Taijuan Walker’s sudden injury could thrust Spencer Turnbull into Phillies’ rotation

TAMPA, Fla. — Spencer Turnbull did something unusual Friday — at least unusual by spring training standards. He dressed in full uniform and sat in the Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen for the duration of a Grapefruit League game without pitching. Turnbull has never been a reliever in his professional career. The Phillies told him he might pitch, but they did not intend to use him.

“We want to get him acclimated to being out there every day,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “Just being mentally and emotionally ready to pitch.”

So, on Saturday, the Phillies planned for Turnbull to pitch three innings as a reliever. But, one hour before first pitch, the plan changed. Taijuan Walker did not feel right after he played catch Saturday morning. So, Turnbull started against the Yankees because he is now probably a part of the Phillies’ rotation.

“That’s why you have all the depth,” Thomson said.

The Phillies just didn’t expect to tap into it this soon. They will know more about Walker’s situation on Sunday. He was examined Saturday by a doctor in Florida after he complained of shoulder stiffness before a routine bullpen session. “He didn’t say pain,” Thomson said. “He just said it didn’t feel right.” Even if the exams are favorable, Walker was already behind. He will not start Monday’s spring finale as scheduled. He is all but certain to begin the season on the injured list.

Walker’s spring has been interrupted three times. He missed a few days earlier in camp to attend to a personal matter. He then reported right knee soreness that delayed his progression. When he’s pitched, the results haven’t been good, but even more concerning is his diminished stuff. His fastball has sat around 90 mph.

When asked after his start earlier in the week how his knee felt, Walker indicated no concern.

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

So, for now, it’s an opportunity that Turnbull did not expect. Detroit discarded him after he posted a 6.79 ERA in 57 innings (counting his minors work) in 2023. He fired his agent, hired Scott Boras, and filed two grievances against the club for demoting him to the minors when he claimed he was injured. The Tigers later reversed the optional assignments to grant Turnbull a full year of service time.

Then, the Tigers declined to tender him a contract for 2024.

Detroit was the only organization Turnbull had known. He signed a $2 million deal with the Phillies, who had envisioned him as rotation depth. (Turnbull, because of his service time, would have had to consent to a minor-league assignment.) Now, he’s more integral to a contending team.

“It’s been wonderful,” Turnbull said. “I can’t say enough good things about it. Very different. Completely different vibes in a lot of different ways. I’ve loved it so far, and hopefully, it’s just going to continue to get better. I’ve enjoyed every second of it.”

Turnbull threw 51 pitches in three scoreless innings Saturday against the Yankees. He leaned on a sweeping slider that he started throwing this spring; Turnbull threw it 18 times to Yankees batters. He struck out Aaron Judge looking on a sweeper.

Turnbull throws different variations of a slider. He can manipulate it. Giancarlo Stanton whiffed at an 87 mph pitch that confused Caleb Cotham, the Phillies pitching coach.

“What was that?” he asked Turnbull.

“That was a sweeper,” Turnbull said. “I just threw the piss out of it.”

Turnbull is a thinker. He’s spent a lot of the spring asking questions — to teammates, coaches, athletic trainers, strength coaches, and anyone who comes near him. His divorce with the Tigers was messy, and it was surprising to see him sign a guaranteed major-league contract — especially with a team that has designs on winning.

He is not known for his command. The Phillies have tried different things this spring to improve it. The best-case scenario was a little more time; maybe Turnbull could go to Triple A and implement some different ideas from a new organization. The Phillies had envisioned Dylan Covey as the long man, but Covey hurt his shoulder earlier this month. He will miss time.

So, the Phillies will have to expedite things with Turnbull. He has not pitched more than 57 innings in a season — between the majors and minors — since 2019. He did not pitch at all in 2022 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He said a neck injury and cracked toenail derailed his 2023 season. It’s fair to wonder how many innings Turnbull could log in 2024, but he said he has felt healthy this spring.

“Last year was such a weird year,” Turnbull said. “I wouldn’t use that as any kind of a benchmark for physical stuff.”

And he’s more comfortable in a starting role.

“He’s interesting,” said Garrett Stubbs, who caught him Saturday for the first time.

“He throws strikes,” Thomson said. “He misses barrels. He must be deceptive. He’s got this big slider. … I like him. He’s got experience and he’s been at this level before.”

The roster situation is unresolved at this point. The Phillies leave Florida on Monday. They will not take Orion Kerkering with them; he will begin the season on the injured list because he is not prepared after missing almost three weeks with an illness. If Turnbull slides into the rotation, that leaves three bullpen jobs to settle.

Luis Ortiz will likely land one of them. He throws strikes and can pitch multiple innings. The path of least resistance is handing the other two jobs to Yunior Marte and Connor Brogdon. Neither has been great this spring, especially Brogdon who struggled again Saturday.

The Phillies like what José Ruiz, a non-roster righty, has done this spring. He could nudge his way onto the team. The Phillies could also make a waiver claim or sign someone who didn’t make another club’s roster as cuts across the league happen.

Thomson said no outfield decisions had been made. But there were indications this weekend that the Phillies could carry both Johan Rojas and Cristian Pache on the Opening Day roster — leaving Jake Cave in limbo.

Even before Walker’s shoulder problem, there was mounting concern about the veteran who is in the second year of a four-year, $72 million deal. Maybe the shoulder explains the mediocre stuff he showed this spring.

“Anytime a guy has something like that this late in the spring,” Thomson said, “you’re a little bit concerned.”

The Phillies will know more on Sunday. But, on Saturday, they knew Turnbull was more important to them than he was a day before when he sat in the bullpen just to learn what it felt like.

(Top photo of Spencer Turnbull: Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

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