Pete Mackanin searching for middle relief options as starters struggle

Pete Mackanin searching for middle relief options as starters struggle

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin isn’t entirely thrilled with the resources at his disposal in the bullpen. You can’t blame him.

He doesn’t have too many complaints about his regulars in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Even though 23-year-old Edubray Ramos’ ERA shot up to 4.24 on Wednesday night following Adrian Gonzalez’s two-run blast off the righty in the seventh, his explosive fastball, sharp slider and 27-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio are all very impressive. Hector Neris’ 23 holds are fourth most in the NL, while Jeanmar Gomez’s 31 saves (in 34 opportunities) are fifth best in the league.

The problems arise when Mackanin can’t hand his bullpen a late-inning lead.

Luis Garcia and Andrew Bailey were recently designated for assignment. Bailey was released on Aug. 6 and signed by the Angels on Saturday.

David Hernandez, who labored through a scoreless inning Tuesday night, is a mediocre veteran on the wrong side of 30.

Michael Mariot has conceded three earned runs in five appearances for the Phillies. He also served up Chase Utley’s grand slam Tuesday night.

Severino Gonzalez has a 1-2 record and 4.50 ERA in 19 appearances this season. He’s shown solid command, with only three walks in 26 innings pitched.

Those guys have been getting a lot of work lately. Jake Thompson, who lasted five innings in Wednesday's 7-2 loss to the Dodgers (see game story), caused the Phillies to tie an ignominious team record; the Phils have not had a starter throw more than six innings for eight straight games.

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Phillies, since July 27, ranked last in Major League Baseball in starters’ ERA (6.95) and 29th in starters’ innings pitched (90 2/3).

Given the immense strain placed on the bullpen during that stretch, the team decided to send down Elvis Araujo and call up Frank Herrmann prior to Thompson’s start. Araujo was charged with six earned runs in a third of an inning Tuesday, walking three batters and hitting another with the bases loaded.

The 32-year-old Herrmann is a Montclair, N.J., native and Harvard grad who last pitched in the majors in 2012, for the Cleveland Indians. Mackanin didn’t know much about Herrmann before the game, but he was happy with the little information he knew.

“I know he didn’t give up a run all spring,” Mackanin said. "That’s what I’m looking for. That’s why we got him. He came in and I asked him, 'What do you throw?' He told me.”

So, what does Herrmann throw? He mainly relied on a fastball Wednesday that topped out at 95 mph, and also mixed in a few curveballs. After giving up a leadoff hit in the sixth to Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson, Herrmann got the next three outs with ease, inducing Howie Kendrick to fly out, striking out Scott Kazmir and forcing Utley to offer at a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt.

“I like what I saw from Herrmann,” Mackanin said. “I didn’t know he threw 95 … he looked like he’d been here before.”

Still, it’s obvious that Herrmann is a temporary solution for the Phillies, whose 4.47 bullpen ERA is 11th in the NL. Once the Phillies can expand their roster to 40 players in September, Mackanin shouldn’t have as many concerns about who to call from the bullpen when his starters falter.

“I know we’ll get arms in September,” Mackanin said. “Hopefully we won’t need any. We’re a little strapped right now, which is why we made the move. But I’d like to see as many [arms] as we can.

“The more we could see the better. We just need our starters to get out of that rut now where we’re not getting six, seven, eight innings. We’re trying to develop nine-inning pitchers. Too many high counts early in the game.”

Thompson couldn't end the rut because he once again lacked location. Despite excellent command at Triple A, Thompson’s control has been an issue in his three major-league starts. He threw 103 pitches (55 strikes, 48 balls) in his five innings, walking four.

As Mackanin explained, those sort of outings make his job very difficult.

“When you don't get length from your starters ... I don't have the luxury of having a situational lefty. I can't just bring him in for one hitter and get him out,” Mackanin said. “If the next guy who comes in doesn't get anyone out and throws 30-some pitches in two-thirds of an inning, then I have to go to the next guy. I don't want to go to Ramos, Neris or Gomez in a losing situation.” 

At the moment, the Phillies aren’t just lacking situational lefties; they don’t have any left-handed pitchers in their bullpen.

Araujo just got demoted. Rookie lefty Daniel Stumpf earned an 80-game PED suspension in April and failed in his brief second stint with the team, allowing eight hits and three earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. He was designated for assignment on July 22. Adam Morgan has two bullpen appearances this year, but will start on Friday. Brett Oberholtzer, who served as the Phillies’ long man, was sent down to Triple A on Aug. 6. The Angels claimed him off waivers on Aug. 9.

“Last winter, we talked about a situational left-hander,” Mackanin said. “From who was available and what we could get a hold of, we came to the conclusion that we could not afford to sign a strictly situational lefty. We needed a lefty who could also get right-handers out. That's why Stumpf was appealing at one point, because he had a good changeup. We're still in that mode. When you look around baseball, there's not a ton of really good left-handed specialists that are consistently getting lefties out — like (Javier) Lopez in San Francisco. But he gets righties out, too.

“If you have a right-hander with a good split or sinker who can get lefties out, it really doesn't matter.”

A righty dealing devastating changeups and baffling opposing lefties would indeed be a great alternative. Unfortunately, Mackanin doesn’t have anyone in his ‘pen that fits such a description. His setup man Neris, who possesses a dominant splitter and holds lefties to a .211 batting average, is the closest he has.

