Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Foundation Seems Strong


Translation Please – Commissioner Rob Manfred visited every team in baseball last spring and noticed something. His words were lost to many of the Spanish-speaking players in camp. "I noticed a problem in terms of language," Manfred said. "I had a lot of senior people in the organization with me on those visits and they noticed a problem. I think it pushed forward an issue that had been sort of on the table for a long time to make sure that we did the very best job we could allowing our players to communicate as effectively as possible with the press." It is why every team is required to have a Spanish-speaking translator on staff. The Phillies recently just hired their translator: 28-year-old Diego Ettedgui, who is from Venezuela. "I think it's going to help," Phillies third-base coach Juan Samuel said. "Sometimes it takes us from what we need to do as a coach, even though we welcome the idea of helping these guys. A lot of times you have to juggle coaching with personal stuff, and maybe sometimes this guy feels more comfortable talking personally about something strictly to a translator." Last season, Samuel and veteran utility infielder Andres Blanco translated for players uncomfortable speaking to reporters. "It will be more comfortable for everybody," Blanco said. "Everybody will have their own space. Spring Training is Spring Training, but during the season it's a little bit different. People feel tension. They get mad, frustrated. It's good to have better communication." But Samuel and Blanco both hope it does not stop players from improving their English. "Now you have a tendency of seeing all the Spanish guys being together because, 'I only have to speak Spanish,'" Samuel said. "Then you have the rest of the team over there. If they learn the language it'll bring the team even closer together off the field. You don't see the Latinos out, going shopping with Cody Asche. They go with Cesar [Hernandez] or Blanco." Cordero is getting close: Hard-throwing right-hander Jimmy Cordero has not thrown a bullpen session this spring because of soreness in his right biceps, but he said he could throw off a mound as early as Monday or Tuesday. Cordero said he does not consider the injury serious and expects to make up for lost time.

Alfaro Turning Heads – Unofficially, the distance from home plate at Ashburn Field at the Carpenter Complex to second base on the half field at Bright House Field is about 545 feet. A service road separates the two. But Phillies prospect Jorge Alfaro had no problem recently launching balls from Ashburn Field to second base at the half field, which caught the attention of Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa. He had been working on the half field at the time. "It's just a different sound," Bowa said about the ball leaving Alfaro's bat. "It doesn't matter that it's BP. Where these balls go, it's different. The kid has strength. He's got some tools. Big time." It is just batting practice and it is just the first few days of camp, but Phillies coaches have been impressed with Alfaro's raw power. Of course, the trick for Alfaro will be harnessing that power at the big league level. But if he can, the Phillies will be ecstatic they got the 22-year-old catcher in the Cole Hamels trade with the Rangers. Good catching is hard to find. Good catching with power is a dream. The average big league catcher had a .682 OPS last season. Only three catchers hit more than 20 home runs. "BP-wise, I haven't seen a guy on a consistent basis hit a ball that far to right-center field, opposite field, ever," said Matt Stairs, who is in camp as a guest instructor before returning to the Phillies' broadcast booth next week. "I've played with [Jose] Canseco, [Mark] McGwire. Sammy Sosa had great power in BP, center field and pull power. But Alfaro has the thunder off his bat. When you see a center fielder not move in BP, just turn around and watch, you know you've got tremendous power." "He reminds me of Dick Allen," Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said. "He's got the 28-inch waist and the shoulders three-feet wide. But I'm one of those guys that gets infatuated with young players early. I've pitched to him in the cage, worked with him a little bit. You can just see it. He has a very quiet, confident stance and presence in the batter's box. Everything about him exudes confidence." Alfaro has hit .261 with 52 home runs, 250 RBIs and a .758 OPS in six Minor League seasons. He missed much of last year following ankle surgery. Finally healthy, he played 13 games in winter ball in Venezuela, hitting .262 with one home run, no walks and 16 strikeouts in 42 at-bats. "I felt a little lost," Alfaro said about winter ball. "I started feeling better the more I played." The key for Alfaro will be refining his approach at the plate. He has walked 95 times and struck out 492 times in his Minor League career. It would be advantageous to close that gap. "We've been talking about my stance and trying to be more athletic," Alfaro said. "I just want to be more consistent at the plate. But I also need to get better at calling games." "He better learn to hit the ball inside," Stairs said. "When you watch a guy taking batting practice and he has tremendous power center field to right-center field -- because that's what his swing is -- now it's an adjustment of how he can react to pitches inside. Can he turn on pitches? It will be interesting to see what adjustments he makes." The Phillies are hopeful the hitting and catching comes -- Alfaro's throwing arm is as impressive as his power. The club has another highly regarded catching prospect in the system in Andrew Knapp. If both make it, one of them could change positions. Alfaro has some experience at first base and has worked out in the outfield. "He's young," former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He still needs some experience to finish him off, but he has a chance to be a good hitter, a power hitter in the big leagues." "He's a strong kid," catcher Carlos Ruiz said. "He can swing the bat. He's a guy you have to keep your eyes on."

