Taijuan Walker feels ready earlier than Phillies expected: What does it mean for the rotation?

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Taijuan Walker feels ready earlier than Phillies expected: What does it mean for the rotation?

PHILADELPHIA — A driver took Philadelphia Phillies starter Taijuan Walker on a 250-mile roundtrip Tuesday to PNC Field in Moosic, Pa., for work. He was home by 11 p.m. He had tossed 4 2/3 innings in a Triple-A game with a fastball that averaged 91 mph. He did not miss many bats. But, in Walker’s mind, his mission was accomplished.

On Wednesday, Walker came to Citizens Bank Park for a meeting with manager Rob Thomson and the team’s athletic training staff. Walker told them he felt good. His pitch count is where he wants it.

He is ready.

“I thought my stuff was pretty sharp,” Walker said. “Got outs, you know. I mean, I believe that in a different environment — a little more adrenaline — my stuff just plays up a little bit more.”

The Phillies had expected Walker to make three or four minor-league starts in what amounted to an extended spring training because he did not feel prepared enough at the end of March. Walker has made two starts, and indications are the plan could change. It would force the Phillies to make an intriguing April rotation decision.

Walker will throw a bullpen session Friday. If he feels well again, he could return to the majors next week.

“Because he feels really, really good,” Thomson said.

Walker, who is in the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract, has become a curious character in this season’s arc. The Phillies signed him to stabilize the middle of the rotation behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Walker pitched with wild fluctuations in his velocity last season but still logged 172 2/3 innings of league-average production. He was relegated to cheerleader in last year’s postseason. He was not happy about it.

Now, both Ranger Suárez and Cristopher Sanchez have taken meaningful steps forward. Spencer Turnbull, signed for $2 million as rotation depth, has made a strong first impression with the Phillies. It’s not enough to prevent the Phillies from reinserting Walker into the rotation because they have committed significant money to him. They are invested in his success.

The Phillies will offer Walker chances to prove he can still pitch in a rotation for a contender.

“I’m ready to compete,” Walker said. “For me, I just want to compete. I want to go out there every fifth day. My role is to come here and throw innings. And I know I can go throw good innings. But my role is to take the ball every fifth day. Be that bridge. We have three solid pitchers — really, I mean, ace-type pitchers. Like, we have guys — Turnbull, Sanchy. And my job is to try to get as many innings in and save the bullpen.”

Walker turns 32 in August, and he sometimes sounds like a pitcher adapting to the realities that will come with the next phase of his big-league career. He essentially served as an innings-eater in 2023. That is a derogatory term in modern baseball, although perhaps it is a job that regains importance as teams combat a pitching shortage in the max-effort era. During spring training, Walker said his fastball should hover between 93 and 95 mph in an ideal world. That creates better separation between the splitter, his best pitch.

His fastball velocity was 94.2 mph in 2021, according to Statcast data. It was 92.8 in 2022. It dropped to 91 mph in 2023. Walker struggled last season in the first innings of his starts — often when his velocity was at its lowest.

He thinks he can make it work with about the same — or even a little less — in 2024.

“In spring training, it wasn’t coming out right,” Walker said. “It didn’t have that life or carry to what it does now. It’s 91 and 92, but it’s got different carry. It has late life. Sharper bite. The cutter, it’s got sharper bite. Everything just has a little sharper bite to it than it did in spring training.”

He threw 78 pitches in Tuesday’s minor-league rehab outing. Scranton, the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, swung and missed at only two. How does Walker know the stuff is sharper?

“The action on it,” Walker said. “Foul balls. The weak contact. That, to me, tells me my stuff is moving late. I mean, we saw against the Orioles in spring training, my stuff wasn’t moving late or sharp. It was all barrels. So, last night was different. I got a lot of weak contact. A lot of ground balls. And that’s my game. I don’t strike out 10 people. I’m not Wheeler. I’m not Nola. You know? I get ground balls. I get weak contact.”

Thomson said the Phillies have not discussed how they would squeeze Walker into the rotation. The manager has floated a potential six-man rotation or piggyback involving Turnbull. But none of that is likely to happen in April. The Phillies might want to move to a six-man rotation during certain weeks this summer. They have done that in each of the last two seasons. But not yet.

For now, the cleanest solution is to move Turnbull to the bullpen. Turnbull threw only 57 innings a season ago and did not pitch in 2022. No matter how well he throws, he won’t make 30 turns through a rotation in 2024. The Phillies are encouraged by his work. If he were to move to the bullpen, it does not have to be permanent.

Ultimately, Walker will dictate how this all unfolds. He’s always had a feel for pitching — even when he had more velocity. The margin for error is just thinner now. The Phillies signed him to be more than an innings eater. They will settle for him serving as a solid No. 5 starter.

And, if he can’t, he would have to switch places with Turnbull. The Phillies are still banking on the idea of Walker regaining some juice.

“You take the intensity of a big-league ballpark, big-league hitters,” Thomson said, “and I think it naturally goes up a little bit.”

(Photo of Taijuan Walker in spring training: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)