The Philadelphia Phillies opened the 2021 season with a resounding sweeping of their divisional rival, the Atlanta Braves. Over the three-game set, the Philadelphia bullpen, one that was so maligned last season, turned in 7.1 scoreless innings. For a group that amassed a 7.06 ERA in 2020, that’s an amazing turnaround. Furthermore, the three runs that the Phils gave up to the Braves over their first three games were the fewest runs given up in an opening set since 1915 (dug a little deep for that one, but still, a pretty cool stat). Needless to say, the Phillies pitching staff is already looking significantly better than their 2020 iteration. Yet, even as we sit here, enjoying the hot start to the season, there’s one nagging question at the back of my brain: what the hell are the Phillies doing with Vince Velasquez? Velasquez is a player without a role on this Phillies team; one of the crowning achievements of the bygone Matt Klentak-era. At this point in time, Velasquez is simply not a major league pitcher, at least not in Philadelphia. The Phillies are wasting a roster spot on Velasquez that could otherwise be better spent on a situational lefty reliever or a bench player.
The Argument Against Vince Velasquez
How does Vince Velasquez continue to make rosters
— Brock (@ThatDudeBrock69) March 31, 2021
Making an argument against Vince Velasquez is not particularly difficult. He’s long been a poster boy for wasted potential and how sabermetrics can sometimes blind us. But, but, but…his fastball has consistently ranked in the upper echelon of the major league in velocity and spin rate. Yeah, well, my counter to that is this…we’re talking about a player who has turned in mediocre season after mediocre season (27-34 record since joining the Phils back in 2016). At this point, we know what Velasquez is. He’s just not very good. It’s remarkable what a 16-strikeout performance can buy you, though; in Velasquez’s case, it has been years of goodwill and misplaced faith by the Philadelphia organization (damn you, San Diego, for letting Vince tantalize us on that night so long ago).
There’s a syndrome in Philadelphia (I’m not sure whether I should attribute it to Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta), but it results when you get tantalized by one or two outings. Maybe it even stretches out to a season or two (looking at you, Domonic Brown). This results in you placing nth degrees of faith in players, hoping that they’ll learn to harness their abilities consistently, develop into stars. Here’s the thing, though: the Phillies have trotted Velasquez out in virtually every situation possible. Whether it be starting or relieving, the results have almost always been universally…underwhelming. Time and time again, this team has placed their faith in Vince Velasquez and he’s come up short…over and over and over.
What’s Vince Velasquez’s role with this club? Long reliever? You have that already in David Hale. Manager Joe Girardi has said that he wants a lot of length available in his bullpen, guys who can come in and pitch multiple innings. Can’t you accomplish this same effect, shortening the game for your starter, by employing a wealth of effective short relievers? It’s what the New York Yankees did in 2018 and what the Tampa Bay Rays did in 2019. You don’t need effective long relief pitching to be competitive. You need quality bullpen arms. As one of my colleagues wrote fairly recently, the Phillies let such an arm go at the end of Spring Training, opting to not find a spot for veteran lefty Tony Watson on the major league roster. I get it; there were issues with finding a spot for him on the 40-man roster, but come on. Do you honestly think that Vince Velasquez would help your team more than Tony Watson? Give me a break.
Well, maybe we just haven’t been using Vince Velasquez right. We see how effective he is one or two times through the order. Maybe as a reliever, he’ll be better. Here’s my counter to that argument: we’ve seen Velasquez come in out of the bullpen and, well, he sucks at it. As a reliever, Velasquez has a career 4.78 ERA (a shade higher than his starting ERA). More importantly, the thing that gave us hope in Velasquez as a reliever, the fact that he does well the first time through an opposing lineup, that’s gone. Opponents have hit .281 off Velasquez in their first go-around against him out of the ‘pen, with a .381 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage. Yikes. Compare that to what he does as a starter in the same situation: .251 opp. average, .331 OBP, .428 slugging %. Yeah, toss that argument out the door.
The Argument for Vince Velasquez
Vince Velasquez and David Hale are on the team because there are real concerns about internal rotation depth over 162 games. Dombrowski mentioned Adonis Medina, Ranger Suárez, Bailey Falter and even Francisco Morales. It might be an issue: https://t.co/DjkdYSIDyz
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) March 28, 2021
Look, I get it. The Phillies are remarkably shallow in regard to their starting pitching depth in the minors. For a team with postseason aspirations, reinforcements in the form of minor league arms are few and far between. Beyond Spencer Howard, what is there to speak of in terms of major league-ready arms? There aren’t any. The Phillies are in a situation where they have to keep Velasquez around in case any of their starters go down to injury. Chances are, that’ll happen at some point this year. The Phillies don’t really have a choice in this matter. They have to hold onto Velasquez, a sort of break glass in case of emergency option.
Still, I can’t help but feel that there were better options here. Couldn’t the Phillies have tried to swing a deal during spring training to clear Velasquez off their roster, though? He looked pretty solid through March (albeit in small sample size). Surely some team would’ve bit on him if you dangled him out on the trade market. Maybe you can’t get very much for him, but, then again, who knows? The San Diego Padres, in pursuit of starting pitching, once flipped a prospect named Anthony Rizzo in exchange for Andrew Cashner, a pitcher similarly skilled and just as frustratingly inconsistent as Vince Velasquez. The Chicago Cubs once turned Scott Feldman into Jake Arrieta (not the bad version, the good version that helped lead the team to their first World Series title in over one hundred years).
Teams will pay for players who have experience at the major league level. What more can we say of Vince Velasquez other than he has experienced at the major league level? Free a spot, grab some depth for the minor leagues (a player with options), and put yourself in a better position to win. The Phillies have proverbially backed themselves into a corner by not adding more minor league pitching depth, thus forcing themselves to hang onto Vince Velasquez at the major league level. In doing so, they’ve hamstrung their ability to hang onto more valuable and versatile role players.
Velasquez will be of virtually no use unless one of their five starters gets hurt (likely), but, even if that happens, we all know exactly what he’ll be: an incredibly frustrating arm that constantly stretches the team’s bullpen to their limit. So, what do you think: did the Phillies make a mistake in hanging onto Vince Velasquez?
— Daniel Primiani (@DanPrimiani15) April 5, 2021