Walker on the verge of returning to the Majors

April 17th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- ’s plans have changed.

The Phillies said he would make three or four rehab starts before rejoining the rotation in late April or early May. But now, Walker might be back next week.

Walker met with Phillies manager Rob Thomson on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park, less than 24 hours after throwing 78 pitches in 4 2/3 innings in a rehab start with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Walker opened the season on the 15-day IL with an impingement in his right shoulder.

“I told them I felt good,” Walker said. “Yeah, I told them we built up enough. I thought my stuff was pretty sharp yesterday. Got outs, you know. I mean, I believe that in a different environment, a little more adrenaline, stuff just plays up a little bit more.”

Thomson said a decision is expected after Walker throws a bullpen session on Friday.

Walker is in the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract. He went 15-6 with a 4.38 ERA in 31 starts last season. But he came to Spring Training focused on pitching with more consistent velocity, which fluctuated wildly last season. That contributed to the decision to not have him pitch in the 2023 postseason. Walker indicated in the spring that he wasn’t healthy at times last year.

However, Walker and the Phillies often said velocity was essential because it allowed his other pitches to play better.

Specifically, it makes his splitter better.

Walker’s four-seam fastball averaged 91.1 mph on Tuesday, which is down 1.8 mph from last season. It might go up once he pitches in the big leagues. It might not. If not, how does he come to terms with the idea that he can pitch successfully without it? He got only two swings and misses on Tuesday against Scranton / Wilkes-Barre.

“I think it's the way it comes out,” Walker said. “In Spring Training, it wasn't coming out right. It didn't have that life or carry in Spring Training to what it does now. It's 91, 92. But it's got different carry. It has late life. Sharper bite. The cutter, it's got sharper bite. Everything just has a little sharper bite to it than it did in Spring Training.”

Can he tell based on the swings or the action on the pitches?

“The action,” he said. “Foul balls. The weak contact. Getting stuff off the end of the bat or off the handle. That, to me, tells me my stuff is moving late. I mean, we saw against the Orioles in Spring Training, my stuff wasn't moving late and sharp. It was all barrels. So last night was different. I got a lot of weak contact. A lot of ground balls. And that's my game. I don't strike out 10 people. I'm not [Zack] Wheeler. I'm not [Aaron] Nola. You know? I get ground balls. I get weak contact.”'

Whenever Walker rejoins the rotation, he is expected to replace Spencer Turnbull, who is 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in three starts.

Turnbull has not pitched more than 56 2/3 innings since 2019. The Phillies seem likely to move him to the bullpen as a long man to manage his innings -- it is where he was expected to open the season before Walker got hurt.

Thomson used a six-man rotation last summer, but it seems unlikely the Phillies will go that way early in the season. It would cause too much stress on a shorthanded bullpen.

“Yeah, we haven’t even talked about it,” Thomson said.

Walker pitched 172 2/3 innings last season and no fewer than 157 1/3 innings over the previous three. Those innings provide value if he can compete enough to pitch deep into games.

“I'm ready to compete,” Walker said. “I want to go out there every fifth day. My role is to come here and throw innings. And I know I can go throw good innings. But my role is to take the ball every fifth day. Be that bridge. You know, we have three solid pitchers -- really, I mean, ace-type pitchers. Turnbull, Sanchy [Cristopher Sánchez]. Like, we have guys. And my job is to try to get as many innings in and save the bullpen.”