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February 17, 2016

Harrison out, Velazquez in (and ready for 5th starter job) as Camp Clearwater opens

The Phillies clubhouse at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., has a new look in 2016 – and we’re not talking about the usual litany of new names adorned to the locker stalls.

The two large tables players customarily use to sit as they eat lunch and breakfast are no longer on opposite ends of the spacious room, but, instead, are alongside each other. There’s a new, temporary six-locker stall where the second table used to reside in order to accommodate the extra players in camp this year – 65 at last count, the most in recent memory.

Two of those 65 players were officially scheduled to check into camp on Wednesday when pitchers and catchers were required to report.

Matt Harrison, who has the second highest salary on the team’s roster but has pitched in just nine games since 2012, was not in Clearwater. Vincent Velazquez, a rotation hopeful also acquired in a blockbuster trade, organized things in his new locker stall, the corner spot held by Chase Utley for the better part of the last decade, on Wednesday morning.

“I didn’t know that,” said Velasquez, who came to the Phillies from Houston in the Ken Giles trade. “I’ve never faced him, I’ve always wanted to face him because I’ve heard he’s a tough out.”

Velasquez, 23, could get that opportunity in August, when the Phillies play the Dodgers six times in a 10-day span. By that time, perhaps the 30-year-old Harrison will be ready to pitch.

But I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it.

Harrison, whose inclusion in the July trade that sent Cole Hamels to Texas was little more than a cash dump in order to pry better prospects away from the Rangers, had his chronically ailing back examined by a specialist this week. He is unlikely to join the Phillies during their seven-week stay in Florida.

“We’re not expecting him in Clearwater,” general manager Matt Klentak said Wednesday, following a voluntary workout on the eve of the first official day of camp.

Harrison was an 18-game winner and an All-Star with the Rangers in 2012. But he was placed on the disabled list with back pain during the first week of the 2013 schedule and underwent two surgeries in the span of one month, costing him the entirely of the season.

When he returned in 2014, Harrison made only four starts before the back became an issue again. He underwent lumbar spinal disc fusion surgery in June of that year and didn’t return until 13 months later, last July.

Once again, the comeback was temporary: Harrison made three starts with the Rangers, allowing six runs in two separate starts, before being traded to the Phillies on July 31. He was placed on the DL immediately after the deal.

The Phillies are responsible for the remainder of his contract, approximately $28 million ($13 million in both 2016 and 2017, and a $2 million buyout for 2018). But they could recoup some of that money – a “significant” amount according to – through insurance.

“We’re not expecting him to be here anytime soon, if at all this year,” Klentak said. “If things go well, we’ll be happy to get him back, but the reality is we’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode and we have to let it play out.”

Since Harrison is out, as expected, the race for the final spot in the Phillies rotation (behind the foursome of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton) is up for grabs and Velasquez has zeroed in on it as his goal in the next seven weeks. The 6-3, right-handed South California native was the Phillies must-get in the December deal that sent Ken Giles to the Houston Astros.

“I’m honored,” he said of being the headline player in a trade that also brought the Phillies first No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, veteran lefthander Brett Oberholtzer and right-handed prospects Thomas Eshelman and Harold Arauz. “It’s really something to take in. But I don’t want to be cocky, nothing comes easy. It takes a lot of work and I’m just here to help the team.”

Velasquez is a fastball-curveball pitcher who mixes in a changeup and slider. But the fastball is his bread and butter; he sits in the mid-90s with it.

“My dad used to say pitching is like real estate … location,” Velasquez said. “So I try to locate the best I can.”

Velasquez pitched in 19 games with the Astros last season, seven as a starter. He clearly wants to be a starter in 2016 and going forward, despite some projecting his arm could play up big in the bullpen one day.

“I’m not really favoring that relieving half to be honest with you,” Velasquez said.

If Velasquez is healthy and pitches well this spring, he could easily win fifth starter job over the likes of Oberholtzer and Adam Morgan. But health derailed his progress as a prospect with the Astros, undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and missing two months in 2014 with a groin injury.

“I’m healthy as an ox,” Velasquez said Wednesday, a few days after throwing off the mound in Clearwater. “Everything’s really good. … Everything is working really well, clicking a little earlier than I expected.”

PHIL-INS: Other than Harrison, every other pitcher and catcher reported to camp on Wednesday with the exception of Yoervis Medina, the right-handed reliever acquired in a trade for Jesse Biddle two weeks ago. Klentak said Medina, a Venezuela native, had visa issues following the trade. He is expected in camp at some point in the next two weeks. … Although position players aren’t due in camp until Monday, several were already in camp on Wednesday, when the clubhouse opened to the media. Among the early arrivals: Odubel Herrera, Andres Blanco, Cody Asche, Aaron Altherr and prospects J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Roman Quinn. … A construction crew spent most of the afternoon on Tuesday putting the foundations in for new, extended netting behind home plate at Bright House Field, per an official recommendation from Major League Baseball to its teams this winter.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21