Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Only A Few Spots Remain With Less Than A Week To Go!

EXHIBITION GAME RECAP: Exhibition Game Washed Away

Did Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka do enough? Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged his starter before Tuesday afternoon's Grapefruit League game against the Phillies at Bright House Field, which was called after the fourth inning because of rain. Tanaka entered the game with a 7.36 ERA in his first four starts, and Girardi wanted to see better before he named him the Opening Day starter. Tanaka allowed seven hits, one run, one walk and struck out five in four innings, and he threw in the bullpen during the delay to extend his pitch count. Phillies left-hander Brett Oberholtzer allowed seven runs in four innings. Yankees first baseman Dustin Ackley hit a three-run homer in the first. Miguel Andujar hit a two-run homer in the fourth. Darin Ruf singled in the first to score the Phillies' only run.

Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson starts the Phillies' final Grapefruit League game on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. ET, facing the Houston Astros at Bright House Field. It will be the final tuneup for Hellickson before he starts on Opening Day in Cincinnati on Monday.


One Less Option – The Phillies released Edward Mujica on Tuesday to tighten their bullpen competition. Mujica signed a Minor League contract with Philadelphia in December, and he pitched well this spring. He had a 2.16 ERA in seven Grapefruit League appearances, allowing four hits, two runs, two walks and striking out seven in 8 1/3 innings. Opponents hit .154 against him. But the Phillies like their other options better. "They told me I'm free to go," Mujica said. Mujica's release leaves nine healthy relievers in camp. Right-handers David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa and Jeanmar Gomez and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer are locks. Rule 5 Draft pick Daniel Stumpf looks like a lock, too. The Phillies love his arm, and they must keep him on the 25-man roster or risk losing him. Non-roster invitees James Russell (3.38 ERA in six appearances), Andrew Bailey (5.14 ERA in seven) and Ernesto Frieri (6.75 ERA in six) remain in camp. Hector Neris (6.23 ERA in eight appearances) is on the 40-man roster, and he also remains. Unless the Phillies acquire somebody before Opening Day, those four are fighting for the final two bullpen jobs. Russell has the edge on one of those spots. Manager Pete Mackanin said the other day that there is a good possibility the team will carry three left-handers in the bullpen. Frieri can exercise an out clause on Thursday, but only if he has a spot on a 25-man roster elsewhere, and that is highly unlikely. Bailey has a May 1 out clause; Mackanin has been lukewarm, at best, about his past three appearances. It is not a stretch to think Frieri and Bailey could open the season in Triple-A and Neris works his way onto the team. Neris has not pitched well this spring, but he had a 3.79 ERA in 32 appearances last season. Mackanin has said that although Grapefruit League performances are important, he will consider regular-season performances, too. Mujica activated an out clause in his contract when the Phillies did not add him to the Opening Day roster by midnight ET Sunday. They then had 48 hours to make a final decision on him. The Phils called Mujica into Mackanin's office on Tuesday morning to inform him of his release. The Phillies saved $100,000 in the process. Article XX-B free agents with six or more years of Major League service time who sign Minor League contracts must be placed on the 25-man roster or released five days before the regular season. If the team does neither, choosing to instead send the player to the Minor Leagues, the team must pay him a $100,000 retention bonus. Mujica could re-sign with the Phils and open the season in Triple-A if he cannot find a big league job elsewhere. "I'll have to see," Mujica said. "Pete told me I'm going to have pretty good chances if I go to Triple-A, in getting back to the big leagues."

