Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Final Performances Making Roster Decisions Difficult


Pitching and a pair of homers dominated the day as Marcus Stroman and Vince Velasquez had scoreless outings for their respective teams in a game that the Blue Jays went on to win, 2-1, over the Phillies on Monday afternoon at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Center fielder Darrell Ceciliani launched a two-run home blast in the bottom of the eighth inning off Dalier Hinojosa to give the Jays the game-winning lead. Stroman made his final start before Opening Day and allowed three hits without issuing a walk over four strong innings. He also struck out three and had an abbreviated outing in an attempt to rest up for the 162-game grind of the MLB season. "I understand that it's for my best interests," Stroman said. "My body, everything, my pitches, my arm feels great, and I'm just looking forward to getting out there Sunday for Opening Day." Right-hander Jesse Chavez then entered out of the bullpen and had an equally impressive day. He struck out three and didn't allow a hit over two scoreless frames. Chavez is scheduled to begin the year as a reliever after right-hander Aaron Sanchez was announced as the Blue Jays' fifth starter earlier in the day. Velasquez was officially named to Philadelphia's rotation Monday morning, and he promptly came through with his best outing of the spring. He struck out eight and allowed two hits and three walks over six impressive innings. Kevin Pillar was the lone player in the Blue Jays lineup with hits off Velasquez, as he went 2-for-3 with a double. "It wasn't easy," Velasquez said. "I was pretty overwhelmed today. I was pretty excited. I was a little drained, to be honest. But I kept fighting and pushing through it." Philadelphia took the first lead of the game in the top of the seventh inning against Toronto lefty Randy Choate. Designated hitter Darin Ruf delivered the big blow with a home run to center field that came on a 3-2 pitch. Choate was charged with one run on two hits over one third of an inning.

Phillies left-hander Brett Oberholtzer is expected to start Tuesday's Grapefruit League game against the Yankees at Bright House Field. He will open the season in the bullpen, but he is starting because Adam Morgan got sent to the Minors.


Phillies Finalize Rotation – Vince Velasquez entered Spring Training the favorite to be the Phillies' fifth starter, and they awarded him the job on Monday, when they announced they had optioned left-hander Adam Morgan to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Velasquez and Morgan had been the finalists to be the fifth starter behind Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton and Jerad Eickhoff. "We like Velasquez's power arm," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "We want to see him in the big leagues." It was not an easy call to make. Velasquez entered Monday's start against the Blue Jays in Dunedin with a 3.21 ERA in four Grapefruit League appearances (three starts). In 14 innings, he allowed 13 hits, six runs (five earned), four walks and struck out 16. Velasquez has dominant stuff, and he showed it. But Morgan is a strike-thrower who impressed. In fact, an argument can be made that he outperformed Velasquez and Eickhoff, who has pitched just twice this spring because of a fractured right thumb. Including three scoreless innings Morgan threw on Thursday in a rain-shortened game against the Braves, he had a 1.50 ERA in four starts. In 12 innings, he allowed six hits, two runs, three walks and struck out four. Morgan had been scheduled to pitch on Tuesday against the Yankees, but the Phils wanted to take their final Grapefruit League starts out of the equation. "Probably one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make," Mackanin said. Velasquez entered camp the favorite for a couple of reasons: First, he has a power arm and the best stuff of anybody in the rotation. Second, he is the prized piece of the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston. Perhaps Velasquez's status as the top dog in the deal gave him the edge. "Possibly," Mackanin said. "When you're talking about certain players, just because a guy was a No. 1 pick, don't give him any preferential treatment. The guys who are high Draft picks, you don't want to look at them any differently than a 30th-round pick because it's not fair. Sometimes it happens, but in this case that didn't even enter into it for me. We like his stuff. He's got good stuff. And I want to see him in the big leagues." Velasquez pitched splendidly against a stacked Blue Jays lineup Monday in the Phillies' 2-1 loss, allowing two hits and three walks and striking out eight in six scoreless innings at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. He said he learned he had won the job from teammate Chris Leroux, who had just been optioned, and the MLB At Bat app, which he said sent him a push notification to his cell phone. Velasquez simply put two and two together. "Every day, you have to set goals for yourself," Velasquez said. "Coming into Spring Training, I set a high goal for myself, break off of camp [with the team]. To find out today the goal is accomplished, it doesn't stop there. I've got to set more goals for myself later on and try to achieve them. But on that note, it's pretty exciting. I can't really show much right now because I'm tired, but in the back of my mind, I'm really excited." Mackanin said Morgan was extremely disappointed with the news. He went 5-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 15 starts last season, making him one of the precious few competent starters in a rotation that ranked as one of the worst in baseball in 2015. Morgan then put up better numbers than every starter in camp. "I'm upset," Morgan said. "But there's nothing you can do about it. It's out of my control. I thought I was doing a good job." Morgan also said he asked for but did not get much of an explanation why he did not win a job. "Not really getting an answer is probably the hardest part," Morgan said. "'Keep working.' OK. Other than that, it's just the nature of the beast, I guess." No Morgan means no left-handers in the rotation. Mackanin said it will not be a problem. "We're just going to go with the best pitchers we have," Mackanin said. "You'd like to have some kind of versatility, a mix. But that being said, it's not of the utmost importance to me if we have all right-handers starting for us. It is what it is. As the season wears on, we're most likely going to see more than five starters up there." Morgan is expected to be the first option should the Phillies need a starter. The call could come because of an injury or ineffectiveness or because the Phils want to monitor the innings of some of their young pitchers. Velasquez pitched only 88 2/3 innings last year. He pitched a career-high 124 2/3 innings in 2013. It is difficult to picture Velasquez making 30-plus starts this season. "That's a good question," Mackanin said. "We're going to find out. We need to find that out as soon as possible. We're building toward the future and it's important for us to get him going and see exactly what we've got there." The Phillies plan to give prospects Jake Thompson, Mark Appel and Zach Eflin time to develop in Triple-A this season. If they come up, it figures to be later in the year. Hellickson, Nola and Morton will pitch the first series of the season in Cincinnati. Mackanin said the Phils have not decided who will pitch the first two games of a three-game series that follows in New York. Eickhoff and Velasquez will remain in Florida and pitch Saturday before joining the team.

