Phillies Rotation

Latest on Turnbull's role and what Thomson wants to see in Walker's debut

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SAN DIEGO — The Phillies are less than a day away from Taijuan Walker's season debut, an outing that's sure to be monitored closely by the coaching staff, front office and fanbase alike.

Walker enters the rotation after completing a rehab assignment for a right shoulder impingement. He was initially expected to make four or five rehab starts — a full spring training's worth — but felt good enough to return after three.

His reinsertion into the rotation has been a hotly contested topic among Phillies fans because Spencer Turnbull has pitched tremendously well in five starts in Walker's place, going 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. Turnbull has struck out 30 in 27 innings and held his opponents to a .137 batting average. It's hard to be much better than he's been in his first month as a Phillie.

There are multiple reasons why the Phils are making the move. For one, Turnbull pitched just 57 innings last season between the majors and minors. He's on pace to triple that workload and teams just don't do that with pitchers in this era.

Another reason that doesn't need to be explained directly by decision-makers but plays an obvious role is Walker's contract. This is the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract. Walker would not command that sort of contract if he was a free agent today, but he isn't a free agent today, he was a free agent after 2022, when he pitched to a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts. The contract alone won't give him an infinite leash, but it's in the the Phillies' best interest to get him right and derive value from him.

Walker was a viable mid-rotation piece in 2022, the year before the Phillies signed him, and he had a solid 15-start stretch last summer. The Phillies are hoping that version of the right-hander returns. Velocity will play a key role. Walker's fastball averaged 93.8 mph in 2022. It averaged 93.1 mph in 2023. In spring and during his rehab assignment, he sat in the 89-91 mph range. There is a massive difference between sitting 90 and sitting 93-95. Walker's out pitch is his splitter, but greater velocity separation makes it better, as does his confidence in being able to collect outs with a four-seamer or sinker.

What is Rob Thomson looking for from Walker in his debut Sunday against the Padres?

"Really just being himself," the Phillies' manager said. "Good velocity, the shape of his stuff. Five, six innings, I don't know. I'm more interested in the stuff."

Turnbull will not appear in Sunday's game, he'll get full rest after starting on Wednesday. He is in play to pitch Monday or Tuesday. If Cristopher Sanchez isn't cruising Monday in Anaheim, it could be a shorter outing with Turnbull relieving him and pitching multiple innings.

"Maybe it's a pullback on Sanchy every once in a while," Thomson said, "because what did he go 100 innings last year? He's going to have some moments, too. He's on pace for 170 right now. This is all hypothetical."

Sanchez pitched 99⅓ innings in the majors last season but also 49⅔ at Triple A for a total of 149, which isn't too far off of the 170 he's currently on track for. But the Phillies have the long game in mind with their entire rotation. The health of their staff has been a major separator three seasons in a row. Just look at it in comparison to the Braves, who have had two straight unbelievable regular seasons only to watch their rotation fizzle out as October neared.

If the Phillies don't have to use too much of their bullpen the next two days or don't need Turnbull's length behind Sanchez on Monday, Turnbull could also potentially start Tuesday against the Angels. That would push Zack Wheeler back a day, and Wheeler prefers to pitch on normal rest, but he did make 21 of 32 starts last season with at least one extra day, either because of the schedule or because the Phillies used a six-man rotation late in the summer after adding Michael Lorenzen.

Which is why it's still realistic for Turnbull to make at least another handful of starts as a Phillie. Even if Walker performs and keeps the fifth starter's job, the Phils can't expect to go from April 28 through the final day of the regular season with just five guys making every start. There could be an injury. There could be a turn where an overworked starter gets skipped.

There could also be periods when the Phillies utilize a six-man rotation again. Just not now, not beyond the Angels series. The Phils are off each of the next two Thursdays, May 2 and May 9.

"It could be," Thomson said. "But we have the off day, then we have an off day exactly a week later, so going to a six-man through that would give guys too much time off."

They do have a stretch of 19 games in 20 days from May 10-29, a period during which a sixth starter could serve more of a purpose.

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