Phillies

Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

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Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Klentak's trip to the winter meetings netted two veteran relievers, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

Now, Klentak's focus becomes starting pitching. He'd like to add at least one before spring training begins, and chances are good that he will.

"We will probably slow down on the reliever front for a little while," the Phillies general manager said on Wednesday, Day 3 of the meetings. "I think for right now, we’ll probably shift our focus back toward the starting pitcher market, see what comes of that and just be patient with it.

"My expectation is that we will have another move before we go to spring training. I would not be surprised if we’re done for the winter meetings, but I would be surprised if we’re done for the offseason."

The Phillies have probed the free-agent market — big-ticket items such as Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are unlikely — and spent the fall gauging other teams on which starters could become available in trades.

"I couldn't handicap the way it'll happen or even if it'll happen," Klentak said. "I think we're continuing to stay engaged with some agents. There's a few teams we've talked to about trades, some short-term options, some more controllable options. I just don't know.

"We've said as an industry and the Phillies have talked about this for a long time: it's so important to be able to develop your own starting pitchers because to acquire them in a trade is incredibly expensive in terms of player capital and to acquire them in free agency is incredibly expensive in terms of total dollars. Maybe never in our history has it been more important to develop starting pitchers."

In recent seasons, the Phillies have added starting pitchers (Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton, Clay Buchholz) near the end of their contracts. The Phils could still do that and have the money to take on a salary dump. But there would be merit to taking on a younger pitcher who has more contractual control, and the Phillies have the prospects to get in the hunt for Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer, three pitchers who fit this profile.

The Phillies have a logjam in the middle infield with J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery pushing Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. Galvis and Hernandez are both available for trades. Officials from other clubs say the Phillies have been aggressive in shopping Galvis. The Phils will look to get pitching for Galvis, but the return might not be robust because he is a rental player who will be a free agent after the 2018 season. Hernandez figures to bring a better return because he has three years of contractual control remaining. A person from a club that has spoken to the Phillies about Hernandez said the Phils are looking for two pitchers for him.

Another starting arm is needed to complement a group of starters that includes Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively.

It's possible the Phils could also look for a veteran outfielder to come off the bench. But it's just as possible that the Phils give in-house prospect Roman Quinn a chance to be that guy. Quinn, a dynamic, speedy switch-hitter, has been plagued by injuries throughout his minor-league career, including last season when he missed significant time at Triple A with an elbow injury. He will turn 25 in May. It might be time to bring him, even if it means filling a reserve role.

"This is a year we want to find out about our young kids," Klentak said. "If we can find out about Roman Quinn, we would like to do that. On the flip side, if we have a chance to bring in a great makeup, complementary player that can help our young kids and show them the ropes a little bit, then we’d be open to that, too. That’s not likely to be an early offseason venture."

Also, as the rest of the offseason plays out, the Phils will monitor the availability of Miami outfielder Christian Yelich. The Phils have long liked Yelich and would certainly try to make a play for him. But as much as the Phillies like the player, Klentak has made it clear he's not in a hurry to subtract core players and prospects. That could hurt the Phillies' chances because it would take a big package of talent to get Yelich.

Notes
The Phillies pick third in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday morning. They will likely make a pick, but there's a strong possibility they will make it for another club and quickly trade the player. If the Phils lost someone in the draft, it could be outfielder Carlos Tocci or lefthander Brandon Leibrandt.

Klentak hinted that hard-throwing pitching prospect Seranthony Dominguez would begin transitioning to the bullpen in spring training. Mark Appel will also make the move to the bullpen.

A mechanical adjustment 'kick-started' Rhys Hoskins' career

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A mechanical adjustment 'kick-started' Rhys Hoskins' career

The spectacular beginning of Rhys Hoskins’ major-league career can be traced to a conversation he had with two members of the Phillies’ player-development department back in September 2014.

Hoskins had arrived in the Phillies organization earlier that year as a fifth-round draft pick out of Sacramento State University. That summer, he made his professional debut at Williamsport of the New York-Penn League. He hit .237 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in 70 games.

Phillies instructors liked what they saw of Hoskins that summer. They loved the potential. But something was missing.

“He didn’t consistently get his weight back,” director of player development Joe Jordan recalled. “His legs weren’t in his swing every night. The timing, the bat speed and swing path were all good, but they weren’t consistent every night.”

After the Williamsport season ended, Hoskins reported to the Florida Instructional League in Clearwater. He was hitting off a tee, by himself, in a batting cage early one morning when Jordan and Andy Tracy, the team’s minor-league hitting coordinator, approached him with an idea.

“What do you think about making a change to your stance?” Jordan asked Hoskins.

Hoskins, thoughtful, respectful, mature, coachable, eager to learn and just as eager to succeed, was all ears.

“I was open to anything,” he said.

On that September day in 2014, during a conversation in a batting cage in Clearwater, Hoskins’ left leg kick was born.

He has used it to trigger his swing ever since.

And …

“It’s made all the difference in my career,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

The Phillies, off to a 14-7 start, enjoyed an off day Monday. That provides us with a neat little checkpoint on Hoskins’ big-league career, which is just 71 games old, less than a half-season. He arrived in the majors on Aug. 10. Since then, he ranks first in the majors in RBIs (67) and pitches seen (1,376), third in walks (56), fourth in OPS (1.038) and times on base (126), and sixth in extra-base hits (36). His 22 home runs rank fifth in the majors in that span behind J.D. Martinez (27), Giancarlo Stanton (25), Aaron Judge (23) and Matt Olson (23).

