Taijuan Walker’s 2024 Season Will Be Make or Break for His Phillies Tenure

Note: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links, Schneps Media may earn a commission.
Phillies Taijuan Walker
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Taijuan Walker delivers during the first inning of the team’s baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Taijuan Walker’s first season with the Philadelphia Phillies was…alright. The 31-year-old pitched a career-high 172.2 innings and was a fine option as a back-end starter once he made it through the first inning of a game. But he was a complete non-factor in the postseason, and his spot heading into 2024 doesn’t seem to be super secure.

Cristopher Sanchez getting the start in Game 4 of the 2023 NLCS was the final, strongest sign that Walker had fallen out of favor at the end of last season. The Phillies deployed 12 different pitchers in last year’s postseason, and Walker wasn’t one of them. While the veteran righty was never meant to have a role beyond being a depth piece for the rotation, his lack of playoff usage was startling and served as a point of irritation.

Turning the chapter to a new season with the Phillies can help Walker gain more familiarity and comfort with the club. But if 2024 is to be a bounce-back season, it’s beginning with a less-than-ideal opening passage.

Taijuan Walker’s Precarious Start to Spring Training 

Taijuan Walker has dealt with soreness in his right knee during Spring Training, which he already started late after dealing with a personal matter. His velocity was unsurprisingly down, but his fastball worryingly sat a handful of ticks below his usual range. Walker and manager Rob Thomson expected that, especially with the veteran getting a late start. Still, it’s something that will be under major scrutiny going forward.

In his first start, Walker went 2.0 innings and threw 38 pitches (20 of which were strikes) against the Toronto Blue Jays. He struck out three batters and walked one while allowing two hits and an earned run.

On Friday, Walker will continue his Spring Training with a simulated game in Clearwater as the Phillies take on the Hoston Astros in West Palm Beach. Thomson opted not to send him on the long bus ride and will keep him active at the Phils’ Spring Training headquarters.

Rotation Spot in The Air?

The Phillies have Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola locked down in the first two rotation spots, and Ranger Suarez is as dependable as the No. 3 starter, leaving Walker and Sanchez in the running for the next two spots. With the latter improving significantly over the last few seasons, the former could become the odd man out if the team seeks to upgrade its rotation.

Although Taijuan Walker was a Gold Glove finalist last season (and won 15 games, which tied for the sixth-most in the majors, if you care about that sort of thing), he has plenty to prove. He posted his worst WHIP and strikeout percentage since 2018 along with a 4.38 ERA, good for a 98 ERA+. Just 35% of his games constituted a quality start, which is right at the MLB average and worse than the other four pitchers in Philly’s rotation.

Walker is a talented pitcher with a diverse pitch repertoire, but a lot of his surface-level success in 2023 owes a lot of credit to favorable outcomes that were out of his control. That is to say that, either through his teammates stepping up at the right time or the opponent floundering, Walker’s season was inflated. He avoided taking a loss eight times in games that would have otherwise counted as such, the most among the Phillies’ main rotation, and only two would-have-been wins were lost, which ties Sanchez, who pitched over 70 fewer innings.

Admittedly, Walker’s role on the team is somewhat far down the list of importance. The Phillies are good at every fielding position and have great talent at the top of their rotation and bullpen. A great fourth or fifth starter is a luxury rather than a foundation-supporting piece of the team.

But with the lofty, trophy-hoisting aspirations the team has—not to mention also sharing a division with the mighty Atlanta Braves — the room for error is minimal. If the Phillies seek an upgrade, it may be at the cost of Walker’s rotation spot.

Phillies Blake Snell
San Diego Padres starting pitcher Blake Snell works against a Colorado Rockies batter during the second inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept 19, 2023, in San Diego. (AP Photo / Gregory Bull)

Options for the Phillies

Whether it’s a free agent like Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery or a promising prospect like Mick Abel, the Phillies have options to upgrade. An established name like the Cy Young Award-winning Snell could jump to a spot in the rotation that bumps back Suarez and everyone behind him. A youngster would probably have to climb each spot gradually. But both internally and externally, there are plenty of ways to upgrade pitching.

Taijuan Walker’s greatest sense of security comes from his contract, which still has three years remaining. Unless an opposing team is desperately starved for starting pitching or the Phillies attach an intriguing prospect in a trade, no team out there seems likely to take on $54 million for a decent-at-best pitcher. He would seemingly stick it out with the Phillies even if his role is diminished.

While there is still time in Spring Training and a long season ahead for him to get right, he continues to seem more and more like an odd man out in a pitching staff that could vie for being among the best in MLB. There were times last season when No. 99 came to play and was legitimately great. They just need to occur more frequently.

After allowing 30 earned runs in 41.1 innings across his first nine starts, he bounced back to allow just nine earned runs across his next eight starts (48.0 innings), recording five quality starts and two shutout performances that went at least five innings. His fantastic performance in June, where he posted a 1.50 ERA across the whole month, was trumped by his less-than-ideal showings outside of that, though his 3.86 ERA in July was solid.

Walker’s track record is good enough that he deserves another shot to prove to the Phillies that he’s worth a solidified rotation spot. But if he doesn’t perform well enough, it’s not out of the question for the team to make a move.

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)