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2021 player previews: Mauricio Llovera and Francisco Morales

Two young pitchers out of Venezuela could soon become key members of the Phillies’ pitching staff

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees
Mauricio Llovera has promise, but is probably still a year away from being a major contributor.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Not every member of the Phillies’ 40-man roster is expected to play a pivotal role in the team’s success in 2021. In some cases, the players were added to the roster because they were Rule 5 eligible, and the team feared losing them to another organization. The Phillies might not be depending on them this year, but there are hopes that they might be major contributors in the near future.

Mauricio Llovera and Francisco Morales are two players who would seem to fall into that category. Both are right-handed pitchers signed as international free agents out of Venezuela at a young age, and have advanced steadily through the system. While neither man is being heavily counted on at the moment, they shouldn’t be completely counted out for the 2021 season either.

Mauricio Llovera

Llovera made his major league debut in 2020, and it wasn’t a good one. After spending the majority of the season on the team’s “taxi squad,” Llovera was called up to the big leagues in early September. With the Phillies trailing the Mets 7-1 on September 6, it seemed an optimal time to have Llovera enter his first game and hopefully absorb some innings.

Unfortunately, he was only able to absorb one inning, because he needed 41 pitches to get through it, giving up four runs in the process. Soon after, he was sent back to the minors.

It isn’t fair to judge Llovera based on that one appearance since that was his first time pitching to live batters above the AA level. He’s still viewed as a legitimate prospect, who should figure into the team’s plans in the near future, although it isn’t clear what role he’ll settle into. The team still believes he may have a future as a starting pitcher, although his destiny may eventually be in the bullpen.

What could go right in 2021

It isn’t clear if the Phillies are planning to use him as a starter or reliever to begin the season. His quickest path to the majors would probably be in a relief role, and depending on how he performs in exhibition games, he could even make the Opening Day roster. He’s got a fastball which reaches the upper 90’s, and he doesn’t walk a lot of batters which should at least make him usable in a middle relief role this season.

What could go wrong in 2021

Llovera suffered an arm injury in 2019, and it seemed to negatively affect his performance. And like many prospects, the lost season of 2020 didn’t do Llovera any favors. It’s possible that spending time with the taxi squad helped his development, and he is ready to be a major league contributor. It’s also possible that he needs more seasoning and will spend the entire season in the minors.

Francisco Morales

After three years in the Phillies’ minor league system, Morales right-hander has established himself as one of the organization’s top prospects. He has a good fastball that can get into the high 90’s, and an excellent slider.

MLB Pipeline predicted he would be the Phillies’ breakout prospect in 2020, but unfortunately, the pandemic prevented that from happening. Like Llovera, it isn’t clear if he’ll eventually end up as a starter or reliever, but the team seems committed to using him as a starter for now.

What could go right in 2021

Having never appeared above low single A, Morales is a long shot to find his way onto the major league roster in 2021. Then again, the lost season may result in surprises. It’s possible that Morales continued to improve in the absence of actual games and is more major league ready than expected.

The Phillies are hoping to see Morales improve his command and continue to establish himself as a legitimate prospect. The best case scenario is that he continues to improve his command, and works on establishing his changeup as a legitimate third pitch. If that happens, he could be viewed as a serious contender for the major league rotation in 2022.

Even if the team wants to keep him a starter long-term, there’s still a possibility that the team thinks he could make an instant impact in the majors as a short-inning reliever. If so, we might see Morales at Citizens Bank Park sooner than expected.

What could go wrong in 2021

Even if he has taken a leap, it seems unlikely that we’d see Morales before the middle of the season. It seems more likely that barring injury-related necessity, Morales will be in the minors for the majority of the season.

And those surprises stemming from the lost season could work both ways. At his young age, there’s a whole lot that could go wrong. Maybe he has trouble adjusting to the tougher competition at the Double A level. Maybe he never fully develops the necessary command of his pitches. Maybe the team decides that his arsenal is better suited to a relief role. While he could still be a viable contributor out of the bullpen, that would dim his level if prospect a bit.

What to expect

Llovera seems likely to spend at least part of the season on the big league roster. It will probably take some time for him to earn a more prominent role, but considering the unpredictability of bullpen arms, it wouldn’t be a shock if Llovera is used in some key spots later in the season. As for Morales, aside from a roster crunch-induced cameo, I wouldn’t expect to see him until the end of the year when rosters expand.