Diamondbacks getting look at No. 5 starter contenders 1st in spring games

Feb 23, 2024, 2:32 PM

SCOTTSDALE — Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo and his staff are evaluating the pitching staff with a tough call to make in the starting rotation.

Lovullo has said it is no mystery the club feels strongly about the first four consisting of Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez and Brandon Pfaadt, with the only questions regarding the order.

To open spring training games, the D-backs are rolling with their competitors for the fifth spot, slating Tommy Henry in the opener against the Colorado Rockies on Friday. Lovullo announced Ryne Nelson would go next on Saturday, followed by Slade Cecconi on Sunday and Blake Walston on Monday. Bryce Jarvis will be stretched out as a starter this spring after transitioning to the bullpen last season in order to impact the MLB club.

“Put them in their comfort zone, give him a chance to show us what they can do with their routine from A to B to the field and just allow them to be at their competitive best,” Lovullo said of the spring rotation. “Not put them in an unfamiliar situation for their first outing.”

Rodriguez was set to start the opener on Friday at Salt River Fields, but he was scratched for Henry. Rodriguez is healthy and threw to six hitters on the back fields, including Corbin Carroll, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Alek Thomas and Jordan Lawlar.

That fifth spot will be a point of discussion for the next month. Incumbency favors Nelson and Henry, who combined for 233 innings last season.

Something to keep in mind: Similar to last year, general manager Mike Hazen said he’s looking for the best 13 pitchers to put on the team. He does not want to convert someone to a reliever and stretch them back out, but he felt there is enough depth to move one of the young starters into the bullpen if they are not in the rotation, circa Drey Jameson last year.

“Consistency is the key word here,” Lovullo said earlier in camp. “How am I repeating my delivery? How am I throwing quality strikes? How am I controlling the at-bat and controlling the zone? Those are the things that I’ll be looking for.”

Nelson took a couple weeks off after the World Series before getting right back to it at Salt River Fields, working with pitching coaches Brent Strom and Dan Carlson.

Start-to-start consistency and lack of swing-and-miss largely affected Nelson’s rookie year (5.31 ERA, 5.07 FIP). He averaged 3.4 strikeouts per start and had the fourth-lowest K rate (15.5%) among 100 qualified starters.

“Arm slot consistency, extension consistency, just trying to be super repeatable, not giving away any information,” Nelson told Arizona Sports of his focus points this offseason. “A lot of work on staying in line, staying direct to plate and trying to get really good extension. It’s helped me get out in front of my offspeed stuff and be a more consistent.”

His slider had an average of 13.1 inches of break, 5.1 better than league average, so finding confidence and consistency with his offspeed will be key to Nelson’s chances of making the team.

Henry said he had a healthy offseason after an elbow injury cut his 2023 campaign at the end of July.

Cleaning up lower-half mechanics has been an emphasis after his first extended run in the major leagues brought positive results with Arizona going 10-7 in his starts (4.15 ERA, 4.88 FIP).

“I’m really trying to use my hips and more specifically my front leg to allow me to throw with more ease and less stress on my arm while also being more consistent, getting my glove hand into the same position more consistently,” Henry told Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke last week.

Nelson and Henry had similar thoughts on the competition, saying they are focused on their own preparation for the season. Henry said stacking as many strong days as he can will give him the best shot.

Lovullo has said there is a strong bond between the two friends who were both drafted in 2019 and made their MLB debuts in 2022.

“They’re going out there to repeat things not have one good outing and then one bad outing, not have good one good inning and one bad inning and to continue learning pitches and working on the things that we outlined,” Lovullo said. “It’s the secondary stuff for (Nelson) and it’s getting ahead and the quality fastball location for for Tommy. Not huge adjustments that need to be made. So now we talked about the consistency of it will be the next step, and that’s through the course of the entire spring.”

Cecconi had a different answer regarding the competition, steering right in as a motivating factor.

“I knew last year I wasn’t competing for a job, I know this year I am competing for a job and I’m here to win,” Cecconi told Arizona Sports at the start of camp. “I’m here to get that job they’ve told me I’m competing for. Coming in here with intense focus every day with that goal in mind of being on the Opening Day roster.”

Cecconi has continued to work at his glove drive to be less rotational and more direct to home plate, something Strom pointed to when the right-handed first reached the major leagues last year. Cecconi received seven appearances in the regular season with Arizona.

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