A Strong Foundation – Mike Schmidt has lived through the good times and the bad with the Phillies. He was in uniform when a young team won three consecutive division titles in the 1970s, and in 1980 when they celebrated a World Series title for the first time. Schmidt played in the '83 Series loss to the Orioles. And during the Hall of Famer's 18 seasons, he was around when the Phillies were losing a ton of games, like 97 in 1972 or 91 in '73 or 82 the following summer; a combined 191 his final two years, 1988-89. By my count, Schmidt was with the Phils for 1,398 of the franchise's record 10,650 losses. The team has finished last 33 times. Michael Jack has seen this team torn down and rebuilt more times than he can remember, so there's really no one better to ask of what the current construction project reminds him. "The Kansas City Royals four years ago," Schmidt said the other day without hesitation. "And I think we're closer to the World Series than the Royals were then." Kansas City, building from within with young players, lost 90 games in 2012 and, of course, rose to beat the New York Mets last year to win its first World Series championship in 30 years. "Just say I'm very impressed with the young talent here," Schmidt, a Spring Training instructor, added after a workout on a cold, windy day at Bright House Field. "There's a lot of energy." Ask baseball lifer Pete Mackanin what his youthful band of virtually unknown players reminds him of, and the manager chews on the question for only a second or two. "Right away, I think about the Montreal Expos with a lot of young guys when Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Gary Carter came up," he said. "I was part of that mix [1975-77]. Those guys did a little better than I did over the long run. "It reminds me, in that respect, we've got a lot of guys who're not necessarily on the Major League team, but on the verge, knocking on the door. I consider Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez prospects as well. Those guys did well enough last year for me to expect much more from them this year." Mackanin, 64, took over on an interim basis when Ryne Sandberg resigned on June 26, and he was given the job permanently after the season, his first full-time managerial job. He received enormous praise for his handling of and communication with the young roster. Once prompted, Mackanin was on a roll, oozing superlatives about the players who are rebuilding the Phillies' future. Once again. "I think [center fielder] Odubel Herrera has a chance to be a batting champion," the manager gushed. "I don't know about this year, but he's got a real good idea at the plate. He's shown adjustments. We need Galvis and Cesar to adjust and Maikel to get 500 at-bats. We have a bunch of prospects -- good young guys who have a chance to make a name for themselves." Herrera batted .297 in 147 games last year, while Franco hit .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs. Right-hander Aaron Nola, who was 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts, is the top pitching prospect, and shortstop J.P. Crawford, one of baseball's best prospects, is considered a big piece in the club's future. I first arrived in Clearwater to cover the Phils in 1958. For the first four years, they lost 377 games, including 107 in '61. And they only played 154 games in those seasons, all last-place finishes. When I look back over the years, I can never remember so many changes -- from top to bottom -- within the organization, as are taking place now. To say 2016 is a new beginning is an understatement. Longtime respected executive Andy MacPhail is now the club president, 35-year-old Matt Klentak is vice president/general manager and Mackanin is the new field general. Klentak is the youngest GM in Phillies history. There's an entirely new analytics department. Change was obviously necessary. It's been eight years since the Phils, under manager Charlie Manuel, won the World Series; seven years since they lost the Series to the Yankees in 2009. Their run of five straight National League East titles ended in 2012. They finished last the previous two seasons and lost 99 games in 2015, their third straight losing season. An upbeat Klentak has been talking this spring about building a firm foundation, but is quick to add "a lot of the pieces are already here." The Phillies waited too long to rebuild and were saddled with expensive long-term contracts awarded to players who helped win those five consecutive division titles, but whose skills were on the downside. Jimmy Rollins is gone. So is Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, et al. Only 36-year-old former NL MVP Award winner Ryan Howard and 37-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz remain from the team that helped sell out Citizens Bank Park all those great years. Most preseason forecasters are picking the Phils to finish last again, and they're near the bottom among the 30 Major League teams in early power rankings. Because they had the Majors' worst record in 2015, the Phillies own the overall first pick in the Draft for the first time since 1998, when they selected Pat Burrell. This is an enormously valuable asset to a rebuilding team. "These young guys are pretty good and have a lot to prove," said Mackanin. "I hope they make very difficult decisions for us on when to bring them up here. A lot of the guys -- especially some of the pitchers -- have to be thinking they have to show improvement this year or one of these young guys will take their jobs. "If that's pressure, so be it. That's what this game is all about. If you can't handle pressure, how do you expect to win the game in the ninth inning -- or the last game of the World Series?" As the workout continued this day at Bright House Field, the overriding thought was that the painful teardown of the Phillies is complete. And the words of Schmidt comparing the rebuilding to the journey that the Royals followed were encouraging.

