Spencer Turnbull and his 1.33 ERA are likely headed to Phillies bullpen

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Spencer Turnbull and his 1.33 ERA are likely headed to Phillies bullpen

CINCINNATI — Spencer Turnbull wiped his nose with his Philadelphia Phillies jersey, then found a vacant spot on the bench in the dugout at Great American Ball Park. He looked calm. Then, in a swift motion, he attacked. Turnbull slammed his glove into the wooden bench. He yelled. He sat down like nothing had happened.

The 31-year-old righty, signed to a $2 million deal to provide rotation depth, has exceeded every benchmark. He has a 1.33 ERA in 27 innings across five starts. He signed two days before spring training began, and now he has prompted a debate about whether a team can have too many starting pitchers.

But, in that moment during Wednesday’s 7-4 Phillies loss to Cincinnati, Turnbull did not meet the elevated standard he’s set for himself. It wasn’t that he surrendered a home run to Will Benson in the third inning — the lone blemish against Turnbull in his five innings. It was how he did it.

“It was a lazy pitch,” Turnbull said. “I just didn’t have my right focus and mentality on that pitch. … I just went on autopilot for a second. I just wasn’t thinking as sharply as I should have been.”

He owns a 1.33 ERA — the second-lowest mark in the National League. The Phillies will excuse a mental lapse here and there because Turnbull has shined.

“Fantastic,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “I mean, I couldn’t expect anything more, I don’t think. He’s really throwing the ball well.”

And, in the coming days, Turnbull will likely move to the bullpen. Taijuan Walker will start Sunday in San Diego. The Phillies have made no formal decision on Turnbull, but they have indicated that a six-man rotation is not a current solution. Turnbull, in all likelihood, will become a long reliever.

The Phillies have their reasons. It is an enviable problem. They will need Turnbull in the rotation again later — whether it’s due to injury or ineffectiveness from someone else. That does not make this decision any less confounding.

“Sure,” Thomson said. “He’s thrown the ball well. Yeah. But we got a 15-game winner coming. (Walker) threw the ball very well for us last year. In the middle of the summer, he was as good as anybody in the National League. So, we’re hoping we get that guy back.”

Turnbull shrugged when asked about his future.

“Obviously, I’m aware of things,” Turnbull said. “If they want me to start, I’m going to start and give my team the best chance to win. If things change, things change. But, hopefully, I pitched well enough to give myself a chance to stay in that conversation. I know there’s other factors involved and stuff like that. But they haven’t said anything to me yet. I’m just ready to get ready for my next start, hopefully. We’ll see how it goes.”

Turnbull’s ERA is the lowest for a pitcher in his first five starts with the franchise since Cliff Lee’s 0.68 mark in 2009. It’s quite a first impression, and it is the type of performance typically rewarded with more starts. The Phillies always envisioned Turnbull as rotation depth. They needed him sooner than expected when Walker was not prepared to begin the season on the roster. Turnbull has pitched well enough to stick in a big-league rotation.

On Wednesday night, he could have kept pitching. The Phillies intended for him to begin the sixth at 89 pitches. But the Reds made two pitching changes in the top half of the inning. It lasted more than 25 minutes. Thomson decided to pull the cord. Seranthony Domínguez followed, and all four batters who reached against him scored. That decided the game.

“I could have gone back out,” Turnbull said. “It would have been an easier decision if I was at 70 pitches instead of 89. Just be more efficient. That’s on me.”

Turnbull has never been a reliever; the Phillies will acclimate him to the new role on the fly. His routine is regimented. It will require an adjustment. Turnbull has a minor-league option remaining. But he has more than five years of service time and can reject the assignment to become a free agent. There would be no shortage of teams interested in guaranteeing him a rotation job.

“It’s only five starts. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself,” Turnbull said. “But I’m very happy with how I’ve pitched.”

So, this is the solution. It’s a little messy. It is not by any means permanent.

It is not something that will be revisited every time Walker starts. At least not immediately. He’ll have a longer leash than two or three starts. Walker was a league-average pitcher for 172 2/3 innings in 2023. He is in the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract. The Phillies will not make him the most expensive long reliever in baseball until forced. They will see what he has to offer in 2024.

There are reasonable questions about Walker’s arsenal. His stuff was flat in spring training, and he missed time with knee and shoulder stiffness. The Phillies never considered either injury serious, but it was enough to derail Walker’s throwing progressions. He did not show exceptional velocity during his minor-league starts. Triple-A hitters swung and missed at only four of Walker’s 180 pitches in two outings.

There are other considerations. Walker was miffed at not being included in the club’s postseason plans in October. The Phillies mended relations over the winter, and they are incentivized to make Walker feel wanted — and needed.

That does not mean Walker has a free pass. If anything, Turnbull’s performance has placed more pressure on Walker to perform. Competition is good. It can motivate a player — even an established one making big money like Walker.

Turnbull once threw a no-hitter and carried promise before Tommy John surgery and a litany of injuries impeded his career. He was not tendered a contract by the Detroit Tigers, the only professional organization he had known, and he lingered on the free-agent market for months. He could not have expected this. The Phillies didn’t.

So, Turnbull will prepare as if he is starting again next week. He probably won’t. The immediate consolation is not the worst thing in the world.

“I feel like I’ve at least proven that I belong in the big leagues,” Turnbull said. “So, it’s been good.”

(Photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)