Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Major And Minor Moves Underway For Phillies

GAME RECAP: No Game Yesterday
Phillies got a much needed day off after their final loss to the Brewers this season… hopefully they sent a search party out to find their missing offensive spark.

  • Nola picked up a victory in his last outing despite allowing four runs over five innings. He has a 2.45 ERA in two starts at Citizens Bank Park in his young career.
  • Dickey is 5-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 11 career starts against the Phillies. He's made one start against them in 2015, throwing eight scoreless innings while allowing two hits in a win on July 29. 

The Blue Jays begin a two-game Interleague series against the Phillies on Tuesday, with R.A. Dickey taking the hill in the opener against Philadelphia rookie Aaron Nola. Dickey is looking to extend his hot streak since the All-Star break, as the veteran right-hander has posted a 4-0 record with a 1.49 ERA in six second-half outings. He's tossed seven straight quality starts. After dropping a three-game series to the American League East-rival Yankees following a 12-game winning streak, the Blue Jays are once again setting their sights on first place.


Health Making Big Difference – We're nearly three-quarters of the way through the 2015 season, and the two numbers that jump out about Chase Utley are "36," his age, and ".213," his incredibly disappointing batting average. Along with yet another entry on a lengthy medical report, this time an injured ankle that cost him six weeks from late June to early August, it hasn't exactly been a memorable season for the legendary Phillies second baseman. If your reaction to the trade rumors swirling around him are "how would he be even as good as what we currently have at second base, much less an upgrade," well, your hesitation would be understandable. It would also be underselling a player who has an outside shot at a convincing Hall of Fame case. If Utley isn't quite the superstar he once was, nor does it seem likely he's the catastrophe he's looked like for most of the season, and that's exactly the point. Teams sniffing around Utley don't think they're getting the April-through-July Utley, the one who put up a .179/.257/.275 first-half line that was the worst of the 243 players with at least 200 plate appearances. They think they're getting the Utley we're seeing right now, and there's reasonable evidence to back that up. First, a brief reminder of how we got here, because it's important in understanding why there's still optimism. The surprising thing about Utley, in retrospect, isn't how ineffective he's been this season. It's how good he was over the last half-decade leading up to 2015. After a historic run of dominance between 2005-09, when he averaged nearly eight Wins Above Replacement per season and was baseball's second most-valuable player behind only Albert Pujols, the cumulative effects of age and injuries to his thumb, oblique, and both knees helped create the impression that he was broken-down and just hanging on. It was never true, though. Despite the injuries and decline, he was still one of baseball's five best second basemen between 2010-14, and even at 35 years old last year, he put up a four-WAR season and was the starting second baseman for the National League in the All-Star Game, his first trip since 2010. So when he got off to such a brutal start in 2015, it seemed that there had to be a better reason than "well, he's 36 years old." It's difficult to fall that far, that fast. As it turns out, there was a reason, and the Statcast™ data can show us not only what happened, but why it might no longer be an issue. During workouts in January, Utley badly sprained his ankle doing workouts when he stepped on a baseball. The ankle was still "visibly swollen" by the time he reported to Spring Training weeks later, and he didn't make his spring debut until March 13. Utley tried to play through it once the season started, undergoing an MRI in May to try and evaluate his continued issues, and finally succumbed to the disabled list on June 22. In case you're wondering if sitting out to get healthy made a difference: Yes. Yes it did. “Forget the .213 batting average, this chart shows why teams are still interested in Chase Utley. pic.twitter.com/odK2Qt24L6— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 17, 2015. Utley's average exit velocity jumped more than five full mph, and his average batted ball distance increased more than 25 feet. In 28 plate appearances since returning, he's got 13 hits, including six extra-base hits. To put that into context, Utley has just 18 extra base hits all year long; a full one-third of them have come in the last week. It's important to note, of course, that "in the last week" is literally all we're talking about. We're constantly warning about small samples, and this is that. 28 plate appearances are absolutely a small sample. Utley's week off the disabled list has included a line of .500/.500/.808, which of course isn't a sustainable performance in any possible future. Of course, compared to Utley's decade of production, three months of poor performance is kind of a small sample too, particularly since there appears to be a real, tangible health issue to point to. None of this is a guarantee that Utley would help a new team; we don't even know yet that he'll have a new team. But if you're simply evaluating him by a .213 batting average, look deeper. Utley's earned that, and now that he's seemingly healthy, he's proving why.