Venable In, Asche Out? – Will Venable has five games to prove himself and win a job on the Phillies' Opening Day roster. Venable arrived in camp on Tuesday morning after Philadelphia signed him to a Minor League contract on Monday. Venable, 33, hit .133 in 13 Cactus League games with the Indians, who released him on Sunday, but he has a chance to make the Phillies, as they have few other options in the outfield. He went 1-for-2 before the Phillies' Grapefruit League game against the Yankees was cancelled because of rain. "I have no expectations," Venable said. "I'm just in camp right now. If it means I have to go to Triple-A and prove myself there -- whatever it takes -- I know that at some point I would like to be here contributing at the big league level." Outfielders Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche will open the season on the disabled list. Altherr had surgery on his left wrist this month, which will sideline him until July at the earliest. Asche has not played a game this spring because of a strained right oblique. He aggravated the injury the other day, essentially resetting his recovery to the very beginning, and he could miss another several weeks. "It's just giving it more time to heal," Asche said. "Obviously, the time frame we had last time wasn't enough. This time we've just got to be a little more cautious." The Phillies re-assigned outfielder David Lough and infielder Ryan Jackson to Minor League camp on Tuesday, leaving Venable and non-roster invitees Cedric Hunter and Emmanuel Burriss the final three candidates for the final two bench jobs. Burriss has a good shot because he can play the infield and outfield, and at the moment, the only utility infielder is Andres Blanco. Manager Pete Mackanin has hinted that he likes the flexibility Burriss provides when it comes to maneuvering the lineup during National League games with double switches, etc. Hunter has impressed nearly everybody in camp. In fact, Mackanin said that if Hunter makes the team, he could be his leadoff hitter. The fact that he has been in camp from the beginning and earned the right to be in the conversation for a bench job will play a factor, Mackanin said. "Hunter has had the best at-bats of anybody other than [Maikel Franco] in camp, in my opinion," Mackanin said. "I'll put it that way." Venable 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 solid .796 OPS with the Padres in '13. "I'm not far off," he said. Venable also can play all three outfield positions, which makes him attractive to the Phillies. "There was mutual interest," he said. "I got released in the morning, and by the afternoon ... we had some momentum going on a possible deal." Venable knows the Philadelphia area relatively well. He played basketball and baseball at Princeton, and played a few games at The Palestra. "Not good memories at The Palestra," Venable said. "I think we blew, like, a 15-point lead in the last minute of a game one time. But great venue."

Closer Spot Still Up For Grabs – If the Phillies have a three-run lead in the ninth inning on Opening Day in Cincinnati, somebody will have to pitch to protect it. Will it be their closer? Do they even have a closer? "You'll find out," general manager Matt Klentak said on Tuesday afternoon at Bright House Field. "So will I." This is the first time in more than 15 years the Phillies have not entered the season with an established closer. In years past, it has been Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge, Tom Gordon, Billy Wagner and Jose Mesa. This season it could be David Hernandez or Dalier Hinojosa or ... somebody else. "It's up in the air," manager Pete Mackanin said. "You guys see what we see. Hinojosa is still a candidate. Hernandez is a candidate. After that we might have to use a committee situation. It is what it is, and we have to try to find somebody that can do it." It has been an interesting spring in that regard. Hernandez began camp as the favorite because he signed a one-year, $3.9 million contract in the offseason, making him the only free agent the Phillies inked to a Major League deal. But Hernandez started the spring slowly because of soreness in his right elbow. He is healthy, but he has pitched in only three Grapefruit League games. Tuesday's appearance was cancelled because of rain. Hinojosa had a 0.78 ERA in 18 appearances last season. He has a 4.50 ERA in seven appearances this spring, although he allowed two hits and two runs in one inning on Monday against the Blue Jays. "That's probably the worst outing that we've all seen from him," Mackanin said. "I think he was overthrowing all of his pitches. I think he might have been auditioning for that role." Right-hander Andrew Bailey emerged as a favorite early in camp, based on four scoreless innings in four appearances, but Mackanin has not been enamored with Bailey's past three performances, and Bailey could open the season in Triple-A. "I don't have a rooting interest in this," Klentak said. "I want the best seven guys in the bullpen to get outs. Sometimes declaring who pitches the ninth allows who pitches the eighth and who pitches the seventh to kind of fall into place a little bit better. I understand the way that works. But ultimately, we're looking for the best combination of relievers to get outs toward the end of the game." Mackanin will not name a closer unless he is "100 percent sure about somebody that I want to call a closer." "I'm not going to call anybody a closer," he said. "A closer is somebody that you can count on for the ninth inning. I don't know if we probably have one. I hope we have one, but I'm not going to name one right now just to call a guy a closer. It doesn't really mean anything."

