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June 27, 2016

As the Rotation Turns: Phils altering arms, more change could come in July

Vince Velasquez returns to a major league mound for the first time in 19 days tonight at Chase Field in Arizona.

Adam Morgan, who lost the fifth starter’s job to Velasquez in spring training, begins the next phase of his pro career as a full-fledged member of the bullpen.

Aaron Nola will throw his normal side bullpen session in the next day or two in Phoenix in an attempt to locate his lost mojo before his start Saturday at Citizens Bank Park against the defending World Champion Kansas City Royals.

Jeremy Hellickson will take the mound Friday in South Philly, exactly a month before Major League Baseball’s trade deadline arrives and at the exact midpoint of the Phillies 2016 schedule.

It’s all happening.

The Phillies have not been home in a week and a lot has transpired since they left. They stopped a season-long losing streak and then nearly took a series from the National League’s best team in their own ballpark.

But the recent and (probable upcoming) changes to the starting rotation (which has a 5.58 ERA this month) are arguably the most interesting items on the agenda as the Phils finish up the third of their sixth-month schedule.

  • Rather than dispatching the 26-year-old Morgan to Triple-A where he could become organizational filler like David Buchanan, the Phillies saw enough they liked of Morgan to keep him on the big league roster, albeit in a new role.

But what’s curious here: Brett Oberholtzer is also left-handed and is also a former starter outfitted into a swing-man/long-relief role in the same ‘pen. Oberholtzer obviously has not had a lot of success in that role this season; he is also out of options. Can the Phillies carry two of the same type guys in a seven-man ‘pen?

Perhaps Morgan’s new role might also not be permanent, as manager Pete Mackanin said to reporters in San Francisco over the weekend. the 2016 season is still a development year and perhaps 11 starts (and 26 total big league starts since last year) isn’t enough for the Phillies to have a true indication of what Morgan can be heading into 2017.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But there is still come uncertainty in the rotation, and Morgan is an obvious insurance policy as a sixth man.

  • One of those uncertainties: Is Velasquez back for good?

The 24-year-old Velasquez’s last big league start (on June 8) was limited to two pitches before he exited with a right biceps strain. He said he felt “back to normal” after his one and only rehab start on Wednesday at Double-A Reading before being activated from the disabled list on Monday. And his fastball velocity (97 MPH) in that rehab start suggested he was back to normal.

But Velasquez has pitched more than 100 innings in just one season (in 2013 in A-ball) since he was drafted by the Houston Astros six years ago. Can he stick throughout the season’s final three months, which could add up to roughly 15 more starts and close to 100 more innings?

The Phillies obviously hope so, since getting Velasquez at or near 150 innings on the season would be a very positive step toward proving he can be durable throughout a full season (while also not overworking him, too). It should be noted, though, that Velasquez’s last three starts (prior to his two-pitch outing) were troublesome: he had an 8.31 ERA and averaged 4 1/3 innings in those three games.

  • Speaking of slumps, Aaron Nola is in the midst of his own (15.23 ERA in his last four starts). But just as with Velasquez, it’s not uncommon for young pitchers to endure struggles early in their careers. Actually, it not uncommon for young players, period, to battle through growing pains, something that’s also on display with a fellow NL East player, one drafted three picks after Nola two years ago.

As a rebuilding team, the Phillies can afford to let Nola figure his game out for a while longer in the big league rotation. But if those struggles continue into the next homestand, the All-Star break may prove to be an opportune time to make a change if one is needed.

  • If a change is needed, Jake Thompson is on the Zach Eflin Program as a budding prospect at Triple-A Lehigh Valley looking worthy of a big league promotion with each passing start.

Thompson, acquired in the Cole Hamels trade 11 months ago, has a 0.76 ERA in five starts with the IronPigs this month. He has held opponents to a .271 OBP and .547 OPS during that run.

Overall, Thompson is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA in 15 starts, with a 1.17 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts (with 27 walks) in 90 2/3 innings. The strikeout and walk numbers aren’t that appealing (and even in the aforementioned month of June, it’s an 18-to-8 K-to-BB rate in 35 1/3 innings).

But, if Thompson continues to get results in the next few weeks, the 22-year-old would make a lot of sense to jump into the Phillies young rotation of arms (if they continue to keep Morgan in the ‘pen).

  • Even if Nola doesn’t need a trip to Allentown at some point next month to reconnect with the combination of talent and confidence that had him among MLB leaders in WHIP and K-to-BB rate entering June, a vacancy could emerge if the Phils are able to find a taker for Jeremy Hellickson prior to the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

No, Hellickson is not the trade deadline prize that Cole Hamels was last year (or what Sonny Gray or Julio Teheran could be this year). But teams don’t always have to deal for a Hamels or a David Price, a Johnny Cueto or a CC Sabathia to find a post-deadline difference maker.

Who can forget Joe Blanton? The Phillies couldn’t land Sabathia but were able get the less-touted Blanton in July of 2008 and all Blanton did was go 4-0 with a 3.73 ERA in his final 11 starts of the season, with the Phillies winning seven of those 11 starts.

Mike Leake (whose numbers this season are almost identical to Hellickson’s) was a similar smaller name moved at last year’s deadline (from Cincinnati to San Francisco) who netted the Reds a 21-year-old pitching prospect at A-ball and current breakout bat Adam Duvall.

In short, the Phillies should be able to get at least one useful prospect back for Hellickson, who has pitched into the sixth inning with three earned runs or fewer in 9 of 16 starts (and 7 of his last 10). Hellickson’s current 3.5 K-to-BB rate is the best of his career.

The Phillies rotation has a number of moving parts as the team wraps up a forgettable month of June. But don’t expect the changes to stop once July arrives.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21