Ranger Suárez is up, Taijuan Walker is down: What can the Phillies expect?

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Phillies have been here for almost six weeks because spring training’s monotonous march is designed to condition starting pitchers. They are the ones, as prescribed by baseball tradition, who need six weeks to round into pitching shape. Teams dream of springs like Ranger Suárez’s — four starts of gradual building for a starter who has always been behind. 

They fear springs like Taijuan Walker’s, punctuated Wednesday night by another vanilla outing in which his fastball ranged from 88 to 92 mph and a rambunctious Orioles lineup pelted him for three home runs.

“It’s getting there,” Walker said. “Slowly, but it’s getting there. I feel like it’s crept up each start. So, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been putting a lot of work in. Been working hard. I mean, really, really hard. And it’s just getting there.”

It’s 12 days until Walker is slated to make his season debut, and at this point, the Phillies cannot expect him to be fully prepared. Rob Thomson acknowledged Walker won’t have the pitch count in April the Phillies envisioned.

“He’s really working hard,” the Phillies manager said. “He’s trying to find it. And, you know, hopefully he does in the next week or two.”

The Phillies wanted to avoid the chaos of last spring when both Walker and Suárez had their progressions interrupted. Suárez didn’t pitch in the majors until May and did not always feature his most pristine control. Walker struggled in April and May, enjoyed a strong summer, then became an afterthought in the postseason.

Those two form the middle of the Phillies’ rotation, and they’re crucial to helping the Phillies navigate the 162-game grind.

There is growing concern — or at least confusion — within the organization regarding Walker. He reported right knee soreness earlier in camp and paused his throwing program. That is why he’s behind now, although Walker can no longer cite the knee for his diminished velocity. The Phillies consider Walker past whatever knee problem he had.

“I mean, I feel like my body is moving so good right now,” Walker said. “Very athletic. Moving quick and stuff. We’ve really been busting our asses. Working really hard.”

At times during his outing Wednesday night, Walker did not appear to generate the typical force he does from his lower half. It’s reminiscent of the mechanical issues he faced last season. Walker had wild fluctuations in his velocity — from inning to inning and start to start. He slimmed down entering his first season with the Phillies because he believed a more athletic body could help him. So, this past winter, he decided to regain the weight he lost. He wondered if that had compromised his velocity.

Walker said he would ideally pitch at 93-95 mph. His fastball averaged 93 mph last season. Why is he confident he’ll find more power in 2024?

“I mean, it’s there,” Walker said. “It’s not like it’s not there. It’s there.”

He’s going to pitch one more time — on the last day of spring training — and hopes to reach five innings or 75 pitches. He threw 31 pitches in the first inning Wednesday night before the Phillies lifted him. (He then re-entered in the second inning.) His defense failed him twice in that first inning before he surrendered two homers. One of them was on a splitter, the other a 91 mph fastball. Walker had first-inning troubles throughout 2023.

“We have to figure that out,” Thomson said.

“I know I feel good,” Walker said. “Body feels good. Feels a lot better than when I came into camp.”

The Phillies are slotting Suárez ahead of Walker in the initial rotation; Suárez will pitch the third game of the season against Atlanta while Walker will have April 1 at home versus Cincinnati. Cristopher Sánchez will be the fifth starter.

As of now, Walker enters the second season of a four-year, $72 million deal as an innings eater. The Phillies paid him to be more than that, but if both Suárez and Sánchez take meaningful steps forward, Walker serves a purpose in the rotation as a league-average starter.

Ranger Suárez smiles during a spring game. He’s aiming to set a career-high for innings pitched. Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

Suárez looks like someone who wants to prove he belongs in a higher tier. He has never made 30 starts or eclipsed 160 innings in a big-league regular season. He came to camp on time and healthy — two things that have never been a guarantee for Suárez. He’s logged 15 innings in Grapefruit League games this spring, which is more than his combined total over the previous four springs.

His 0.00 ERA in the Grapefruit League is nice, but the Phillies are optimistic less about the results and more about Suárez’s improved readiness. He has goals — like 33 starts and 200 innings. It is ambitious; the Phillies would be happy with 170 innings.

“If I stay healthy, I know that I can do that,” Suárez said through a team interpreter. “I’ve had good seasons before. But I’ve battled injuries. So I think that if I remain healthy throughout the season, I’m going to be able to do what I can.”

The Phillies, in general, are happy with how the pitching has coalesced this spring. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are on track, along with Suárez. Sánchez had his spring interrupted by an illness, but the Phillies are encouraged by his work. He will start Thursday’s game against the Rays. In the bullpen, only Orion Kerkering has hit a bump. He threw in a minor-league game Wednesday and looked like someone who hadn’t pitched in three weeks because of an illness. (He had not pitched in three weeks.) He could begin the season on the injured list as the Phillies follow a conservative timeline with him. That could put Luis Ortiz and Spencer Turnbull in the bullpen with one of Connor Brogdon and Yunior Marte filling the last spot.

So, Walker stands alone as a pitching worry. Velocity is not everything for him; he threw his splitter more than ever in 2023 and he will probably throw it even more in 2024. But more juice behind all of his pitches would help.

“The uptick in velocity just upticks everything,” Walker said.

He reached 93 mph once in Wednesday’s game. That encouraged him. Maybe, he said, it’ll look different in April. That is all they can hope for now.

(Top photo of Taijuan Walker: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

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