Phillies

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Vince Velasquez faces his relentless former team

Phillies-Astros 5 things: Vince Velasquez faces his relentless former team

Phillies (34-62) vs. Astros (65-33)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies bring two straight series wins into what's sure to be a challenging three-game set this week at Citizens Bank Park against the AL-best Houston Astros.

At 65-33, Houston is on pace for 107 wins. The Astros' franchise record for wins in a season is 102 back in 1998 when they were promptly beaten in four games in the first round of the playoffs.

This Astros team is built to go much deeper into October.

1. Unstoppable offense
All the Astros do is score.

They lost MVP candidate Carlos Correa last week to a thumb injury that will keep him out about two months, but the lineup hasn't really missed a beat. The Astros scored 23 runs in their weekend series win in Baltimore.

The Astros have scored six runs or more 51 times this season. That's nine more occurrences than any team in baseball and 13 more than any team in the American League.

It helps a little bit playing the Astros in a National League stadium and ridding them of the DH, but Houston has a relentless lineup that just keeps coming and coming and coming.

Jose Altuve is hitting .358 with a .988 OPS, 28 doubles, 15 homers and 21 steals. He could end up as the AL MVP.

George Springer is their dynamic leadoff hitter who's hit .311 with a .978 OPS, 27 homers and 66 RBIs. He's already scored 82 runs and is on pace for 136, which would be the most for any player since Curtis Granderson in 2011.

Lefty Josh Reddick typically bats second or third to split up the right-handed hitters and he's been solid all year as well, hitting .301 with an .835 OPS.

Then there's utility man Marwin Gonzalez, who's hitting .320 with 18 homers and a .994 OPS.

And there's first baseman Yuli Gurriel, hitting .294 with 27 doubles, 13 homers and an .815 OPS.

Up and down the lineup, everyone has met or exceeded expectations. Even players like Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, who don't play every day, have been much better than league average at their positions.

It's going to be the toughest test of the season for the Phillies' pitching staff because this a deeper, more explosive lineup than the Nationals or Dodgers. There's no safe haven for a pitcher to catch his breath.

2. Velasquez draws his old team
Vince Velasquez faces the Astros for the first time since being traded to the Phillies in December 2015. (Ken Giles could also make his first appearance against the Phillies.)

Velasquez (2-5, 5.14) is coming off an impressive start in his return from the DL last week. In Miami last Tuesday, he allowed just two runs (one earned) on four hits over six innings.

It was the most efficient outing of the season for Velasquez, who needed 79 pitches to complete six innings. The Marlins put balls in play early in at-bats as opposed to fouling pitches off and running deep counts.

Tonight could be a different story. On top of being much better than the Marlins, the Astros are also a much more patient lineup that swings and misses less. Five different Astros starters have an on-base percentage of .345 or higher, and then you have someone like Nori Aoki, who barely ever strikes out.

Velasquez used his time off to clear his head after an uneven first half. He's been using his fastball up in the zone a lot lately and it's worked because he has enough velocity to blow it by hitters when it's at shoulder-level or above. It can be a dangerous game, though, because if Velasquez misses even slightly lower in the zone, he's inviting loud contact.

3. Deeper Phils lineup
The Phillies have scored five runs or more in seven straight games, their longest single-season streak since 2005.

How have they done it? There's not one reason — in fact, there are at least five.

Nick Williams' bat in the middle of the lineup has been the biggest factor. He came up on June 30 and has hit .309 with four homers, four doubles, two triples and 15 RBIs in 19 games.

Since June 3, Odubel Herrera has hit .331 with a major-league-leading 19 doubles.

Over his last 35 games, Maikel Franco has as many walks (15) as strikeouts.

And the icing on the cake has been the returns of Cesar Hernandez and Howie Kendrick to the top of the Phillies' lineup.

Hernandez has reached base in all six games and 12 of 30 times total (.400 OBP) since coming back from the DL.

Kendrick hit in all three games over the weekend to raise his season slash line to .353/.403/.471. He's missed 60 games but been extremely productive when he's played.

The Phillies haven't previously had more than half the lineup hitting at the same time. When you add in Tommy Joseph's power, Andrew Knapp's plate selection and Freddy Galvis' ability to hit one out in any given plate appearance, you have the makings of a better lineup.

The Phillies still own the majors' worst record, but there are actually four teams — the Blue Jays, Reds, Giants and Padres — with worse run differentials.

4. More than a funny name
The Phillies face 29-year-old Astros right-hander Brad Peacock, who is having a career year. In 22 appearances (10 starts), Peacock is 8-1 with a 2.49 ERA and he's struck out a whopping 93 batters in 68⅔ innings.

He's also allowed just one home run in those 68⅔ innings.

Peacock has used five different pitches this season but goes mostly fastball-slider-sinker with his heater ranging from 93 to 96 mph. He also has a changeup and curveball.

His opponents have hit just .156 against the fastball this season and haven't hit better than .225 against any of his pitches. He's simply dominated for this first-place team and could legitimately start one of their first three playoff games, especially if Lance McCullers Jr. continues to struggle.

The Phillies have seen Peacock twice, in 2014 and 2011. In the most recent start, he allowed eight runs and put 11 men on base in just five innings. He was a much different pitcher then.

5. This and that
• Luis Garcia's save Sunday afternoon was his first since 2015. Garcia has pitched a career-high 17⅔ scoreless innings, allowing seven hits and striking out 17 over that span. If Hector Neris falters one more time in the ninth inning, the closer's job could temporarily go to Garcia.

