After five mostly frustrating seasons in Philadelphia, Vince Velasquez knows he is running out of opportunities to make it work with the Phillies.
Matt Moore and Chase Anderson are in Clearwater competing for starting rotation spots this spring. The organization believes top pitching prospect Spencer Howard will eventually occupy one of those spots.
The suddenly crowded starting rotation picture, along with Velasquez’s consistent inconsistencies over 112 career games and 99 starts with the Phillies, make it only natural to wonder if he truly has a chance to emerge as one of the team’s five starting pitchers. It’s also natural to wonder if will be one of eight or nine relievers who come north next month as part of the team’s revamped bullpen — or if he will even be with the team at all.
Before we get to that, let’s first recap Velasquez’s latest Grapefruit League performance on Tuesday afternoon, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, featured many of the same qualities we’ve grown accustomed to seeing when he takes the ball.
There were flashes of a plus fastball:
Velasquez elevating just enough at 96+ to finish an AB.
Clean first for him. pic.twitter.com/UZjjOu1JPv
— Bob Wankel (@BobWankelCB) March 9, 2021
He even showcased a decent changeup to finish off a strikeout:
Velasquez goes to his changeup to finish Hernandez on a 3-2 pitch. pic.twitter.com/dWZeGvjiN2
— Bob Wankel (@BobWankelCB) March 9, 2021
But you know what else he did?
He used 14 pitches to breeze through a perfect first inning. He then returned to the mound in the second, threw another 25 pitches, loaded the bases and recorded just two outs before departing.
Some quick math here: 39 pitches and five outs. That’s about eight pitches per out. Scale that out over five innings (15 outs), and we’re talking roughly 120 pitches over five innings of work.
Today, it was an inability to consistently locate his fastball that betrayed him.
“I think Vinny wants to earn a starting spot, and he understands that he struggled a bit today,” manager Joe Girardi said after the team returned to Clearwater from Dunedin. “He just didn’t have his fastball command that he had last time that he pitched and was so effective, and he was probably frustrated by it.”
In other words, Velasquez did what he often does. He showed flashes of upside and then struggled with pitch efficiency and ran into some trouble from the stretch. Granted, it came in a limited sample, but really, the results still felt accurate.
Briefly following his start, Velasquez hopped on Zoom to chat with reporters. As usual, he was thoughtful, honest, and projected confidence. When asked about potentially opening the season in the bullpen — and his dwindling chances with the Phillies — he was direct.
“Coming in 2016, I was supposed to be this potential ace guy after that trade for (Ken) Giles and whatnot, but at the same time, shit happens,” he said. “I’ve come to the conclusion and realize that I didn’t make the best of those opportunities. But, this is my last opportunity that I could possibly have, and I definitely don’t want to end on a bad note at all. Whether it’s in a starting position or if it’s relieving position, I’m going to go out shove and try to win something and help the organization for what they at least deserve by giving back to me.”
Velasquez, who is publicly embracing the competition right now, does want one thing that he hasn’t had in past seasons when he was yanked back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.
“I want to know exactly what my role is and what am I doing,” he said. “I don’t want to go into a game or go into the beginning of the season not knowing what my role is. Obviously, everyone is going to be fed that information. Before we actually start, tell me what is it that I need to be. How do I prepare, so I can prepare for myself, so that when I’m in those situations I know how to kind of prepare, whether it’s eating or working out.”
Velasquez, who changed agents this past offseason in a move he described as a “reset”, has compiled a 4.76 ERA over 501 innings with the Phillies. He is aware of both the doubts and the criticisms like the ones I offered above. He also thinks the results will be different this time around.
“I know what’s at stake here. I know that there was a lot of opportunity that I’ve kind of wasted, that you may see in your eyes,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s an opportunity that has been wasted. I think it’s just an opportunity that has been learned, that I’m definitely going to take care of and manage this year.”
But in what role will Velasquez get the opportunity to make good on his words? Is it in the rotation? Is it in a suddenly crowded bullpen filled with a variety of intriguing candidates? Could it come in another city?
Velasquez avoided salary arbitration back in January by agreeing to a one-year, $4 million deal. He currently occupies a valuable 40-man spot.
Keep in mind, if relievers such as Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson make the team, both players must be added to the 40-man roster. If the team elects to give players such as Odubel Herrera or Matt Joyce a job, there’s another spot or two that must be cleared.
A trade could make some sense for both parties.
For the Phillies, finding a deal for Velasquez would provide the team with additional payroll flexibility should it wish to make in-season improvements. For Velasquez, it would provide the 28-year-old with a fresh start.
He was asked about the possibility of a trade by NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Again, that’s not going to stop me from what I’ve obtained and what I’ve worked for this offseason,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. It is what it is. But whatever organization I land up on, you’re going to get a new guy mentally and physically.”