Late Addition With A Chance – Put outfielder Will Venable into the mix to make the Phillies' Opening Day roster. The Phillies announced Monday they had agreed to a Minor League contract with Venable, who will be in camp Tuesday. "I'm anxious to see him," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. The Indians released Venable, 33, after he hit .133 (4-for-30) in 13 Cactus League games. But the Phillies like him because they are thin in the outfield due to injuries to Aaron Altherr, who is sidelined until at least July following left wrist surgery, and Cody Asche, who is expected to open the season on the disabled list because of a strained right oblique. The Phillies' projected Opening Day outfielders are Odubel Herrera, Peter Bourjos and Rule 5 Draft pick Tyler Goeddel, although Venable could put Goeddel on the bench if he makes the team. The move leaves Venable, Cedric Hunter, Emmanuel Burriss and David Lough fighting for the final two bench jobs. "Out of those four, we'll probably choose two of them," Mackanin said. Venable, who suddenly becomes a favorite for one of those jobs, posted a .669 OPS in 390 plate appearances last season with the Padres and Rangers. He had a .613 OPS in 448 plate appearances with San Diego in 2014, but posted a respectable .796 OPS with the Padres in '13.

Making Moves – The Phillies solidified their rotation Monday, prior to a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays, when they named Vince Velasquez their No. 5 starter. But they also crystallized their bullpen and bench battles. They signed outfielder Will Venable to a Minor League contract after the Indians released him. He could make the Opening Day roster. They also optioned left-hander Elvis Araujo, right-hander Luis Garciaand outfielder Darnell Sweeney to Triple-A Lehigh Valley and reassigned left-hander Bobby LaFromboise, right-hander Reinier Roibal, right-hander Chris Leroux, catcher Logan Moore and infielder Angelys Nina to Minor League camp. The moves point to Rule 5 Draft pick Daniel Stumpf making the Phils' bullpen. There are four locks to make the Phillies' bullpen: right-handers David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa and Jeanmar Gomez and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. Stumpf figures to get one of the final three jobs as Philadelphia tries to stockpile arms. If he does not make the Opening Day roster, the Phils could lose him because of his Rule 5 Draft status. Simply put, it makes sense to open the season with him to give him a longer evaluation. "Stumpf has the pitches to be an effective Major League pitcher," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "Since we're building for the future, it's important that you have a 26-year-old left-hander with what I consider good stuff. You don't want to just give him back. So that's still to be decided, but we like him so far." Right-handers Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey and left-hander James Russell have a chance for jobs, although plenty can happen with less than a week remaining before Opening Day. The Phils must place Mujica on the Opening Day roster by Tuesday, or he can become a free agent. The decision has not yet been made. Frieri can exercise an out clause Thursday, although he has only pitched well as of late. Russell has a June 1 out clause. Bailey has a May 1 out clause. Mackanin has been lukewarm at best about Bailey's past three appearances. Mackanin said the other day that there is a good possibility the Phillies might carry three left-handers in the bullpen, which, if true, indicates Russell has the edge with Araujo and LaFromboise sent to the Minors. Optioning pitchers like Araujo and Garcia and sending LaFromboise to Minor League camp indicates the Phils are trying to keep