Phillies

Countdown to Clearwater: Get to know the new players while you can

Countdown to Clearwater: Get to know the new players while you can

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Time moves on.
 
Players come and go.
 
The Phillies report to spring training in Clearwater, Florida, in less than two weeks and for the first time this century there will not be a player in the clubhouse that has a link to the 2008 World Series championship team.
 
Pat Burrell attended his first big-league camp in 1999, back when the team still called cozy, old Jack Russell Stadium its spring home, and Jimmy Rollins came through the door a year later.
 
The Phillies moved a few miles down Drew St. to gorgeous Bright House Field in 2004, and Burrell and Rollins were eventually joined by the likes of Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard in what became the core of the 2008 championship team.
 
They have all moved on now, first Burrell not long after the World Series parade and then Rollins, Hamels and Utley a few years later. The exodus continued when Ruiz was traded in August and concluded when Howard tipped his cap as his contract expired in October.
 
So, for the first time in 19 seasons, there won’t be a player in the club’s spring-training clubhouse — new hitting coach Matt Stairs doesn’t count — that was part of the 2008 title team.
 
Maybe it’s fitting that even the ballpark has a new name. Bright House Field has become Spectrum Field after a corporate transaction.
 
The sense of newness actually shifted into high gear a year ago when club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak presided over their first spring training as leaders of the rebuilding club.
 
The Phillies made a solid improvement in 2016, winning 71 games, eight more than they did while racking up baseball’s worst record in 2015. But this club remains an active construction site and playoff relevance/contention is probably at least a year away, maybe more depending on the progress of young players. Klentak spent the winter making modest additions designed to support a core of young players that has already arrived in the majors and inch the win total upward without requiring lengthy contract commitments that would block the next wave of young players that the rebuild and the goal of long-term sustainable success hinges upon.
 
Klentak offered a look at his offseason playbook in the fall.
 
“We want to make the 2017 Phillies better than the 2016 Phillies,” he said. “It’s important that we continue to move the ball down the field and show progress. Simultaneously, we need to be very cognizant of not blocking the development timeline of our players, some that are in the big leagues and some that are on the cusp of reaching the big leagues.”

The embodiment of Klentak’s plan will be visible in spring training as five well-known veterans begin what figure to be short stints with the club.
 
Klentak added a pair of veteran relievers in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, a starting pitcher in Clay Buchholz and two outfielders in Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick came in trades. Benoit and Saunders were free-agent signings. All are signed for just 2017, though Saunders’ contract has a club option for 2018.

Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick all were essentially salary dumps by their previous clubs. Throughout their rebuild, which began under previous general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies have been willing to take on money to get players that fit the club’s purpose. They did it in the Cole Hamels trade, which netted them several potential building blocks, including rotation rock Jerad Eickhoff, and they did it in acquiring Jeremy Hellickson last winter. He had a solid season in 2016 and returns in 2017.
 
Like Hellickson a year ago, each one of these new Phillies veterans is seeking a rebound of some sort.

Kendrick, who lines up to start in left field, is looking to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his career.

Saunders, who will start in right field, is looking to show he is the guy who hit .298 with a .923 OPS in the first half of 2016 and made the American League All-Star team, not the guy that hit .178 with a .638 OPS after the break.

Buchholz seeks consistency after pitching his way in and out of Boston’s rotation last season.

Benoit and Neshek have both experienced highs and lows in their careers. The Phillies would gladly take the best these two relievers have because this team’s starting rotation has some talent and depth and that could give the club a puncher’s chance heading into the late innings a lot of nights.
 
There will be other new faces in the clubhouse. Veterans Daniel Nava, Bryan Holaday, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Hanigan, Pedro Florimon and Sean Burnett will all be in camp on minor-league contracts and there will be a host of first-time prospects on board to get their first taste of big-league life before heading to the minors for more seasoning.
 
But Kendrick, Saunders, Buchholz, Benoit and Neshek are the most notable new names, players who’ve had success in other places and are now making mid- or late-career stops with a rebuilding team in Philadelphia.
 
Say hello to them all but make it quick. If they play well for four months, Klentak will surely look to trade them for young players that will help the club’s long-term rebuild.
 
That’s in his playbook, too.
 
“We’re trying to make our team as competitive as we can and the hope is that we will be playing meaningful games when we get to the end of July,” Klentak said. “But it certainly isn’t lost on us that if the standings are looking the other way at the end of July, we have a lot of meaningful players in the last years of their contracts that could be trade chips.”

Next: A look at pitcher Aaron Nola as he returns from an elbow injury.

Yankees GM calls Phillies' Rob Thomson one of the best in business

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Yankees GM calls Phillies' Rob Thomson one of the best in business

CLEARWATER, Fla. – According to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, “the Phillies got one of the best,” when they hired Rob Thomson as bench coach.

