Phillies

Aaron Nola has look of an organizational building block, strikes out 10 in beating baseball's best offense

Aaron Nola has look of an organizational building block, strikes out 10 in beating baseball's best offense

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The trade of reliever Pat Neshek to the Colorado Rockies was the headline grabber in the Phillies' world late Wednesday night (see story), but the most important occurrence of the evening happened on the little hump in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park.

Aaron Nola continued his mid-season surge with six shutout innings in a 9-0 win over the Houston Astros (see Instant Replay). The 24-year-old right-hander scattered four hits, walked one and struck out 10, a career high.

Over his last seven starts, Nola is 5-1 with a 1.49 ERA. He has struck out 60 batters in that span and walked just 14. Opposing batters have hit just .189.

Nola's recent success has come in the wake of an elbow injury that shut him down for the final two months of last season, some inconsistency early this season and a trip to the disabled list for an upper-back strain. Nola is pitching like the organizational building block that the Phillies projected him to be when they selected him in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2014 draft.

"I can't say enough about him, he's been outstanding," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're all really happy about the progress he's made. He's turned the corner, I think. I don’t have enough accolades for him."
 
Nola didn't beat just any team in his 16th start of the season.

The Astros have the second-best record in baseball at 67-34 and they lead the majors in just about every important offensive category, including runs, hits and homers. Sure, the Astros were without All-Stars Carlos Correa and George Springer — both American League MVP candidates — and standout Alex Bregman, but they still had a formidable lineup, led by hitting machine Jose Altuve, who ran his hitting streak to 18 games. He's hitting a cool .513 over that span.

"They're pretty good," Nola said. "I just had to stay with my plan that I've used the last few outings — get the leadoff hitter out and throw first-pitch strikes. I couldn't change anything just because they're in first place."

Nola used a three-pitch mix: a sinking fastball, curveball and his improved changeup. He finished off seven of his 10 strikeout victims with curveballs.

"I think location is important," he said. "You can have stuff but it might not get them as much as location. That's kind of what I was focused on. Making pitches in quality locations."

Nola's batterymate, Cameron Rupp, had a big night with a pair of two-run homers. The Phillies had nine extra-base hits and were 5 for 18 with runners in scoring position a night after going 0 for 10 in those situations.

"We got pitches to hit and we didn't miss them," Rupp said. "It was fun."

Rupp especially had fun catching Nola.

"Cy Young," he joked. "He's been outstanding the last month and a half. He's back to being the old Aaron that he was when he first came up. He's a guy that can lead a pitching staff. He knows how to pitch. He's got three pitches that he can put you away with. He's got a good fastball and his curveball has been great and now his changeup — he's learned how to use it and put guys away with it. When you do that, you're going to have a lot of success."

Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

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Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Klentak's trip to the winter meetings netted two veteran relievers, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

Now, Klentak's focus becomes starting pitching. He'd like to add at least one before spring training begins, and chances are good that he will.

"We will probably slow down on the reliever front for a little while," the Phillies general manager said on Wednesday, Day 3 of the meetings. "I think for right now, we’ll probably shift our focus back toward the starting pitcher market, see what comes of that and just be patient with it.

"My expectation is that we will have another move before we go to spring training. I would not be surprised if we’re done for the winter meetings, but I would be surprised if we’re done for the offseason."

The Phillies have probed the free-agent market — big-ticket items such as Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are unlikely — and spent the fall gauging other teams on which starters could become available in trades.

"I couldn't handicap the way it'll happen or even if it'll happen," Klentak said. "I think we're continuing to stay engaged with some agents. There's a few teams we've talked to about trades, some short-term options, some more controllable options. I just don't know.

"We've said as an industry and the Phillies have talked about this for a long time: it's so important to be able to develop your own starting pitchers because to acquire them in a trade is incredibly expensive in terms of player capital and to acquire them in free agency is incredibly expensive in terms of total dollars. Maybe never in our history has it been more important to develop starting pitchers."

