Somewhere between running his big league scoreless innings streak to 21 and looking a bit like a badass superhero, Vance Worley has grabbed a bigger share of the early season spotlight than one might (rightfully) have expected. With Joe Blanton's elbow impingement not as serious as initially feared, this might have been Worley's last start with the big club for the time being (assuming, of course, that Ruben Amaro doesn't take Bleacher Report's advice and trade Cupcakes for someone who was just DFA'd yesterday). If that's the case, the young man's been so good that it's worth taking a quick look forward and backward to see where Worley's come from, and where he's going.
Worley the Prospect
Those who follow the Rule 4 Draft may know that the Phillies actually selected Worley twice -- in the 20th round out of high school back in 2005 (he didn't sign, obviously), and again in the 3rd round in 2008. It wasn't anyone favorite Phillies pick at the time, as Worley had struck out just 5.7 men per 9 innings in his college career, and didn't have the sort of top notch raw stuff to overcome those kind of numbers. Still, he made an immediate impact, hurling 69.0 innings for Williamsport and Lakewood with a nifty 61-to-8 K-to-BB and a 2.48 ERA in 13 starts.
This was obviously a guy the organization liked a lot, and they decided to challenge Worley, sending him straight to Reading for the 2009 season. The results weren't particularly pretty, as after a solid enough first couple of months, Worley struggled immensely down the stretch, winding up with a 5.34 ERA and just 100 strikeouts in 153.1 innings (a 5.9 K/9). Still, there were a couple of mitigating factors, as I noted in placing him #15 on my Top 30 list prior to the 2010 season: Worley was just 21, had been promoted aggressively, and seemed to have understandably tired from a 120-inning jump from 2008 to 2009 (Verducci effect, anyone?).
The strange thing is that while his numbers did improve in his consolidation year at Double-A in 2010, they didn't spike quite like I had expected, with his BB/9 holding steady at 2.9 and his K/9 ticking up just slightly to 6.7. But he got better as the season wore on, posting superior peripherals in an 8-start audition in Triple-A, and looking even more impressive across 13 big league innings, including a pair of starts. If not for Cliffmas, the bespectacled one would have legitimately been competing for a rotation spot in 2011 -- as it was, he headed back to Lehigh Valley and posted even better numbers this time around, with a 25-to-6 K-to-BB and 2.78 ERA across 4 starts. Then Blanton went down, Kyle Kendrick was (thankfully) adjudged not to be stretched out, and... you know the rest.
Worley the Big Leaguer
So if this is indeed it for Worley in the rotation for the time being, where do we go from here? Where we don't go, as Governator helpfully pointed out in this Fanpost, is to immediately shuttle Worley off to the bullpen simply because he's shown an ability to retire major league hitters (not yet, at least... keep reading). Pitchers as a species get hurt with greater frequency than Jimmy McNulty gets blackout drunk, and with limited legitimate starting options behind Worley, his greatest value to the 2011 club is as sixth starter.
Backing up a second, what sort of success can we expect from Worley going forward? Well, not the same level of success he's had across his first two starts, certainly -- it seems to me that Worley has been helped by a combination of struggling Mets and Nationals offenses and the fact that it's his first time through the league. The simple fact is that righthanders who sit at 90 with their fastball don't turn into front end starters unless they: (A) are sinkerballers; (B) have pristine command; (C) have plus-plus secondary stuff; or (D) some combination of the above.
The above isn't a knock on Worley, of course, who -- despite this being his fourth pro season -- is still just 23 years old, and has improved steadily each season. He does everything you'd ask a guy with his stuff to do: mix pitches, pound the zone, and keep the ball out of the middle of the plate. I think a #4 starter is a fair projection, and in his cost-controlled years, he'll represent a big bargain for the Phils.
Worley... the Reliever?
But back to this year for just a minute. As mentioned above, it's counterproductive to move Worley to the bullpen at this juncture, but that doesn't mean that it wouldn't make some sense later on in the year. If the starting rotation looks reasonably healthy as Lehigh Valley's regular season campaign is drawing to a close in early September, I'd like it if the front office got creative, giving Worley a couple of relief appearances in Triple-A in late August and early September in preparation for a stretch run turn in the bullpen. We saw Worley's fastball tick up a bit last year in shorter stints, and he hasn't shown a pronounced platoon split throughout his career, so he'd be a nice option to throw into the 6th/7th inning mix as the weather turns cooler.
Of course, that would only be temporary. Worley is clearly a big part of the club's future as a starting pitcher, and credit to him for his development over the past two years to put himself in this position. Whatever spotlight gets shined on him today after his performance last night, he fully deserves it.