We’re just 16 games into Major League Baseball’s 2024 regular season, and the Philadelphia Phillies, currently 8-8, are in a state of flux.
Like most other teams in baseball, the Phillies are still figuring things out–Johan Rojas maintains a tenuous hold over center field, the bullpen runs hot and cold, the offense has been spotty, and the starting rotation has been surprisingly bolstered by the back end.

Aside from Bryce Harper’s revelatory performance at first base, the defense has been atrocious, Kyle Schwarber has been uncharacteristically contact-happy (12 out of his 15 hits have been singles), and the officiating has been subpar, to say the least. At home, fans are ranting and raving at the television with each game, still seemingly unaware that 147 of them remain to be played. It’s April. We’re all still figuring this out. 

Fortunately for the Phillies, the schedule makers have given them some cushioning to ease their early-season growing pains. On Monday night, they open a three-game set against Colorado, currently 4-12, followed by another three against the lowly White Sox, currently 2-13. Both series will be played at home. Their schedule becomes marginally more difficult as they make their way West, first with a four-game series in Cincinnati before landing in California to face the Padres and ending the month in L.A. against the Angels. 

As it turns out, one of the more pleasant surprises of this young season is also one of the more immediate challenges that the team faces regarding roster construction. 31-year-old right hander Spencer Turnbull has filled in admirably for an injured Taijuan Walker, his performance impressive enough that some are calling for him to replace Walker in the rotation upon Walker’s return to the big league roster in the next few weeks. In just three starts, Turnbull has injected a shot of energy into the Phillies’ rotation–posting a 1-0 record and 1.80 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 15 innings. This past week, Turnbull contributed to a dominant stretch by the bottom three pitchers of the starting rotation, in which Cristopher Sanchez, Ranger Suarez, and himself compiled 23 strikeouts in 22 cumulative innings across four starts with a combined 1.63 ERA. 

Three of the groups’ four allowed runs, however, came in Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh. Although the Phillies saved face with a strong 4-3 comeback win, Turnbull had his first down start of the year, allowing three earned runs on four hits and four walks in just four innings. Throughout the start, Turnbull struggled to find the zone, and without command of his six-pitch arsenal, he was largely ineffective. 


So what does this mean? Should the Phillies give up hope on Turnbull?

Or is the wily right-hander still a long-term option at the back end of the rotation


The answer is somewhere in the middle. Thus far, Turnbull has been a great little surprise and everything that a team could want out of a number five starter: someone who can give them a strong, solid 5-6 innings every fifth day. But Turnbull is not Taijuan Walker. There are a few important distinctions to be made. 

One, Taijuan Walker is in the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract. With a higher paycheck comes increased expectations. Walker is meant to be a number four pitcher and not the fifth starter in a five-man rotation, a solid innings eater with the upside of something greater. Something akin to what the Phillies wanted Zach Eflin to be if they thought he could stay healthy for a full season. 

There is also the issue of arm health. Although Walker has been sidelined with a shoulder issue and has another three to four starts left in his rehab, he did throw 172.2 innings last year. Turnbull, who has struggled mightily with arm injuries in the past five years, threw just 31 innings in 2023. As a general rule of thumb, pitchers aren’t recommended to increase their inning total from more than 30-40 per year, thus capping Turnbull’s potential innings at around 100. 

The possibility of keeping both Turnbull and Walker in a six-man rotation upon Walker’s return is enticing but not likely this early in the season. Although ostensibly the idea makes perfect sense–limiting the innings on all of the pitchers early on should make things easier–the team found out last year that it wasn’t necessarily conducive to success: Zack Wheeler pitched remarkably better on four or five days rest compared to six. 


Turnbull’s mere presence as a positive starting option, however, is perhaps the best kind of problem that the Phillies could have. The season is a long one, and one of the starting pitchers, invariably, will go down with an injury at some point in 2024. Having Turnbull as a replacement option or even as the sixth man in an extended rotation in, say, July or August could be invaluable. Even as the long man out of the ‘pen, Turnbull could prove his worth. 

Walker will get the nod when he returns from rehab, and he should. After not making an appearance in last year’s postseason, one would imagine that he has something to prove. The Phillies are paying him to be a long-term, viable starter, and they have to see if he can do just that. However, if Walker struggles for an extended period of time–his velocity never picks up, he’s not consistently pitching past the fifth inning, etc.–then the leash should not be long.


Because $74 million or not, only one thing matters to the Phillies at the end of the day: who gives them the best chance to win.
That should be the deciding factor in who takes the mound every fifth day. 

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