Getting Fit For Special Needs – It's not just Phillies players who are getting preseason workouts. Back at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the Phillies front office and NovaCare Rehabilitation trainers recently hosted a Major League workout for elementary students with autism and an adult aphasia group. This unique Phillies Phitness "WorkOUTshop" was held in partnership with AccessSports Experiences, which provides sporting experiences to those with special needs. There were approximately 50 participants, including volunteers, with their day beginning in the Diamond Club for an introduction to what it means to be fit and why it is important, followed by a warmup to get the blood pumping. Bobby DiLullo of NovaCare and Troy Sattin, who oversees the Phillies Phitness program, made sure the group was prepped and ready for the workout. "To be fit means living a healthy lifestyle through working out, being active and maintaining a nutritious diet," Sattin said. "We are trying to create habits that make being healthy easier. It does not matter if you have disabilities; it is all about what can be done now to live a long, healthy life." Alyson Harris of AccessSports Experiences agrees wholeheartedly. "In our group today there is a range of participants, from little kids to adults, showing that sports allow for an equal playing field for individuals to come and be connected," she said. "Whether it's children with autism or adults who have had strokes or traumatic brain injuries, all of a sudden the differences are no longer there because everyone is cheering for the same team and for each other." From relay races to hitting in the batting cages, there was plenty of cheering to be had by all participants. And that is important, as some members of the group have regained speech and mobility through events like this. "One of our aphasia clients actually learned to regain her speaking voice by cheering at a game," Harris said. "It's something everyone can identify with, the experience of rooting for a team, or even each other, can transform someone's life." Activities at the Phillies Phitness WorkOUTshop were all health related, covering everything from exercise to nutrition. The younger group started in the media room, where they learned about nutrition and healthy options through a "healthy food race," with the children running to pick out healthy food items to put on their plate. Meanwhile, the older group participated in relay races, during which the batting cage netting was lifted to reveal an indoor field. Smiles were everywhere, as participants cheered on teammates running back and forth with Major League uniforms to dress up a member of the team. The most important goal of the race was not to win, but to encourage one another. At the end of the activity, the group exchanged compliments and high-fives. The groups then switched places and took part in the other activity. All participants learned the importance of being active, through both exercise and everyday activities, as well as the importance of making smart food choices. "When you're young, you can pretty much do anything you want, but as you get older and you don't have some balance in your diet, things like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol have a greater risk of occurring. It makes the ability to be active and productive more difficult," DiLullo said. "We want to stress that if you maintain a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet, you live longer. It's something you can start at any age, and you can have fun while staying healthy." To finish the day, everyone headed to the Diamond Club for a nutritious lunch. As the group enjoyed the meal, the best mascot in baseball charged into the room for a big surprise. The children cheered and the adults clapped as the Phillie Phanatic greeted each person individually. It was no doubt a great day for all to get fit with the Phillies.

Today In Phils History - First, look to see how this spring compares to 2013. Second, be sure to wish 2008 NLCS legend Matt Stairs a happy birthday!

With the Phillies having finished the 2015 season with a spectacularly awful record of 63-99 it will be interesting to see what kind of team new President Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak put on the field. At the same time I am definitely looking forward to the games against Boston with former GM Ruben Amaro on the field. Given the departures, lingering contracts, a history of injuries, bipolar performances, and unproven talent, it should, at the very least, be an interesting season for the Phillies. Who knows, maybe they can avoid 100 losses... hopefully by more than one game!

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