Thursday, February 26, 2015

Encouraging Start For Veterans At Camp


Lee Finally Faces Batters – Everything seems fine so far with Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee. He threw to hitters Wednesday morning at Carpenter Complex, the first time he had faced hitters since his 2014 season ended in July because of an injured left elbow. If Lee is behind schedule compared to other starters in camp, it does not appear to be much. "Felt good, felt normal," Lee said. "No complaints." Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said there has been some thought Lee could miss his first turn in the rotation once Grapefruit League games start next week, but he could not be certain. Sandberg cited an "upper respiratory" illness for setting back Lee a bit, but the lefty said it has not been an issue. "I don't know what the schedule says," Lee said. "I know we discussed just easing into it, making sure we don't do anything stupid early. I had two days in between bullpens, where everyone else had a day. Trying to make sure you're better safe than sorry early. But everything feels good." One thing is certain: whenever Lee pitches, he will have plenty of scouts on hand. If Lee is healthy and effective, he is a trade candidate. He makes $25 million this season, plus a $12.5 million buyout on a 2016 club option worth $27.5 million. The club option automatically vests if Lee pitches 200 innings this season and does not finish the season on the disabled list with a left arm or elbow injury.

Getting An Early Start – Manager Ryne Sandberg seems to be impressed with how Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has looked during the team's first two full-squad workouts at Carpenter Complex. "Ryno looks like, his body looks like right now, he's going to allow himself to be more productive," Sandberg said Wednesday afternoon. Howard, 35, enters camp following an interesting offseason. He settled a nasty legal battle with his family. He heard Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. say on radio the Phillies would be better without him, and he heard plenty of speculation about being traded. But Howard remains with the organization and hopes to bounce back following some rough seasons. "Just running the bases he looks better, a much better chance of scoring from second base," Sandberg said. "Much better getting to the cutoff spots playing first base. There should be more range there with the way that he looks from the waist down." Howard has declined comment to reporters since he arrived in camp Monday. Some wonder if he could be playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. "He doesn't act like he has a chip on his shoulder," Sandberg said. "He acts like he's a teammate here and he's a veteran guy helping the young players. So I like the attitude and the fact that he's getting after it and doing extra work with Charlie [Manuel], but with [Larry] Bowa in the mornings and sometimes afterwards on the defensive side of things. That'll go a long way with getting the most out of Ryno, really getting back to the ability and where he needs to be on the field."

Bullpen Bubbles – Projecting the Phillies' Opening Day roster is an annual rite of spring. For that reason it is worth knowing the players in camp without options. Options play a considerable role in a player's chances of making the 25-man roster. Players without options must clear waivers before they can be assigned to the Minor Leagues, so there is risk in losing the player altogether if he does not make the team. In Phillies camp there are six players without options: right-handers Jerome Williams and Justin De Fratus; left-handers Phillippe Aumont and Andy Oliver; and infielders Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. It is not a factor for Williams, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract in the offseason. He is expected to be the team's No. 4 starter behind Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Aaron Harang. It also is not a factor for Oliver, who is a Rule 5 Draft pick. The Phils must keep Oliver on their 25-man roster the entire season or he must be offered back to the Pirates. Galvis is expected to be the everyday shortstop, so options should not be an issue. De Fratus is a heavy favorite to make the bullpen, so the same holds true for him. But the performances of Aumont and Hernandez this spring are worth watching because of their situations. Aumont is 1-5 with a 6.13 ERA in 45 appearances over the past three seasons. He has averaged 6.1 walks per nine innings in that time. The Phillies love his stuff, but he will need to throw strikes and pitch much more consistently to earn a spot in the bullpen, which already includes locks like Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles and Jake Diekman, with De Fratus a strong favorite for a fourth spot. Hernandez seems to be a better bet to make the team because he can play a little bit at shortstop, and the Phillies do not have a true backup for Galvis. Hernandez has hit .264 with a .624 OPS in 256 plate appearances the past two seasons.

