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.” 

Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

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Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

It's not clear whether the Phillies will add a starting pitcher before opening day, but surely they would like to.

General manager Matt Klentak “is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective,” manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. “That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation.”

Klentak has kept a close eye on the trade market, but has found the prices (i.e., the young talent that must be surrendered) for top, controllable starters to be prohibitive.

He has kept a close eye on the free-agent market, but the length of contracts that top pitchers are looking for has given him pause.

For months, the Phillies have distanced themselves from speculation that has connected them to elite level free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

But with spring training less than a month away and both pitchers still unsigned, the Phillies would at least have to consider both pitchers if their asking prices experience a January thaw.

Six or seven years? No way.

Three years? Hmmm. Let's talk.

The Phillies are hosting a number of their young players this week. Rhys Hoskins, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Leiter and Nick Williams were all in town on Tuesday.

Williams has set his sights on making the National League All-Star team in 2018.

“That's what I'm shooting for,” he said at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. “I think I had a pretty good year last year. I'm shooting for more now. I don't think being an All-Star is shooting too high.”

Williams, 24, hit .288 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs and an .811 OPS in 83 games, mostly in right field, with the big club as a rookie last season.

To give himself the best chance of surpassing those numbers — and achieving his goal of making the All-Star team — Williams has spent the offseason in Austin, Texas, working with personal trainer Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas football player.

Williams is working hard on agility, which will help him in the outfield and on the base paths.

And guess who one of his daily workout partners is?

Free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Back in Austin, between reps and protein shakes, Williams has occasionally talked up Philadelphia as a potential landing spot to Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who will turn 32 in March.

“He loves it here,” Williams said of Arrieta, who, as a free agent and a Scott Boras client, is astute enough not to rule out any team, particularly one as deep-pocketed as the Phillies. “He has told me he likes working with young guys. I'm like, ‘All right, come on up.’ But I'm not writing the check. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t really dig into that because I'm not really in his position.”

Williams smiled.

“I hope to be one day,” he said.

Williams marveled at Arrieta's work ethic in the gym.

And he expressed gratitude for the kindness and generosity Arrieta has showed him.

“He's bought a lot of my protein shakes,” Williams said.

Time will tell if the Phillies add a starting pitcher to the group that already consists of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and other youngsters. The hunch is they will, though it's unclear what the magnitude of that talent will be. Klentak's search for an arm likely won't stop with the addition of one pitcher and it will likely continue through July. And beyond. The quest to build a championship-caliber staff never stops.

“The pursuit is very real,” Kapler said of Klentak's search for pitching. “I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in [to spring training] with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look because we thought that we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on this season or in the offseason next year.”

Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

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Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

For a couple of weeks in August, Rhys Hoskins might have been Philadelphia's most popular athlete. Fans marveled at the nightly power display that the young slugger put on in the middle of the Phillies' batting order. Carson Wentz and the Eagles had not yet begun their magnificent season. Hoskins was the man in town.

It hit him one night after a game. He stopped in Center City for some late-night eats. A man and his young son approached. They offered their congratulations and asked for an autograph.

"That's when I was like, 'OK, this might be something that's about to be part of my life,' " Hoskins said. "But it was cool because I used to be that kid."

Hoskins was back in the area Monday night for the 114th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner. He was honored with a special achievement award for a torrid major league debut in which he clubbed 18 homers and drove in 48 runs in just 50 games last season.

Hoskins was raised in Sacramento, California but moved to San Diego this offseason. His 18 homers in 2017 were the most ever hit by a player who did not make his season debut until after Aug. 1. Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers after returning from the Korean War in 1953, was the previous record holder.

Williams was a San Diego native.

"Surreal," Hoskins said of that 50-game stretch last season and the buzz that has followed him into the offseason. "Indescribable."

He is now a recognizable face, a signature talent, in a sports-crazy town.

And he's ready for it.

"Enjoy it," he said. "Take it by storm and enjoy it. It's supposed to be fun and that's probably the best approach to take. I think my thought is what happened may never happen again. Tomorrow something might happen. Tomorrow I might never be able to step on a baseball field again. So I think you have to take it by storm and enjoy it.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I would be walking down the streets of Philadelphia and would people recognize me I'd probably laugh at you. But that’s where we are now.

"It's just a testament to how passionate the people of Philadelphia are and how much they love their sports."

Hoskins will report to Clearwater for spring training at the end of this month. He wants to get a head start so he can ramp up his workouts in left field. A first baseman by trade, he began playing the position occasionally last season. He will move there full-time in 2018 as newly signed Carlos Santana takes over at first base.

Hoskins got a 30-game taste of left field last year. He is OK with the move.

"Having Carlos is exciting for the city and exciting for the team," Hoskins said. "We add a guy who has proven himself in this league for five or six years at a very high level so to kind of insert that into the lineup and into the clubhouse, especially with such a young team — I think we're going to feel that exponentially throughout the year.

"Left field is a challenge. It's a challenge that I'm definitely excited about. I started to feel more comfortable out there toward the end of the year.

"I think I can be just fine out there. I'm not necessarily going to be a Gold Glover. I just don’t have the speed that some guys out there do, especially in today's game. But I think I'll be just fine and contribute to the team defensively as much as I can and make the plays that I'm supposed to."

Hoskins will turn 25 on March 17. He projects to bat cleanup in new manager Gabe Kapler's lineup.

"He's energized, intense and thorough," Hoskins said of the new skipper. "He can captivate a room. I'm curious to see how that dynamic works in the clubhouse. I think he's going to be a pretty exciting guy to work with."