Wednesday was one of many nights in the past couple weeks that Mackanin has been forced to make tough decisions because of his starter’s early exit. You can tell he’d love a good, old-fashioned shutout sometime soon.

“When you're getting six, seven innings from your starters, you can maneuver your bullpen efficiently,” Mackanin said. “Keep them rested. We've had so many one-run games. What do you do in the eighth inning with a tie game? Do you bring in Neris hoping you're going to win? That's happened three days in a row, and we didn't have him when we had the one-run lead the next day. You have to be a fortuneteller.” 

Jake Arrieta delights crowd, breaks bats

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Jake Arrieta delights crowd, breaks bats

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Spectrum Field was sold out, filled with fans clad in green and smeared with sunblock for a game against the Atlanta Braves on a festive St. Paddy’s Day.
But the main event Saturday took place several hundred yards away at the minor-league complex, two hours before the big-league game even began.
Five days after signing a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies, Jake Arrieta climbed atop a mound and threw a 31-pitch (two-inning) simulated game. Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro, Logan Moore and Andrew Pullin were the hitters. Andrew Knapp was the catcher. Players, coaches, minor-league instructors and manager Gabe Kapler all peeked in. Dozens of fans hugged the chain-link fence to get a look at the newest Phillie. They applauded when Arrieta took the mound and again when he finished.
“It was great,” the 32-year-old pitcher said moments after the workout ended. “There’s a lot of people out here. A lot of people are excited for the Phillies in 2018. We’ve got a lot of good things going on here. A lot of guys are healthy and competing, there’s a lot of youth. It’s a really fun time to be in this organization.”
Arrieta said he felt “really good physically,” not a surprise because he came into camp in terrific shape and had gotten to over 60 pitches in bullpen sessions back home in Austin, Texas. He threw all his pitches, including a couple of knee-buckling curveballs. He broke two of Alfaro’s bats, one with a sinker, one with a cutter.
“My goal was to throw everything in the arsenal for strikes and throw my off-speed pitches in and out of the zone where I could get some chases,” Arrieta said.
Arrieta did allow some contact, mostly ground balls.
Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award with the Cubs. He won 22 games and had a 1.77 ERA that season.
A deceptive delivery is one of Arrieta’s strengths. He throws across his body and that crossfire action makes it difficult for a hitter to pick up the ball.
“It’s extremely deceptive,” Kingery said. “Every pitch is extremely deceptive. That’s what hit me. His curveball looks like it’s coming at your head then it drops.”
Arrieta is still hoping to be ready for the first week of the regular season, but the Phillies have not formulated a firm game plan. One thing is certain: They won’t rush him. They want him for the long haul. They could hold him back 10 days or so, allowing him to build more arm strength, and he’d still make 30 starts.
Arrieta expects to throw a bullpen session in the next day or two and try to get up around 60 pitches in his next outing. That could be in a minor-league game or in another simulated game.
“As long as we continue to get my pitch count up, I think I’ll be fine going into the season,” he said.

Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

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Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta earlier this week.

That's probably going to be the extent of their pitching additions for now.

Jerad Eickhoff is out until at least May with a strained right lat muscle and that creates a sizable hole in the Phillies rotation.

The hole is likely to be filled internally, according to general manager Matt Klentak. The team is not likely to make a run at Alex Cobb, who remains on the free-agent market.

"I doubt it," Klentak said when asked if he would look outside the organization to fill Eickhoff's spot. "I don't think we have to. I think a lot of our guys have shown very well in camp. They have gotten their pitch counts up, they're getting to the point of being fully stretched out.

"More than anything, I think we're going to have some tough decisions on figuring out who is in the rotation, who is in the bullpen, who goes into the Triple-A rotation, who goes into the Double-A rotation. We've got a lot of tough decisions to make on that front, but I don't think we're in a position where we have to go outside. We have a lot of candidates to take the ball at the big league level so we'll be fine."

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. Arrieta will be in the rotation, though he might need an extra week or so to get ready. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta are likely to hold down spots. That leaves Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Tom Eshelman in the running for the final spot in the five-man rotation. Eshelman, strike-thrower extraordinaire, was the Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year last year and projects to be in Philadelphia before long. However, it might not be at the outset of the season because he is not on the 40-man roster. Neither is Hutchison.

The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 11 so they could employ some creative roster construction until then. They could go with four starters and an extra reliever or bench man. Or they could bring an extra starter and "piggyback" him with Arrieta, a move that would allow Arrieta to make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season.

"There's a decent chance we open the season with somewhat of a non-traditional 25-man roster, not because we're trying to be cute but because we don't need the fifth starter until the 11th," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."

The Phillies made one transaction on Friday. They added utility man Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster. He had a provision in his minor-league contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't on the 40-man roster by March 15. Florimon is a candidate for a spot on the Phillies' bench. The move doesn't guarantee that Florimon will win a spot, but it gives the team more time to evaluate him. To make room for Florimon, the Phillies designated infielder Eliezer Alvarez for assignment.

Florimon homered in the Phillies' 6-4 loss to Toronto in Clearwater Friday. Cam Rupp and Cesar Hernandez also homered. Velasquez gave up five hits and a run in 2⅔ innings. He struck out five.

In Lakeland, Pivetta allowed two runs over five innings as the Phils and Tigers played to a 6-6 tie. J.P. Crawford and Ryan Flaherty both homered.