Big Piece Not So Big Anymore – Ryan Howard is struggling at the plate, going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts on Tuesday. Since hitting a grand slam over the batter's eye at Bright House Field on March 18, he is 2-for-19 with one double, two walks and 11 strikeouts. That does not include a 1-for-5 effort with four strikeouts in a Minor League game on Sunday at Carpenter Complex. "Yeah, I'd like to see better at-bats," Mackanin said. Howard entered camp with the opportunity to earn more playing time, but it looks as though he and Darin Ruf will be platooning at first base. "Let's put it this way: I need to see more," Mackanin said. "More production. In his defense, [Howard is] behind everybody, [because] he was sick for a week. I'd like to think he caught up. I think he's caught up. This is performance. We have to get performance. Numbers matter."

Say Hello To The X Factor – It took Matt Klentak just a couple months to make his first bold move with the Phillies. The new general manager traded Ken Giles and Minor League infielder Jonathan Arauz to Houston for five pitchers: right-handers Vince Velasquez, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman and Harold Arauz and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. The Phillies badly wanted Velasquez in the deal, and Monday they named him their No. 5 starter. "We like Velasquez's power arm," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. Velasquez is the Phillies' X factor in 2016. The Phillies see big-time potential in Velasquez because of his stuff. If he pitches as advertised this season, the Phillies' rotation could set up nicely for the future, particularly if Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff pick up where they finished as rookies last year. Going into 2017 believing in Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez would give the Phillies more room for error with prospects like Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin and Appel. Now, nobody seems to be expecting Velasquez to make 33 starts this season. He pitched just 88 2/3 innings last season and pitched a career-high 124 2/3 innings in 2013. The Phillies want to be careful with him. They need to keep him healthy. The original four-player return for Giles included Houston outfield prospect Derek Fisher, but Appel and Arauz were late additions after sources said the Phillies had concerns about Velasquez's physical. Velasquez had Tommy John surgery on Sept. 22, 2010. "I'm healthy as an ox," Velasquez said. No issues with his shoulder? "I've never had any problems with my shoulder," he said. "Any type of soreness I've had was in the biceps or triceps. Nothing in the shoulder." That is a good thing. Because for the Phillies to speed up their rebuild, they need Velasquez to pay off. That does not mean he needs to immediately be one of the top young pitchers in the National League. But he needs to show he belongs. He needs to show there is no doubt he is part of the Phillies' future. That is why the Phillies insisted on getting him, after all.

Phillies Have An Impressive Collection – This year's Spring Training is the first time that the Phillies have been able to observe their impressive collection of top prospects, many acquired in the past year. Though the organization is trying to temper expectations, there's still a palpable excitement in camp regarding the future of the club. "This is the most talent we've had in the four years I've been here," said Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan. "We got to see all of our big prospects -- J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, Mark Appel, Zach Eflin andJake Thompson -- together in big league camp this year, and they all represented themselves very well. There are a lot of good things happening." The aforementioned core of Phils prospects all enter 2016 with at least some upper-level experience, and many of them -- save for Appel, who came over from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade during the offseason -- have already played together after finishing last season at Double-A Reading. "A lot of those guys were together in Double-A last year, so they kind of formed that kind of cohesive, team unit," said Jordan. "It gave them all some level of comfort to be together in big league camp at the same time. "Right now, it's just about keeping them all healthy and building them up for the season, because we have a chance to put some really good [Minor League] rosters together." Camp standouts: No. 99 overall prospect Roman Quinn has proved to be a dynamic player when healthy. However, the 2015 season marked the third straight injury-shortened campaign for the 22-year-old outfielder, who was in the midst of a breakout performance (.306/.356/.435, 29 SB) when he suffered a tear in his hip flexor on June 12 while he attempted to beat out an infield single. Now fully recovered from the injury, Quinn impressed club officials with his showing this year in his first big league camp, hitting .300 with one home run, three triples and two steals. "He's really stood out," said Jordan. "He hit a home run and big two-out single with a couple RBIs and a stolen bag the other day, and he was doing that in the big league camp all spring. He had some days there where you really saw what he has a chance to do." The Phillies have also liked what they've seen so far from Alfaro,'s No. 96 overall prospect, as he's impressed club officials with his exceptional tools on both sides of the ball after missing most of the 2015 season with an ankle injury. In his first Spring Training with the Phils, the 22-year-old backstop went 5-for-17 (.294) with a pair of RBIs before he was sent to Minor League camp. "We're still getting to know him because he didn't get to play at all last year with us. His strengths are easy to see -- the power, the arm strength -- but the weaknesses and what he needs from us, that's all still evolving. He needs some work defensively, but he gives a great effort and works very hard behind the plate. He's an impressive young man," said Jordan. Breakout candidates: After a mediocre full-season debut, Dylan Cozens didn't rank among the Phillies' Top 30 prospects headed into 2015. But the former 2012 second-rounder bounced back last season against advanced competition, compiling a solid .286/.336/.426 batting line and finishing the year with a strong showing at Double-A Reading. He continued to make strides during the offseason in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and he enters 2016 ranked as the Phils' No. 23 prospect. "We have a lot of people that, industry-wise, get a little more notice, but he's going to be a name people talk about this season," said Jordan. "He had some success in Puerto Rico this offseason, and we think he's going to have a big year." The Phillies also have high hopes for No. 11 prospect Scott Kingery, the club's second-round Draft pick in 2015. After an outstanding career at the University of Arizona, highlighted by a .984 OPS last spring as a junior, Kingery made the jump directly to full-season ball after signing, hitting .250 with 11 steals in 66 games at Class A Lakewood. "He can really hit," said Jordan. "He was worn down last summer after a taxing college season, but we think is first full season is going to be very productive. He has a real chance to be an everyday player in the big leagues for us."

