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

USA Today Images

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.”

Aaron Nola another Zack Greinke? A quick call-up for Scott Kingery?

Aaron Nola another Zack Greinke? A quick call-up for Scott Kingery?


BRADENTON, Fla. — Gabe Kapler played most of what figures to be his opening day lineup on Friday and the Phillies responded with one of their best games of the Grapefruit League schedule in beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-2.

The only regular not in the starting lineup was shortstop J.P. Crawford. Bench candidate Jesmuel Valentin played there (see story).

Opening day starter Aaron Nola pitched four shutout innings, gave up four hits, a walk and struck out five. He threw 64 pitches and 45 were strikes.

Maikel Franco belted two homers, both bombs to left. One was a two-run shot on a 3-0 fastball, the other a grand slam.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a good showing by the Phils without another impressive performance from the man who has been the best player in camp, Scott Kingery. He came off the bench, played center field, right field and third base, and stroked a hard single to right.

It is doubtful that Kingery will be on the opening day roster, but it’s looking more and more like he could be up with the big club as soon as April 13. If Kingery stays in the minors until then, the Phillies will control his rights through 2024. If he makes the opening day roster, he could be eligible for free agency after 2023. Keeping Kingery down for a few weeks won’t sit well with some fans, but it makes good baseball sense, especially for a team that does not project as a slam-dunk contender.

Kapler raved about a play Kingery made at third.

“Wow, wow,” the manager said. “His ability to go to his left and make that strong throw. He showed off that incredible arm and that versatility.”

Kapler also liked Franco’s power. The third baseman, entering a make-or-break season with the Phillies, is hitting just .192 on the spring, but he leads the club with five homers. Franco has closed his stance by bringing his front foot closer to the plate. He is getting more comfortable with the stance, which the Phillies hope will prompt him to use the middle of the field and stop pulling off balls.

“He attacked that 3-0 pitch,” Kapler said. “That was pretty impressive.”

Nola said he was “ready to go” for the opener.

Kapler concurred and compared Nola to a former Cy Young winner.

“Perfect tune-up for opening day, got him right where we wanted him with pitches — and he got to that pitch count by throwing strikes, a lot of them, and really attacking with pitches," Kapler said of Nola.

“He’s starting to look to me a lot like — I saw Zack Greinke in the American League when he was with Kansas City — kind of a familiar look to the way that he uses the gas pedal and the brake effectively and fills up the strike zone with all his pitches. His calm, easy, collected demeanor is really reminiscent of some of the best pitchers in baseball.”

The Phillies play the Tigers in Lakeland on Saturday.

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

Questions Phillies face as spring training nears its end

BRADENTON, Fla. — Less than a week before opening day, there are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Phillies.

About the only thing known for sure is that Aaron Nola will start Thursday in Atlanta. The right-hander made his final spring tune-up Friday afternoon against the Pirates.

Some of the questions that need to be answered before the Phillies pack up and leave Florida on Tuesday include:

• When will Jake Arrieta join the rotation? Will it be April 2, 3 or 4 in New York? Will it be during the team’s first homestand, possibly April 7? Arrieta threw 31 pitches in his first spring start Thursday. A bullpen session over the weekend and his next start, likely 50 or so pitches on Tuesday, will offer team officials a better idea on when he’ll be ready.

• Who else will be in the rotation? Nothing has been announced, but Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta appear to be locks with Nola and eventually Arrieta. Zach Eflin could be the fifth starter, if the Phils use one the first time through the rotation. He could also piggyback with Arrieta in New York if the Phils wanted to get Arrieta going that early. Ben Lively and Drew Hutchison remain candidates to make the club as the fifth starter, should the Phils use one during the first 10 days of the season.

• Who's in the bullpen? Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan are locks. That likely leaves three openings. One spot will likely go to a lefty, Hoby Milner or Zac Curtis. Right-handers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano seem to be vying for one spot and the final one could go to Lively or Hutchison. They are both stretched out and could provide the bullpen length that injured Mark Leiter Jr. would have.

• How about bullpen roles? Manager Gabe Kapler is not one to speak in absolutes. He is loath to define roles in his bullpen or batting order. He’s keeping options open and could assign roles on a nightly basis based on matchups and research that the team’s growing analytics department digs up. Neris went 20 for 20 in save chances while giving up just three runs in 19⅔ innings after June 27 last season. Logic would dictate that he'd be the closer. But will he be every night? Will Kapler use him in a matchup situation in the seventh inning some night? Time will tell. Same for batting order construction.

• Who will be on the bench? Infielder/outfielder Pedro Florimon has played well and looks like a lock. That leaves one or two openings, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. Veterans Ryan Flaherty and Adam Rosales were both granted their release. That leaves Jesmuel Valentin and Roman Quinn, both 40-man roster guys, as the two lead candidates. There might be room for both, depending on how many pitchers the Phils open with. It also would not be shocking to see the team send Quinn to Triple A to get more playing time. The Phils appear to be leaning toward carrying Andrew Knapp as their second catcher over Cameron Rupp, who has a minor-league option remaining.