as many arms as possible for the 162-game season. Keep in mind, the Phillies also could find relievers outside the organization this week that could bump out Mujica, Frieri, Russell or Bailey. "That's part of the reason -- we have more depth to go to at the Minor League level," Mackanin said about Monday's moves. "But strike-throwers are important. We need guys that we can count on to pitch ahead in the count. We want to be able to trust them to throw strikes, and we feel like we've got those guys right now." Venable, Cedric Hunter, Emmanuel Burriss and David Lough are in the running for the team's final bench jobs.

Can We Start The Season Now? – Maikel Franco crushed a fly ball to deep left field on Sunday afternoon at JetBlue Park. The ball appeared to sail over the miniature Green Monster for his ninth Grapefruit League home run, but umpires instead ruled it a ground-rule double. Franco looked perfectly perplexed as he stood on second base. He wanted to add one more dinger to his Spring Training ledger. The Phillies, meanwhile, would like Franco to save some homers for when they truly count beginning April 4 on Opening Day in Cincinnati against the Reds. "Hurry up and get to April," Jeremy Hellickson said about Franco recently. "I don't think he'll stop, but hurry up and get here." Franco has had one heck of a spring following an impressive rookie season, which could mean a breakout season as not only one of the game's best third basemen, but best hitters. He batted .280 with 22 doubles, one triple, 14 home runs, 50 RBIs and an .840 OPS in 335 plate appearances. He had started to enter the conversation for National League Rookie of the Year Award honors before breaking his left wrist in August. Franco's 127 OPS+ ranked 42nd among 245 players with 300-or-more plate appearances. He ranked sixth among 30 rookies. "The sky is the limit with Maikel, man," Ryan Howard said. "His ball gets small really quick." Franco entered Monday with a .737 slugging percentage, which might mean he is in line for a huge season. "I'm just trying to be healthy this year," Franco said. "I know if I'm healthy, something good is going to happen." John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions once found a correlation between Spring Training power numbers and regular-season power numbers. At one time, he discovered 60 percent of hitters that boosted their career slugging percentage (minimum 200 career at-bats) by 200 or more points in Spring Training (minimum 40 at-bats) experienced an increase in power that season. While that formula has been far less accurate in recent seasons, it once correctly predicted big seasons for Pat Burrell and Placido Polanco in 2005, Howard in 2006, Chase Utley and Greg Dobbs in 2007, Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz in 2009, Ruiz in 2012 and Domonic Brown in 2013. Franco has a career .453 slugging percentage in 360 career at-bats in the regular season and a .737 slugging percentage in 57 at-bats this spring. That is a 284-point increase. "I don't want him to waste all of his home runs in the spring," manager Pete Mackanin said, smiling. "He looks really good at the plate, aggressive, confident. I'm sure he's going to carry it into the season. It's a good guy to have in the middle of the lineup right now."
Today In Phil History - The 'other guy' who was acquired in the Brad Lidge deal, Eric Bruntlett, was born on this day in 1978. The following year the Phillies signed Del Unser. Both players would play key roles on World Series winning teams.

The Phillies have an impressive record this spring… 14-10-3 (15-10-3 if you include the exhibition game against the University of Tampa). 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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