ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The good news is that Taijuan Walker says he’s ready to give the Phillies some serious innings. The bad news? They’re probably going to need more than he can offer.
It has been an eventful spring from the back of the Phillies rotation, and it showed no sign of evening out on Wednesday as Ranger Suárez had a scheduled bullpen session scuttled due to forearm inflammation. While manager Rob Thomson isn’t definitively ruling the lefty out for the start of the season, it’s much more of a possibility now than it was three days ago. Thomson said that the team would shut Suárez down “for a couple of days” with the hope that he will be then be able to resume his progression toward regular-season readiness.
“There’s no structural damage,” Thomson said after the Phillies’ 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Grapefruit League action on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re not really concerned about it, but we want to knock that out and get him back on the mound soon.”
At the very least, the Phillies seem likely to enter the season with three familiar letters penciled in as their probable pitcher for Game 4 or 5 against the Yankees.
“I’d say there’s a strong possibility that he won’t be ready,” Thomson said. “But that’s not out of the question.”
Even if Suárez can get healthy enough to take the mound during the Phillies’ first trip through the rotation, he’d likely need to be paired with a pitcher who can go multiple innings. The team has been preparing for that eventuality ever since Suárez returned from the World Baseball Classic a couple of weeks ago with what was classified as a case of “forearm tightness.”
The presumptive No. 4 starter seemed to be trending in the right direction as recently as Sunday, when he threw a bullpen session that drew positive reviews and prompted the Phillies to start looking to pencil him into a game.
But Thomson has also been preparing lefty reliever Matt Strahm as a potential fill-in. The 32-year-old setup man started 16 games for the Padres in 2019 and recently said that he is willing and able to return to such a role. The Phillies had Strahm pitch into the third inning of a game against the Pirates on Tuesday and will look to have him go even longer his next time out. But their best chance to weather the uncertainty at the back end of their rotation might lie in the front end.
Which brings us back to Walker.
When the Phillies signed the 30-year-old righty to a four-year, $72 million contract this offseason, it prompted a few raised eyebrows. Only two years ago, Walker’s first trip to the free-agent market netted him $23 million guaranteed, a deal that seemed commensurate with the production he proceeded to give the Mets in 2021 and 2022. He made an All-Star team the first year and posted a 3.49 ERA the second, but his ERA+ was almost exactly league average, while pitching in one of the least hitter-friendly home parks in the majors.
Yet when the Phillies looked at Walker, they saw first and foremost a pitcher who was a good bet to give them innings. He logged 316⅓ of them in his two seasons with the Mets, which made him a borderline workhorse in today’s game. The Phillies needed a starter who could help to replace the 167⅔ innings that Kyle Gibson gave them last season. They were willing to pay a premium in order to maximize their odds of getting it.
“Just taking the ball every fifth day, and trying to get six, seven innings, go as deep as possible every outing,” Walker said after allowing six runs in 4⅔ innings against the Rays on Wednesday. “Really, just staying healthy and taking the ball.”
From that perspective, Walker’s outing against the Rays was a resounding success. The Phillies had not seen him pitch since March 3, his first and only Grapefruit League outing before he left camp to participate in the World Baseball Classic. Before taking the mound at Tropicana Field on Wednesday, he had thrown just one sanctioned outing in 19 days, a four-inning performance against Great Britain in the group stage in which he struck out eight and did not allow a run.
Given the Phillies’ circumstances, they were thrilled to see Walker get his pitch count up to 76 against the Rays, who scored two runs in his first four innings and then chased him from the game with a four-run fifth.
“I felt good, everything felt good,” Walker said. “Just ran out of gas.”
He could need plenty of it once the season starts in Texas against the Rangers on March 30. The Phillies will likely use a committee approach until Suárez is ready to carry a full workload. In addition to Strahm, righties Yunior Marte, Connor Brogdon, and Andrew Bellatti are all pitchers Thomson could end up turning to for multiple innings.
Lefty Bailey Falter, the presumptive No. 5 starter, is scheduled to make another start on Thursday. Lefty Michael Plassmeyer could factor into the equation in the event Suárez starts the season on the injured list. That would still leave righties Seranthony Domínguez and Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jose Alvarado as high-leverage relievers.
Stubbs still on track
Backup catcher Garrett Stubbs was cleared to catch a bullpen session on Wednesday morning after missing a week with a sprained knee. Stubbs said he feels he is on track to contribute to the opening day roster.