Seeking Rebirth – Some people just hit it off. Who knows why? It happens in life. It happens in baseball. Jeff Francoeur quickly became a star after breaking in with the Braves in 2005. From the opposite dugout, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel liked what he saw. And understand this: Manuel appreciates good hitting the way oenophiles swoon over the nuances of a great wine and art experts will endlessly analyze every brushstroke of a Monet. "Half the time I felt like Charlie was my manager," Francoeur said with a laugh before a recent Phillies workout at Bright House Field. "I'd be on deck and I'd look in their dugout. And Charlie was always [shaking his fist] at me. And I was like, 'Is he pulling for me or is he hoping I'll strike out?'" "I'd always be getting on him," Manuel admitted with a grin. They had never worked together, though, until now. The 31-year-old outfielder, trying to get his career back on track after spending most of last season in Triple-A, signed with the Phils as a Minor League free agent and is a non-roster invitee. Manuel, after being dismissed as manager midway through the 2013 season, is back with the organization as a senior adviser to the general manager. This spring, he's working with hitters; Francoeur may just be his passion project. Their paths nearly intersected four years ago, when Francoeur was a free agent for the first time. The Phillies, looking for a right-handed bat, were interested. Manuel's eyes lit up at the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that year when asked if he thought he could help Francoeur regain his hitting stroke. "I see some mechanics and things that I would like to sit down and talk with him about," Manuel said at the time. "I would like to sit down and go over his approach and things like that. I see some things that I would like to suggest to him." In the end, Francoeur ended up signing with the Royals, though he never really found his groove again. Released by Kansas City on July 5, 2013, he bounced to the Giants, Indians and Padres before signing with the Phils -- $18,000 per month, $925,000 plus incentives if he makes the team. Maybe, Francoeur admitted, he would have been better off if he had worked with Manuel four years ago. "There's always that," francoeur said. "But then, once it's done, I think you always kind of look forward, especially now that I'm here and with Charlie. I'm just kind of looking forward to it. We're going to work one on one, and that's what I've been looking forward to all offseason. When they told me he'd be here the whole time and I'd have the opportunity to work with him, it was a no-brainer for me. I've always respected him. I'm looking forward to working with him big-time." "I've talked to Jim Thome, Jayson Werth, and they swear by Charlie. He knows so much about hitting. To be honest with you, I felt like if I could get here and get a chance to work with him and do what I can, I've still got a lot of good years ahead of me. I feel that way. I'm getting smarter about my body and different things." Said Manuel: "He's got talent. I was kind of surprised when I talked to him. He knows hitting. He knows who he is now. When he was young, his adrenaline would get going and he'd overswing a lot. He's definitely got a chance to be a good hitter. I've always liked the way he hit. Hopefully, we can get him back to where he was a few years ago. "I used to always talk to him. He's that kind of player. He has a tremendous personality. He smiles. He's upbeat. He brings energy. If we can get him to where he was a couple years ago, then he's still got a chance to be a good player. That's all I can tell you." General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has promised nothing beyond giving an outfielder whose OPS has declined each season since he posted an .848 in 2010 the chance to show what he can do. Last season, Francoeur appeared in just 10 big league games, and he batted .289 for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas. The Phils' depth chart lists Darin Ruf in left, Ben Revere in center and Domonic Brown in right, with Grady Sizemore as the primary backup. "By no means has [Francoeur] made this club or is locked in," Amaro said. "He's going to get an opportunity to be with us, and we'll see how it goes. He can be a good addition as an extra outfielder for us. "He didn't have the greatest season last year, but we think he provides some things -- or at least could provide some things -- that we need. Some balance in the outfield. He's a very good defender, he's a quality person. He just kind of fits the mold of what we think could be a piece of the puzzle here. But he's going to have to prove to us and to himself and others that he can be a contributor to this club. "It's hard to tell [what his upside is]. I don't know. I know the people are excited about working with him, and hopefully, he feels the same about being with us." Nobody's more excited about working with Francoeur than Manuel, and the feeling is mutual. "I've always loved playing in Philly," Francoeur said. "I've always hit well there. And I like the fans, man. I know they're tough, but it's the type of place where there's passion. You don't get that in some other places. Fans up there love professional sports. So, for me, I'm looking forward to the challenge of hopefully making this team and then contributing throughout the year." And for what it's worth, of all the incentives the Phillies included in Francoeur's contract, one stands out. He'll get an extra $50,000 for being named Comeback Player of the Year.

The Phillies will look to rebound this season from a 73-89 record last year. While uncertainty abounds, there is little question that the franchise is in rebuild mode based on the moves and statements that have been made during the offseason. The only question that remains is whether or not the young and veteran talent on the team can work together to disprove Gillick’s predictions either this year or next.

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