty has changed his tune a bit about potentially pitching out of the bullpen.
Velasquez was placed on the 10-day injured list on May 11 with a right forearm strain. After a bullpen session Wednesday that was apparently successful, Velasquez appears to be nearing a return. But rookie Cole Irvin has gone 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in two starts since replacing Velasquez. Nick Pivetta has struck out 60 batters in six starts since being demoted to Triple-A. Where Velasquez fits in at this juncture isn’t clear. So he’s keeping all of his options open.
“I’m not throwing in the towel on that [starting] yet,” Velasquez told the collective media, which included Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I want to ride out being a starter. But I do think closing would be cool in the future.”
If Irvin struggles in tonight’s start against the Chicago Cubs, it’s possible Velasquez could replace him the next time through the rotation. So it behooves him to stay mentally prepared for that, while also knowing that he has a 4.57 ERA in 75 starts as a Phillie. It may just be time for Velasquez and the Phillies to try something different.
For his part, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler says there are no guarantees in regards to what Velasquez’s role will be when he’s activated.
“I don’t really see it that way [that Velasquez is guaranteed to return to the rotation],” Kapler said. “I don’t see it as a right. I see it as what’s best for the Phillies. If it’s best that he come back and rejoin the rotation, then he will. And if what’s best for the Phillies is for Jerad Eickhoff and Cole Irvin to continue to take down starts and utilize Vinny in some other fashion, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll always put the best interests of the organization first and because we don’t have all the information, it’s very difficult to make the decision right now.”
It’s possible that if Velasquez makes a few rehab appearances, the situation will resolve itself. A current starter could get injured, or someone in the major league rotation could underperform, warranting a change. Again, though, if the Phillies needed to add a starting pitcher, there’s no guarantee Velasquez would be their first pick.
Velasquez has two remaining minor league options, so sending him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley when he’s ready to be activated is a possibility. The question then would become what role Velasquez would be pitching out of if sent to Lehigh Valley. The Phillies could just have him start until something becomes available in the starting rotation. They could use him out of the bullpen, though even that is vague. If the Phillies choose to experiment with Velasquez as a major league reliever, it almost certainly won’t be with him closing immediately. That could mean that he prepares as a middle reliever at Triple-A. It may also mean that the Phillies try to get him late-inning experience at Triple-A, knowing that even if he wouldn’t immediately be utilized in the highest-leverage situations at the major league level, that could be the eventual goal.
The Phillies asked Velasquez to pitch in relief in the ninth inning of their win over the Washington Nationals on April 2. Velasquez did strike out two in a clean inning, but the game was well in hand, as he entered the inning with a six-run lead. It’s unclear how he would respond to pitching in more high-leverage situations given that he’s often appeared flustered when things don’t get well for him in starts.
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