Sticking Points – Perhaps if Chase Utley felt compelled to pursue what Jim Thome pursued late in his 22-year career, he might be elsewhere by now. But Utley won a World Series with the 2008 Phillies, so while he desires a second championship and wants to play for a winner, thoughts about another one probably do not consume him like they did for Thome and others who finished their careers without a ring. Utley has that and other considerations before he decides to waive his full no-trade rights. Utley certainly has options. Sources have told MLB.com that multiple teams have made offers to the Phils for Utley, who still could be traded before the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline. But nothing has happened so far, which is surprising to some. Sources told MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez that the Angels thought they would have a deal done Friday. Other teams probably thought the same, which is why FOXSports.com reported Sunday that Utley could remain in Philadelphia. Every day that passes, it becomes one fewer day that contenders such as the Angels, Cubs, Giants, Yankees and Dodgers can use Utley, even though he has hit .500 (13-for-26) with five doubles, one home run, five RBIs and a 1.308 OPS in seven games since his return from the disabled list with a sprained right ankle. And the closer those teams move toward the end of the season, the less likely it seems they will part with a prospect that appeases the Phillies, considering Utley is going to become a free agent after the season. Of course, there are money issues, too. A team such as the Angels will want the Phils to eat some of the roughly $4 million owed Utley before the end of the season. Utley also has a $2 million buyout on a 2016 club option, which must be paid. Clearly, the Phillies would like to trade Utley. They want Cesar Hernandez to play as much as possible, because he is set to be their second baseman next season. So if Utley decides he does not want to play for the Angels, Cubs or Giants, he does so almost certainly knowing these will be his final few weeks with Philadelphia. If a trade does not happen, it means Utley is OK with that. ESPN.com first reported last week that Utley wants a playing-time guarantee before he goes anywhere. Utley wants to play regularly, because he plans to play in 2016. Phillies interim manager Pete Mackanin has said he plans to play Utley four times a week, which might be as much or more than other teams are willing to pencil him into the lineup. So maybe the iconic second baseman decides he would rather just spend the final few weeks of his contract in Philadelphia rather than face the unknown for a few weeks in a new organization. Utley has earned that right.

The Optimism Of Prospects – J.P. Crawford didn't really smile. The tone of his voice barely changed. Crawford stood stoic. On demeanor alone, one would be more inclined to think he was trying to gauge the direction of the wind than think he was about to divulge his thoughts on the Phillies' future. But don't let the delivery fool you. Crawford meant what he was about to say. "I think we're going to win a World Series in a couple of years," Crawford said. Hardly Joe Namath, Crawford, Philadelphia's top prospect and the sixth-ranked prospect in baseball, wasn't willing to specify which year he had in mind. But the sentiment still remains, and Crawford isn't alone in this high view of the organization. Though the Phillies aren't atop any farm system rankings and, aside from Crawford, the prevailing consensus seems to believe that the organization isn't breeding any superstars, the view from inside is that the Phils have the pieces necessary to eventually win pennants. "We always all mess around inside, saying, 'What if this team's all up in Philadelphia?'" said pitcher Ben Lively, the team's No. 12 prospect. "I think once this team clicks, when everyone has a game going on, I definitely think we can compete in a couple of years against some big league teams." The team to which Lively was referring was the Phillies' Double-A affiliate in Reading, Pa., which at one point this year housed six of the Phils' top 11 prospects, including Crawford and pitcher Aaron Nola, who has since worked his way up to the big leagues. With so many of the organization's most valuable commodities all in the same place in their progress, Lively's characterization of the team as growing up together makes sense. But that isn't often how what Lively called "the business side of baseball" works. More often than not, players like Nola move up faster while others lag behind. This polarity of life in the Minors becomes even more complicated when factoring in the struggles Philadelphia has been through this season. And it's difficult for actual Minor Leaguers not to take notice of this. But in Lively's opinion, focusing on that can be harmful. "You can't let that get to you, and you've got to play your own games, because the only way you're going to get there is if you perform, too," Lively said. "If you start letting that get to you, you can get a little sidetracked and let that get to you, too, and that can stop you from getting up there." While Phillies fans wait for this group to develop, the prospects are enjoying playing together. Crawford, for example, raved about the opportunity to bat behind outfielder and No. 7 Phils prospect Roman Quinn, because Quinn's speed melds well with Crawford's ability to drive in runs. There is a sense of recognition in Reading that the Phillies' future is both in the clubhouse and elsewhere, something Lively said he believes can make Crawford's assertion come true. "They've got plenty of talent in [Class A] Clearwater now," Lively said. "All of the new guys down there, we saw them in Spring Training. They're coming up, too. There's no doubt between them and us."

