CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Vince Velasquez entered Spring Training the favorite to be the Phillies' fifth starter, and they awarded him the job on Monday, when they announced they had optioned left-hander Adam Morgan to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
"We like Velasquez's power arm," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "We want to see him in the big leagues."
It was not an easy call to make. Velasquez entered Monday's start against the Blue Jays in Dunedin with a 3.21 ERA in four Grapefruit League appearances (three starts). In 14 innings, he allowed 13 hits, six runs (five earned), four walks and struck out 16. Velasquez has dominant stuff, and he showed it.
But Morgan is a strike-thrower who impressed. In fact, an argument can be made that he outperformed Velasquez and Eickhoff, who has pitched just twice this spring because of a fractured right thumb. Including three scoreless innings Morgan threw on Thursday in a rain-shortened game against the Braves, he had a 1.50 ERA in four starts. In 12 innings, he allowed six hits, two runs, three walks and struck out four.
Morgan had been scheduled to pitch on Tuesday against the Yankees, but the Phils wanted to take their final Grapefruit League starts out of the equation.
"Probably one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make," Mackanin said.
Velasquez entered camp the favorite for a couple of reasons: First, he has a power arm and the best stuff of anybody in the rotation. Second, he is the prized piece of the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston.
Perhaps Velasquez's status as the top dog in the deal gave him the edge.
"Possibly," Mackanin said. "When you're talking about certain players, just because a guy was a No. 1 pick, don't give him any preferential treatment. The guys who are high Draft picks, you don't want to look at them any differently than a 30th-round pick because it's not fair. Sometimes it happens, but in this case that didn't even enter into it for me. We like his stuff. He's got good stuff. And I want to see him in the big leagues."
Velasquez pitched splendidly against a stacked Blue Jays lineup Monday in the Phillies' 2-1 loss, allowing two hits and three walks and striking out eight in six scoreless innings at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. He said he learned he had won the job from teammate Chris Leroux, who had just been optioned, and the MLB At Bat app, which he said sent him a push notification to his cell phone.
Velasquez simply put two and two together.
"Every day, you have to set goals for yourself," Velasquez said. "Coming into Spring Training, I set a high goal for myself, break off of camp [with the team]. To find out today the goal is accomplished, it doesn't stop there. I've got to set more goals for myself later on and try to achieve them. But on that note, it's pretty exciting. I can't really show much right now because I'm tired, but in the back of my mind, I'm really excited."
Mackanin said Morgan was extremely disappointed with the news. He went 5-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 15 starts last season, making him one of the precious few competent starters in a rotation that ranked as one of the worst in baseball in 2015. Morgan then put up better numbers than every starter in camp.
"I'm upset," Morgan said. "But there's nothing you can do about it. It's out of my control. I thought I was doing a good job."
Morgan also said he asked for but did not get much of an explanation why he did not win a job.
"Not really getting an answer is probably the hardest part," Morgan said. "'Keep working.' OK. Other than that, it's just the nature of the beast, I guess."
No Morgan means no left-handers in the rotation. Mackanin said it will not be a problem.
"We're just going to go with the best pitchers we have," Mackanin said. "You'd like to have some kind of versatility, a mix. But that being said, it's not of the utmost importance to me if we have all right-handers starting for us. It is what it is. As the season wears on, we're most likely going to see more than five starters up there."
Morgan is expected to be the first option should the Phillies need a starter. The call could come because of an injury or ineffectiveness or because the Phils want to monitor the innings of some of their young pitchers. Velasquez pitched only 88 2/3 innings last year. He pitched a career-high 124 2/3 innings in 2013.
It is difficult to picture Velasquez making 30-plus starts this season.
"That's a good question," Mackanin said. "We're going to find out. We need to find that out as soon as possible. We're building toward the future and it's important for us to get him going and see exactly what we've got there."
The Phillies plan to give prospects Jake Thompson, Mark Appel and Zach Eflin time to develop in Triple-A this season. If they come up, it figures to be later in the year.
Hellickson, Nola and Morton will pitch the first series of the season in Cincinnati. Mackanin said the Phils have not decided who will pitch the first two games of a three-game series that follows in New York. Eickhoff and Velasquez will remain in Florida and pitch Saturday before joining the team.
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Fantasy owners should be excited to see a Phillies rotation with Velasquez, a swing-and-miss-inducing arm with the potential to rack up many K's. The right-hander struggled with control during his first go in the Majors last year, but he has issued just four walks across 14 innings through this point in Spring Training. And even though Velasquez may not become a shallow-league lineup regular during April, given his spot on a rebuilding club and in his hitter-friendly home venue, the 23-year-old has a high ceiling and should be a fine streaming option in 12-team formats out of the gate.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his Phillies blog The Zo Zone, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.