Hoskins was no slouch at Sacramento State. He was the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year as a junior in 2014, the year the Phillies drafted him. But even his college coach admitted last summer that the leg kick had taken Hoskins to a new level (see story).

There are a number of benefits to the leg kick, Hoskins said. Among them: It slows him down a little. If he gets his leg up early, it allows his eyes to work and that helps his pitch recognition. It helps his rhythm and timing. It gets him on his backside and gives him a loading mechanism that translates into power when he fires through the ball.

“I had no prior experience with it before Joe and Andy mentioned it,” Hoskins said. “I had no clue what I was doing with it. I was super spread out in my stance. I would get to a point where I would start my swing, stop and have to start it again. Those precious milliseconds are huge. I was late a lot. A lot. The room for error that I had was slim to none.”

When Jordan and Tracy first proposed the leg kick, they asked Hoskins to exaggerate it.

“The first thing Joe said was, ‘Try to hit your chin with your left knee,’” Hoskins recalled.

Hoskins experimented with the size of the kick for a couple of weeks in batting practice and in games. Then one day he hit a home run in a game against the Yankees’ instructional league team.

“The pitcher was throwing pretty hard and I was able to get to a ball that was in and I hit it for a home run,” Hoskins said. “I said to myself, ‘Hmmm, this is probably something to stick with.’”

Jordan and Tracy encouraged Hoskins to use the leg kick during his wintertime workouts after the 2014 season. He did. He made it part of him and his bat carried him on a quick trip through the Phillies’ minor-league system and into the middle of the big club’s batting order.

Amazing what one little bit of coaching can do when it finds a talented and willing student.

“Our entire staff watched Rhys that first summer and came up with a great plan for him,” Jordan said. “Those guys did it and Rhys nailed it. He took it home that winter, worked at it and it’s become his normal ever since.”

What Nick Pivetta's emergence means for Phillies

What Nick Pivetta's emergence means for Phillies

The Phillies knew what they had with Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola, Tommy Hunter and (injured) Pat Neshek, and to a lesser extent Hector Neris and Luis Garcia.

What they did not know entering the season was how Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez would pitch, or how the end of the bullpen would shake out.

With 21 games in the books, they've received key contributions from several emerging pitchers and that is a major reason why they're 14-7 despite a .231 team batting average

Pivetta had another strong start Sunday, making one mistake and limiting the Pirates to two runs over 6⅓ innings. In five starts, he has a 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and he's struck out 28 batters in 28 innings while walking four.

Over his last eight starts dating back to last September, Pivetta has an ERA of 2.00 on the dot.

Even the most optimistic Phillies observers couldn't have envisioned such a fast and consistent start for Pivetta in Year 2.

"He's still carrying over what he did in spring training, which is pitch to the top of the zone and the bottom of the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said after Sunday's win. "The north-south effect with his fastball-curveball combination. He's mixing in a slider. Right-handed hitters can't tell if it's a curveball or a slider. They're showing you that with their swings."

Pivetta misses a lot of bats with high fastballs that hitters just can't catch up to. He also has a sharp breaking ball, which was apparent from his first start last season. The main issue was his control. He had seven starts last season with four or more walks. So far in 2018, he's a different guy.

"I think we saw glimpses of it last year with a little bit less consistency," said Andrew Knapp, who has caught all five of Pivetta's starts. "Right now, he's really confident in what he's doing. It's kind of becoming an every-time-out thing where he's really pounding the strike zone and he's got four pitches he can throw in any count.

"The fastball is electric. When the other hitters feel the fastball, it opens up the off-speed."

Pivetta will probably not finish the season with an ERA under 3.00, but the Phillies aren't asking him to be an ace. They're asking him to be a consistent mid-rotation piece, and his upside could allow him to become much more than that.

It could also change the ceiling of the 2018 Phillies.

"I think it does. I think it does," Kapler said. "I think it's the emergence of Nick. I think it's the emergence of Velasquez. I think it's relievers we can go to that have sort of behaved like the guys you depend on every day in the seventh, eighth and ninth. 

"We have Garcia, (Adam) Morgan and Neris as the guys coming out of camp who we knew were going to perform in those situations. Now you have (Tommy) Hunter coming back. You've got [Pat Neshek] not that far away. And you have (Yacksel) Rios, (Victor) Arano and (Edubray) Ramos performing like this. It's very encouraging."

That's a pretty deep bullpen in addition to a solid rotation. Hunter made his Phillies debut Sunday and needed just eight pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth inning. His cutter, which he threw 20 percent more often last season than he did the prior three, will make him a weapon against left-handed batters.

As for Velasquez, he'll have a chance Tuesday to kick it up another notch against a very good Diamondbacks lineup that may get power-hitting lefty Jake Lamb back in time for the series.

It's still April, but the Phils have the chance to make a little statement with a series win over the 15-6 D-backs.

"It would be awesome," Kapler said, "for us to go out there and tackle Arizona the way we did Pittsburgh."