“It was tough to see him leave,” Cashman said. “He is a great coach, an exceptional baseball man. His knowledge of the game is off the charts.

“Gabe Kapler has someone at his side that he can trust to have everything lined up properly all the time and that will free up Gabe Kapler to focus on whatever he wants to focus on at the given time. Rob Thomson will keep the rudder steady every step of the way."

Thomson, 54, spent 28 years in the Yankees organization, most recently as Joe Girardi’s bench coach. He was one of five people (along with Eric Wedge, Hensley Muelens and Carlos Beltran) to interview to become Girardi’s successor during the offseason (see story.) Aaron Boone got the job.

Timing worked in the Phillies’ favor in hiring Thomson. There was a lag between when Thomson found out he would not be the Yankees’ manager and Boone’s hiring. The Phillies offered him their bench coach job and he took it.

“He would have been a candidate to return here, without question,” Cashman said. “It would have been the final call of Aaron Boone, but I would have recommended him highly to Aaron Boone. I gave (Phillies GM) Matt Klentak the highest recommendation.”

Thomson described himself as a good self-evaluator. He’s not sure he’d be cut out to manage every team, but he believed he’d have been a good fit for the Yankees job. He knew that organization, its operation and its players well.

“I understand that it’s part of the business,” Thomson said. “Brian and his staff, who are very smart people, had a certain person in mind and it wasn’t me. So you have to move on and refocus.”

Kapler did extensive research on Thomson and said he often heard that Thomson was “the best in the business at planning and running a spring training camp.”

Cashman concurred.

“Gabe Kapler has as good a right-hand man as you can find,” he said.

One plugged-in baseball observer described Thomson as similar to the late John Vukovich – a loyal-to-his-manager baseball taskmaster – only with a little less volume in his voice.

“He’s tough,” Cashman said. “He will be brutally honest. He’ll say what a player needs to hear, not necessarily what a player wants to hear. And he’ll always relate well to players because he always has their best interest at heart.

“The Phillies got one of the best.”

New bench coach Rob Thomson is Yankees’ loss, Phillies' gain

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New bench coach Rob Thomson is Yankees’ loss, Phillies' gain

CLEARWATER, Fla. – It will probably hit Rob Thomson sometime on Sunday. That’s when the New York Yankees visit Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ spring-training home.

Thomson spent 28 seasons in the Yankees’ famous pinstripes, serving in player-development, front-office and coaching roles.

Most recently, he was the bench coach for former Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Thomson was one of five people interviewed to replace Girardi after last season. Aaron Boone got the job, but Thomson wasn’t a free agent for long. The Phillies quickly scooped up the 54-year-old baseball lifer and installed him as new manager Gabe Kapler’s top lieutenant.

On Sunday, Thomson will look across the diamond and see his past.

But all he’s thinking about is the future.

“I feel like I’m part of the Phillies family already,” he said. “The people have been great. They’ve welcomed me right in.

“I’m here to support Gabe in any way I can. I’ve got his back all the time.”

Phillies management wanted a veteran coaching presence around the 42-year-old Kapler, whose only managing experience came a decade ago in the low minors. New pitching coach Rick Kranitz held that position with three other clubs over 10 seasons. New hitting coach John Mallee previously held that position with the Astros and Cubs.

Thomson worked on Joe Torre’s staff before working under Girardi. He lived through the Yankees’ growth as one of baseball’s analytic giants. He's just what the Phillies and Kapler were looking for.

“I ask everybody everything all the time,” Kapler said. “I contacted no fewer than 20 people about Rob and heard nothing even remotely negative. I weigh that more than a six-hour interview. You might nail the interview, but you can’t fake your career.”

Kapler’s most valuable appraisal came from Girardi, who said Thomson was an incredible teammate.

“In my opinion, that’s the best compliment anyone in baseball can give,” Kapler said.

Thomson is a former catcher. He played on the 1984 Canadian Olympic team and in the Tigers' farm system before joining the Yankees’ player development department.

While working on Torre’s staff, Thomson learned the value of trust.

“Joe Torre was really into relationships and gaining trust with a player and that taught me a lot,” Thomson said. “Before you can really help players, they have to be able to trust you.

“With Joe Girardi, he was a little more analytics-driven so that taught me a lot. We’d always looked at numbers but it taught me to really dive into some of the more critical numbers that are around today.

“In a lot of ways, Gabe reminds me of Joe (Girardi) because of his presence and openness to ideas. Those are great qualities for a leader to have.”

Thomson arrives at work pre-dawn in spring training to plan the day. He is known to arrive at noon for a regular season night game. With data study, scouting reports, video, one-on-one coaching and meetings, the preparation for a single game rivals what happens in the NFL – only it happens every day. When game time arrives, Thomson will be at Kapler’s side, making suggestions and offering ideas (see story). He said he takes nothing personal, so Kapler can wave him off any time.

“But I won’t," Kapler said with a laugh. “I need that.”