• The Phillies have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

• Giles has a 3.28 ERA this season with 21 saves in 23 attempts. He's struck out a career-low 10.3 batters per nine innings. In parts of two seasons with Houston, his ERA is 3.82 compared to 1.56 with the Phillies.

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Let the record show that on a snowy Friday afternoon 10 days before Christmas 2017, the Phillies ramped up their rebuild.

Dramatically.

What other conclusion can be drawn after the club went out and signed Carlos Santana, one of the best offensive players on the free-agent market? With the signing, confirmed by multiple baseball sources, general manager Matt Klentak has attached a new level of importance to the 2018 season.

Just a couple of days ago at the winter meetings in Orlando, Klentak spoke of how 2018 was going to be a time to "find out" more about the team's young core of players. Who would continue to take a step forward? Who would fall by the wayside?

But now that Santana is here, 2018 doesn't feel like it's just a find-out season. It feels like a season in which the Phillies can continue to find out about players — separate the studs from the duds — and also start nibbling around that second National League wild-card spot.

Sure, a lot has to go right for that to happen.

And one of the things that has to go right is Klentak has to land a starting pitcher to slot in around Aaron Nola and the rest of the staff, which has the look of a bunch of No. 4 and No. 5 starters — until someone steps forward.

Santana's deal is for three years and $60 million, according to sources. Three years is a nice get — i.e., it's not cripplingly long — for a 32-year-old (in April) who hits for power, produces runs and does what Klentak likes best: controls the strike zone. (You could say that Klentak added two players who control the strike zone to his lineup Friday as the trade of Freddy Galvis to San Diego for strike-throwing pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos cleared the way for J.P. Crawford to be the regular shortstop.)

The Phillies need to do everything within reason to make sure that the first of Santana's three seasons with the club isn't about simply inching the rebuild forward. The Nationals are the class of the NL East, but the rest of the division ranges from ordinary to awful. The Phils, with an improved offense and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), can play with Braves and Mets and clean up on the Marlins, the jewelry store that became a pawnshop, in agent Scott Boras' words.

It's just up to Klentak to get more starting pitching, and he's on the case. He admitted that at the winter meetings. He is particularly fond of young starters with years of control remaining on their contracts. Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer fit this description. It takes talent to get pitchers like that. The Phillies have enough depth of prospects to get one of these guys and their reserves of expendable talent just grew with the Santana signing.

Santana, a switch-hitter who has averaged 25 homers, 85 RBIs and a .810 OPS in eight seasons, is going to be the team's primary first baseman. Rhys Hoskins is going to be the primary leftfielder. That means the Phillies suddenly have a young outfielder that they could deal. Maybe they try to capitalize on Nick Williams' strong half-season in the majors and package him for an arm. Or maybe it's Odubel Herrera or Aaron Altherr.

However it plays out, you can be sure that Klentak will be creative. You can rule nothing out with this guy. The other day, we poo-pooed the Phillies signing Jake Arrieta, who is looking for a long-term deal approaching $200 million. But if Arrieta lingers out there until February and is looking for a two-year landing spot, hey, maybe.

We wouldn't even put it past Klentak to entertain the idea of using Santana at third base a little bit — he did play 26 games there in 2014 — and trading Maikel Franco. The Giants were sniffing around, gathering intel on Franco at the winter meetings. There has to be a reason for that. Also at the meetings, an official from a rival club said the Phillies weren't as aggressive as he expected in trying to move Cesar Hernandez. Could it be that Hernandez would get some time at third if Franco were to be moved? Hernandez is still a trade chip, but he doesn't need to be cashed in until July and by that time Scott Kingery should be here.

There are a lot of ways this thing can go. And with the signing of Carlos Santana — which won't become official until he passes a physical next week — the Phillies have guaranteed that the remainder of this offseason will be a busy one.

It has to be.

The stakes have changed for 2018. The rebuild is still in place, but it has been ramped up. Matt Klentak has improved the bullpen and the offense. Now he has to attack that starting pitching and he has the trade weapons to do it.

Source: Phillies agree to $60 million deal with Carlos Santana

Source: Phillies agree to $60 million deal with Carlos Santana

The Phillies' busy Friday continued with a pricey free-agent signing.

The Phils have agreed to a three-year, $60 million deal with former Cleveland Indian Carlos Santana, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury.

It is by far the most expensive contract the Phillies have given out under the Matt Klentak-Andy MacPhail regime.

They had the money. When the offseason began, the only player the Phillies had signed to a multi-million dollar deal was Odubel Herrera.

Santana, 31, has always been a high-walk power hitter. From 2011 through 2017, he walked between 88 and 113 times each season, all while maintaining relatively low strikeout totals for a man with such power and plate selection.

In 2016, Santana set a career high with 34 home runs. Last season, he hit .259/.363/.455 with 37 doubles, 23 homers and 79 RBIs.

This addition provides the Phillies with much-needed pop to protect Rhys Hoskins and also gives the Phils added versatility. Santana is a switch-hitter who came up as a catcher, but he hasn't caught since 2014. The last three seasons, he has played primarily first base. In his eight seasons, Santana has also started 26 games at third base and seven in right field.

The move likely means Hoskins will play left field, and it could facilitate another Phillies trade of an outfielder such as Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr or Odubel Herrera.