In recent seasons, the Phillies have added starting pitchers (Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton, Clay Buchholz) near the end of their contracts. The Phils could still do that and have the money to take on a salary dump. But there would be merit to taking on a younger pitcher who has more contractual control, and the Phillies have the prospects to get in the hunt for Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer, three pitchers who fit this profile.

The Phillies have a logjam in the middle infield with J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery pushing Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. Galvis and Hernandez are both available for trades. Officials from other clubs say the Phillies have been aggressive in shopping Galvis. The Phils will look to get pitching for Galvis, but the return might not be robust because he is a rental player who will be a free agent after the 2018 season. Hernandez figures to bring a better return because he has three years of contractual control remaining. A person from a club that has spoken to the Phillies about Hernandez said the Phils are looking for two pitchers for him.

Another starting arm is needed to complement a group of starters that includes Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively.

It's possible the Phils could also look for a veteran outfielder to come off the bench. But it's just as possible that the Phils give in-house prospect Roman Quinn a chance to be that guy. Quinn, a dynamic, speedy switch-hitter, has been plagued by injuries throughout his minor-league career, including last season when he missed significant time at Triple A with an elbow injury. He will turn 25 in May. It might be time to bring him, even if it means filling a reserve role.

"This is a year we want to find out about our young kids," Klentak said. "If we can find out about Roman Quinn, we would like to do that. On the flip side, if we have a chance to bring in a great makeup, complementary player that can help our young kids and show them the ropes a little bit, then we’d be open to that, too. That’s not likely to be an early offseason venture."

Also, as the rest of the offseason plays out, the Phils will monitor the availability of Miami outfielder Christian Yelich. The Phils have long liked Yelich and would certainly try to make a play for him. But as much as the Phillies like the player, Klentak has made it clear he's not in a hurry to subtract core players and prospects. That could hurt the Phillies' chances because it would take a big package of talent to get Yelich.

Notes
The Phillies pick third in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday morning. They will likely make a pick, but there's a strong possibility they will make it for another club and quickly trade the player. If the Phils lost someone in the draft, it could be outfielder Carlos Tocci or lefthander Brandon Leibrandt.

Klentak hinted that hard-throwing pitching prospect Seranthony Dominguez would begin transitioning to the bullpen in spring training. Mark Appel will also make the move to the bullpen.

Marlins continue fire sale by trading Marcell Ozuna

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Marlins continue fire sale by trading Marcell Ozuna

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Miami has agreed to trade left fielder Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press, the third All-Star jettisoned by the Marlins this month in an unrelenting payroll purge under new CEO Derek Jeter.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Wednesday because the agreement had not been announced and was subject to a physical.

"Ozuna is one of those names that you have to have great respect, especially as much we see him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said at the winter meetings. "We're at that necessary point of talking through health always, no matter what the player is. It's not just a formality."

An All-Star the past two seasons, the 27-year-old Ozuna set career bests this season with a .312 average, 37 homers and 124 RBIs. He is eligible for salary arbitration and likely will earn more than $10 million. He can become a free agent after the 2019 season.

Miami traded second baseman Dee Gordon to Seattle last Thursday for three prospects and dealt right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning NL MVP, to the New York Yankees on Monday for second baseman Starlin Castro and two prospects. The Cardinals had a deal in place for Stanton last week, but he invoked his no-trade clause and blocked the move.

"I was just very impressed the fact that we were involved in those conversations," Matheny said. "Unfortunately, that didn't work, but I think that just kind of parlayed into, OK, now what are we going to do?"

Ozuna likely will be in the outfielder with Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham. St. Louis could trade right fielder Stephen Piscotty.

Matheny wouldn't commit to an alignment.

"Something we're appreciative of is the humility of our players to maybe go to a spot where they haven't been before," he said. "You go in with your ideals of what you would like to see, and you're going to have to be flexible."

Center fielder Christian Yelich could be the next to exit the downsizing Marlins, bought by Bruce Sherman's group on Oct. 2.

Miami had a $116 million payroll on Aug. 31, up from $81 million at the end of last year, and is intent on reducing obligations. Stanton was owed $295 million over the next decade, and Gordon $38 million through 2020.