5 Questions For Future Phillies Outfielder – As part of's visit to all 30 Spring Training facilities this month, we will be sitting down with prospects and getting to know them a little better. At Phillies camp, it was No. 3 prospect Nick Williams. A second-round Draft pick of the Rangers in 2012, Williams has put up impressive offensive numbers at every Minor League stop throughout his young career, amassing a .296/.346/.489 batting line in 374 games. He took a major step forward in 2015 and was having a tremendous season at Double-A Frisco when he was sent to the Phillies as part of the Cole Hamels blockbuster. The 22-year-old outfielder capped his season with a strong showing at Double-A Reading and has continued to impress this spring in his first camp with the Phils. Where were you and what were you doing when you learned that you had been traded last summer? Williams: I was playing for Double-A Frisco, and we were going into either the seventh or eighth inning when I was pulled from the game. I didn't know that those other guys had been traded too until I got into the clubhouse. While waiting for the trade to become final, I went home for about a week and went to the beach and hung out with some friends. I was getting in the car with my girlfriend to go pack up my stuff at Frisco when I learned the trade went through, so we drove 22 hours to Reading to meet up with the team. Upon joining Reading, you collected two hits in your first game and then went 4-for-4 with two home runs the next day. Was the transition from the Rangers to the Phillies as easy as you made it seem? Williams: It was extremely easy. Jake [Thomson] told me that it would be tough, but it really wasn't. After that 22-hour drive, we spent another five hours on the bus going to Trenton because we got stuck behind a dump truck that was on fire, so I basically went a full week without hitting before that first game with Reading. You and a lot of the Phillies' other acquisitions were in big league camp together this spring. What was that experience like -- to play together with all of the other big-name prospects who, like yourself, are viewed as the future of the franchise? Williams: It was great not just being the one guy who goes in there and feels out of place. The younger guys were asking me questions and the veterans were all very welcoming -- it was just great energy overall. You can tell the team chemistry is going to be really, really good, because everyone is clicking already. You've always had an impressive knack for hitting, but last season you seemed to make big strides with your approach and plate discipline. To what do you attribute that improvement? Williams: They put me at leadoff last year at Frisco, and it allowed me to see a lot of pitches and also made me realize just how overaggressive I can be at the plate. Really focusing on the pitchers and the counts, I started to learn how to put all the pieces together and be a more complete hitter. Video question: You hit this impressive home run with Reading on August 24. First of all, how did you manage to keep this ball fair? Secondly, how on earth did you hit it out of the park? Williams: I can't explain it, really. I get asked those types of questions a lot, and I really can't explain how I hit like that. I just see the pitch and my hands want to attack it, so I let 'em go.
Today In Phils History - We bid adieu to The Bull as the Phillies sold him to the White Sox on this day in 1981.

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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