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June 10, 2016

Eflin to make MLB debut as Velasquez rests ailing arm

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050416.Phils.Eflin Ryan Lawrence/For PhillyVoice

Zach Eflin's first season in the big leagues could be ending prematurely: in addition to the knee tendinitis that landed him on the disabled list, the rookie right-hander has a stress fracture in his right foot.

WASHINGTON – Vince Velasquez’s break, which isn’t expected to be an extended one thanks to a clean MRI, will turn into Zach Elfin’s opportunity when the Phillies take their current road trip across the border to Toronto next week.

Manager Pete Mackanin said on Friday that right-handed prospect Zach Eflin will jump into Velasquez’s spot in the team’s rotation on Tuesday night against the Blue Jays. 

Eflin, 22, is 5-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 11 starts at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He's struck out 55 batters while walking 11 in 68 1/3 innings and his 0.878 ERA is second in the International League behind top Pittsburgh prospect Jameson Taillon, who make his own MLB debut this week.

Eflin has been the IronPigs best pitcher from the get-go this season in a rotation's that's been dominated by prospects, including Mark Appel, Jake Thompson, and recently-promoted Ben Lively.

The Phillies announcement of Eflin’s big league debut was somewhat ironic since it came on the same day the Chicago White Sox designated shortstop Jimmy Rollins for assignment. Eflin (and left-hander Tom Windle) were acquired in a trade with Los Angeles for the Phillies all-time hit king in December of 2014.

It’s uncertain how long Eflin will stay because it’s also unclear when Velasquez will return. Both the 24-year-old right-hander, who authored a 16-strikeout shutout two months ago but then battled inconsistency, and his manager were unsure what his throwing program will be in the near future.

Velasquez was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday with a right biceps strain. He referred to it as a “minor” ailment before the Phillies took batting practice at Nationals Park.

“I mean, coming from the bullpen to the game I knew it wasn't too severe,” said Velasquez, who was removed from that game against the Chicago Cubs after throwing only two pitches. “I knew it was nothing to be worried about. I knew (on Wednesday) that it wasn’t going to be too critical.”

“We’ll see what the medical people have in store for him,” Mackanin said. “I’d like to have him back as soon as possible.”

Velasquez, acquired in the trade that sent Ken Giles to the Houston Astros in December, has a bit of a checkered injury history. He needed Tommy John surgery less than a year after he was drafted by Houston in 2010. He’s thrown more than 100 innings in just one season since then, in 2013 while pitching in A-ball.

“It is tough. But what can I do?” Velasquez said. “Things happen. Everyone has injuries. Some people are just given that gift where they’re injury-free, and I’m one of those that, I have that injury bug, I guess. I’m always catching it. This is something, it’s nothing too critical. We’re just going to proceed the way it should be treated and take it as it is.”

It’s unclear whether Velasquez will simply miss two starts and jump back into the rotation when his DL stint is over. But he’s well aware that caution is often exercised with pitchers and their valuable pitching arms.

“This is definitely something to be cautious with, because, you know, just like every injury you don’t know what to expect or what it might lead to,” he said. “This could possibly turn into something worse if I kept on throwing pitches. Good things I didn’t. Again, take it as it is and accept the fact that I’m injured right now.”

With so many young arms in the current rotation – Jeremy Hellickson, Friday’s starter, is the only one who isn’t in his first full major league season – it also could allow for the Phillies to begin monitoring everyone’s workload. It’s probably premature to think in terms of a six-man rotation, but giving Velasquez a break “isn’t the worst thing that could have happened” according to Mackanin.

“Someone asked me a month or so ago if we were going to monitor our pitchers' progress and their innings,” Mackanin said. “Well, this is almost like built in.”