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Bullpen bound? Phillies’ Vince Velasquez ponders rest of 2017 season

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The rumors have always been there, but could it finally happen?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Vince Velasquez made a rehab appearance last Saturday for Lehigh Valley, the first step back from an elbow injury he suffered May 30. And while that appearance went well and Velasquez is feeling good, the right-hander’s future status with the big club is a bit of an unknown right now.

In talking with reporters, Velasquez said he’s not really sure whether he will be a starter when he returns, or if the Phillies will opt to use him in the bullpen.

“They haven’t mentioned anything,” Velasquez said. “As we speak right now, I don’t know where I stand. There’s been some talk. But, as of right now, I’ll probably continue my starting career. We have tons of pitchers. We have a lot of talent. I don’t think moving me into a relieving or closing role will make any difference because we’re all competitive pitchers.”

This isn’t too far off from some of the things Velasquez said about a month ago, when he just seemed a bit lost on the mound and lost when having to answer to reporters. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Velasquez in 2017; he’s started just 10 games and has a 5.58 ERA in those 10 starts. His K-BB% has dipped to a 14.5% mark this season, down from 19.4% in 2016. He has continued to be a high pitch count, low inning guy, which isn’t that much different from 2016 either. At times he’s nibbled around the edges instead of being the aggressor, again, not all that different from 2016.

So, what could suddenly be different for Velasquez? His role with this organization, for one. While he doesn’t seem to know much about what direction the Phillies are about to go in with him when he returns from injury, Velasquez seems to be openly wondering whether he’ll be in the rotation in the long run.

Besides the relatively tame boilerplate quote above, Velasquez did reveal a little more about his current line of thinking:

“There is nothing finalized,” Velasquez said. “I’ve been a reliever before. I’ve never closed in my life. … Sometimes, I envision myself being a closer. It would be pretty fun to be a closer. But I don’t have any intentions on being one right now, as we speak.

Twelve of Velasquez’s 19 appearances in 2015 with Houston were out of the pen, so he’s had some relief work in his career as he said, though the Astros were certainly trying to protect his arm when bringing him up that season. He hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen with the Phillies, but gosh if that quote doesn’t sound like “No, you do it, no you tell him, no seriously, just kidding, but really guys, maybe this would work?”

It has been a frustrating season for various reasons, and Velasquez’s status and performance is near the top of the list as to why. While the hope has always been that Velasquez would be a stud No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher in a Major League rotation, it may be time to re-align our thinking a bit, at least for the sole reason that Velasquez himself has said he can envision himself being in a closing role.

Velasquez’s value to the Phillies would certainly be higher if he can prove that he’s a capable starting option and can get through 180-200 innings a season without injury and command issues. That being said, it’s always been easy to dream of Velasquez coming out of the pen, dialing up a fastball that can touch 98-99 MPH, and work in his curveball and change-up to challenge hitters in a high-octane, one-inning setting to finish off a ballgame.

However, that’s probably still the last resort here. Once healthy, Velasquez should re-enter the starting rotation and be given every chance to perform there. He needs the reps right now, and we need to see him fail as a starter before bullpen thoughts should be entertained.

With the way the season has gone, it’s no surprise that some doubt has crept in to Velasquez’s mind as he ponders where his career may be going. For now, though, the Phillies should put full confidence in Vince Velasquez, the starter. A relief role should remain just a dream for now.