Diamondbacks’ 5th starter competition to go down to the wire at spring training

Mar 6, 2024, 6:57 AM | Updated: 7:30 am

Ryne Nelson...

Ryne Nelson during Arizona Diamondbacks spring training at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

(Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

SCOTTSDALE — Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said there is no set date to decide the fifth starter in his rotation as they prepare for Opening Day.

The ongoing battle will go down to the wire as the D-backs look for quality innings from the back end between candidates who found themselves in a similar spot last year. Ryne Nelson won the fifth starter job last offseason four days before the season opener, to give a recent timeline for this scenario.

But who has the leg up with Opening Day three weeks away?

“I know everybody targets Tommy (Henry) and (Ryne Nelson), they’re the two maybe frontrunners because of what they’ve done,” Lovullo said. “But we have a lot of guys that can go out and execute game plans. They’re good. Everything they’re doing is going to be considered.”

Nelson and Henry have made three appearances each in spring games, with Nelson starting at Salt River Fields on Tuesday. They are the top two innings getters so far in camp with veteran Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly pushed back in workload management.

Nelson has eight innings pitched with three earned runs: a solo shot from San Francisco’s Jung-Hoo Lee and a pair of runs in his fourth inning against San Diego on Tuesday.

The right-hander had not walked a batter this spring until the fourth, as he struck out 12 hitters before surrendering a base on balls. Nelson battled some adversity early, getting nailed by a comebacker inside his left knee for a single and inducing an inning-ending double play the following batter. He retired five straight before surrendering the walk on a 3-2 pitch to lead off the fourth inning.

Nelson’s secondary pitches are also coming in hotter. The hard slider averaged 88.5 mph in his latest outing, up 3 mph from 2024 as he works to tunnel his pitches to work off a mid-90s fastball. And that has generated much more whiffs this spring than what he showed over an inconsistent 2023.

“More comfortable with it, moving it around, throwing it back foot, throwing it back door and I feel like the shape is where I want it to be,” Nelson said of the slider. “The velocity is moving up too.”

“There’s guys who have what I call F-U fastballs … he’s got one,” catcher Tucker Barnhart told Arizona Sports. “I think both breaking balls are extremely usable, the changeup is developing and keeps guys on the defensive with the quality of his fastball.”

Henry got off to a terrific start but hit a bump in his most recent outing. He’s piggybacked Brandon Pfaadt’s last two starts, and on Monday against the Chicago White Sox he allowed six hits with two walks to 14 batters, letting in a pair of runs.

He only allowed one hit over his first five innings with one walk with strong command early this spring.

“I mean, it definitely is the goal obviously,” Nelson said of winning the role. “But I think to achieve that it’s more so down to me and what I got to do to get better every day … I think that being there before definitely helps in understanding how to deal with that a little bit better, just focused on myself and trying to make sure I’m the best version of myself.”

Ryne Nelson vs. Tommy Nelson stats for the Diamondbacks this spring

Nelson: 8 IP, 3 ER, 9 H, 1 HR, 1 BB, 12 Ks

Henry: 7.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, 0 HR, 3 BB, 6 Ks

The topic of bullpen games came up Tuesday, and in an ideal world the D-backs would not have to turn back to that strategy after using it to mixed results in the postseason.

Lovullo said he has to be adaptable but wants five traditional starters who can get deep enough to spare the bullpen a workload it saw over the first half of last season. Arizona has young depth options behind whomever is the No. 5 — Henry/Nelson, Slade Cecconi, Bryce Jarvis, Blake Walston and Cristian Mena among them.

Its rotation depth took a hit quickly last year when Madison Bumgarner was cut loose early and Zach Davies went on the injured list. The outlook is different now with starters closer to big league ready and a top four with Eduardo Rodriguez and Brandon Pfaadt.

“These are two really good friends, they enjoy each other, they spend time with each other,” pitching coach Brent Strom told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta last week of Nelson and Henry. “Both of them had periods of really good success and then some failures last year. I don’t want to forget some of the other people involved, Cecconi is kind of in the mix. We have a few other people, but I think we’re in pretty good shape right now with the competition.”

Elsewhere in the rotation, Gallen will pitch in his first spring training game of the season Thursday at the Texas Rangers in Surprise, while Kelly will follow on Friday at Salt River Fields against Chicago Cubs.

The two threw bullpens Tuesday, along with Rodriguez.

The order of operations as it currently stands is Gallen, Kelly, Rodriguez, Pfaadt and the No. 5 starter.

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