Phillies

Phillies to upgrade bullpen with impending return of Pat Neshek

Phillies to upgrade bullpen with impending return of Pat Neshek

ORLANDO, Fla. — On the day he was traded from the Phillies to the Colorado Rockies in July, Pat Neshek stood in front of his locker and talked about how much he liked his time in Philadelphia. He gazed into his crystal ball and envisioned himself returning to the Phillies as a free agent over the winter.

The image in Neshek's crystal ball is about to come to life. The Phillies are on the verge of re-signing the 37-year-old right-hander, multiple sources said on Monday, the first day of baseball's winter meetings. When the deal is wrapped up in the next few days, it will be worth $16.25 million for two years with a club option for a third.

"We've been talking with the agents of a bunch of relief pitchers and we're on the goal line with one," said Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, who initially acquired Neshek in a trade with Houston 14 months ago then watched the pitcher deliver four outstanding months that landed him on the National League All-Star team.

There is not a no-trade clause in Neshek's new deal, so the Phillies could peddle him once again if they are not in contention. The Phillies got three prospects for Neshek in July — infielder Jose Gomez and right-handed pitchers J.D. Hammer and Alejandro Requena. Hammer was recently named to the Arizona Fall League's All-Prospect team.

Neshek pitched in 43 games (40 1/3 innings) for the Phillies in 2017 and gave up just five runs while walking five and striking out 45. In Colorado, Neshek continued to shine. He finished the season with a 1.59 ERA in 71 games. Overall, he pitched 62 1/3 innings and gave up just 11 earned runs while walking six and striking out 69.

Neshek is expected to help set up for Hector Neris and complement Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos and Hoby Milner, all relatively young relievers who showed breakthrough signs in 2017. The Phillies could continue to add to their bullpen before the winter is complete. Sources say they have shown interest in free-agent lefty Jake McGee.

"I think we’re open-minded to bringing in multiple bullpen reinforcements," Klentak said. "One of the goals leading into next season is to improve our run prevention. Obviously, there are a lot of ways we can do that. One way — and this is sort of the simple narrative — is to address our starting pitching. We will continue to explore ways to improve our starting pitching, but I also think we need to be prepared to improve our run prevention in other areas. Improving our bullpen is one way to do that.

"I think if we can run out a bullpen of seven or eight guys that are all high-leverage type arms, then we can start matching up in the fifth or sixth inning. If there are days when our young starters throw 100 pitches to get us through five or six innings, we shouldn't be in a position where that’s taxing our bullpen because we have the ability to carry an eighth bullpen member next year. We shouldn’t be in a position where we lose our competitiveness in the sixth inning because we should have a deep bullpen where we start throwing really good players out there early in the game. If it turns out that’s the best way for us to improve our run prevention, then that’s the way to do."

The Phillies will continue to look for starting pitching at these winter meetings and beyond. They are open to trading Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez and would look to get starting pitching in a deal for one of them. The Angels, according to sources, covet Hernandez as both a second baseman and leadoff man, but the Phillies' asking price is high.

Also on Day 1 of the winter meetings ...

The Phillies lost outfielder Cameron Perkins and infielder Engelb Vielma on waivers to Seattle and Pittsburgh, respectively. With two openings on the 40-man roster, the Phils can add a player in Thursday's Rule 5 draft. They have the third overall pick.

"I would expect that we would take advantage of the third pick in some form or fashion," Klentak said. "Whether we draft a player and retain that player or draft a player and make a trade, I think we’ll look to do something with it. That was a big part of why we put the two guys on waivers that we did. It was just to free us up to be able to participate on Thursday."

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 August 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), total bases (126) 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."