Prospects Move To The Outfield – The shortstop position has an aura around it. Something about it draws the best athletes to the game from a young age. At least that's how J.P. Crawford, the Phillies' top prospect, sees it. "I played shortstop all my life," Crawford said. "So that's what I played in high school. I think [in high school the shortstop] is the best athlete." Based off the 2015 MLB Draft, Crawford's hypothesis isn't wrong. Five-hundred eighty-one position players were selected in early June. Of those 581, 107 were listed as shortstops, a staggering 18.4 percent of the group. The Mets were the only team not to select a shortstop. The Nationals and Giants each picked seven. The Diamondbacks, Astros and Rockies led off the Draft by selecting three straight. All this said, a team can only have one shortstop at a time. More accurately, though, a team can only have one player at shortstop at a time. That's where Crawford's assertion comes in: shortstops are athletes. With the 10th pick of the first round this year, the Phillies selected shortstop Cornelius Randolph. Rather, with Crawford as the organization's top prospect in a rebuilding era, the Phils drafted Randolph as a former shortstop. Within days of the selection, Philadelphia made it official that despite Randolph's experience at shortstop, he was going to be moved to the outfield. "I'm open to anything, honestly," Randolph told MLB.com. "I'm just ready to play ball. I've played outfield a little bit with my summer ball team, so I think I'll adapt pretty quickly." But Randolph isn't the first player with whom the Phillies have done this. Roman Quinn, the Phils' third-ranked prospect who hasn't yet played in the Majors after Crawford and Randolph, was a high school shortstop who was drafted by Philadelphia in the second round in 2011. Quinn has since morphed into a speedy center fielder to impressive results. Before landing on the disabled list on June 12, Quinn batted .306 with 16 extra-base hits and 29 stolen bases in 58 games at Double-A Reading in 2015. Perhaps more noteworthy was how he performed in the outfield where, despite his five errors, he recorded eight outfield assists -- the second best on the team -- and proved to be the team's most productive outfielder by range factor, a statistic that tracks how many outs a defender is responsible for per game. Quinn said Phillies outfield coordinator Andy Abad was the person most directly involved in his transition, and he advised Randolph to use Abad as a resource in growing as an outfielder. "Pretty much just keep grinding and listen to the coordinators," Quinn said. "They'll guide [Randolph] through it and lead [him] the right way." This tactic of molding infielders into outfielders hasn't been confined to Phillies prospects and draftees. The Major League club stirred some discussion in May when it sent then-third baseman Cody Asche down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to learn how to play left field. After spending less than a month with the Triple-A club under Abad's supervision, Asche returned to the Majors and has made 41 starts in left field. In more than 340 innings, Asche has two assists and has yet to make an error. To Asche, players like Quinn, Randolph and himself, who can thrive at multiple positions, add an extra dimension of versatility to a club. "I see it as a luxury for the Phillies," Asche said. "We've got guys who can do more than one thing. And we have younger players who are eager to prove themselves. I think that's a big thing going forward. It's just guys that are eager. And I would put myself in that category."

The Phillies season has taken an unexpected turn for the better as they have officially climbed out of the bottom of the NL East with a record of 46-72. Given the departures, aging stars, injuries, and bipolar performances this season, this could still end up being the worst team in franchise history! All time, the Phillies are 44-62-0 on this day.

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