Phillies

Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

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Will a mystery guest join Phillies' rotation?

The mitts will start popping Wednesday morning when Phillies pitchers and catchers assemble for their first official workout of the spring on the emerald fields of Carpenter Complex in Clearwater.

The group of candidates vying for spots in the starting rotation will look familiar. While the club made upgrades in the lineup (Carlos Santana) and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), the rotation went untouched.

Aaron Nola comes into camp deserving to be Gabe Kapler's first opening day starter. Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin will be looking to bounce back from late-season health issues, and Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively will try to build on valuable experience gained last season. Strike-throwing Tom Eshelman, the organization's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2017, will be someone to watch, as will other prospects, including Drew Anderson and Jose Taveras.

Now, will there be a mystery guest coming to camp?

Quite possibly.

As new manager Kapler said last month, general manager Matt Klentak "is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective. That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation."

Klentak has talked all winter about his desire to add a starting pitcher, but he has made no promises and his quest has come with qualifiers. He has been leery of the price tags attached to top free agents (especially in length of contract) and trade candidates (quality of prospects needed to acquire). Also, Klentak, still steward of a rebuild, has had to balance his desire to add a pitcher with the need to make sure there are innings and opportunities for the current group of young pitchers to improve and reach their potential.

The glacial free-agent pitching market finally began to thaw over the weekend with Yu Darvish reaching agreement on a six-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman and others should begin to follow as camps get set to open.

The Phillies have long been speculated as a potential landing spot for Arrieta, mostly because they have deep pockets, loads of room in their budget and a need for a starting pitcher. But Arrieta will turn 32 in March and the Phils are of no mind to go six years for a pitcher that age. If Arrieta decides to go for a shorter, one- or two-year deal then quickly head back out on the free-agent market, the Phils might strike. However, the competition for Arrieta on a short-term deal would be significant and logic dictates he would want to sign with a contender under those terms, not a team in a rebuild.

So, if an addition is made, it seems more likely that it would come from the second tier of available pitchers.

A general manager's quest to upgrade his starting rotation is neverending. That's how important starting pitching is. Klentak's short-term quest to upgrade the staff will intensify in July if his upgraded offense and bullpen has the Phillies poking around wild-card contention.

In the meantime, the Phillies go into camp with what looks like a cast of mid-rotation starters.

Nola leads the group after resoundingly answering health (elbow) concerns in 2017. Not only did the 24-year-old right-hander check out physically, he also took a step forward in his performance and became the reliable starter the team projected him to be when it selected him seventh overall in the 2014 draft.

Nola struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings and his 3.54 ERA in 27 starts ranked 20th in the majors. He delivered 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.

While Nola progressed, the balance of the rotation had ups and downs as the staff pitched to a 4.80 ERA (21st in the majors) and allowed an .806 OPS (fourth from the bottom) to opposing hitters.

Pivetta showed big strikeout stuff despite not consistently pitching deep into games. Eickhoff, Velasquez and Eflin struggled with inconsistency and ended the season on the disabled list. The team hopes these pitchers, all now healthy, will step forward this season. For Eickhoff, it's a matter of regaining the health and mechanics that helped him lead the staff with a 3.65 ERA in 2016. For Eflin, it's a matter of staying healthy after a series of issues. Health is also an issue for the electric-armed Velasquez, but so is focus and economy of pitches. 

Given the value placed on starting pitching, it is understandable that the team has been patient in trying to develop the 25-year-old Velasquez. But the time could come, maybe this season, when continued struggles lead to a shift to the bullpen. That certainly could be an intriguing option for Velasquez, though the team hopes it never comes to pass.
 
The Phillies head into spring training with a new pitching coach as Rick Kranitz has moved up from the assistant's role to replace Bob McClure. Chris Young and former big-league pitcher Jim Gott have joined the staff as assistant pitching coach and bullpen coach, respectively. The Phillies are clearly throwing some depth of instructive personnel at their pitchers.

Hey, it all starts with the pitching and that all starts Wednesday in Clearwater.

Phillies willing to sign Jake Arrieta if ...

Phillies willing to sign Jake Arrieta if ...

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Longstanding rumors linking the Phillies to free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta continue to percolate. On Tuesday morning, baseball reporter Jon Heyman tweeted that the Phillies and Arrieta were engaged in "dialogue."

Here’s what we know: At the winter meetings in December, Phillies officials met with Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras, to go over a number of Boras’ clients. At the time, Arrieta was looking for a deal in the neighborhood of seven years and $180 million to $200 million. Those parameters were not a fit for the Phillies, who have placed a premium on short-term contracts while they move their rebuild forward.

The Phillies have remained engaged with the Arrieta camp throughout the winter and they have made it clear that if the pitcher’s price tag comes down, they would have interest in a union. It is believed the Phillies would be willing to sign Arrieta, who turns 32 in March, to a two- or three-year contract, at a significant salary and possibly with some creative structure such as an out after one year.

Earlier this winter, the Phillies had reservations about meeting free agent Carlos Santana’s original contract demands of upwards of five years. When Santana’s demands were lowered to three years, the Phillies pounced and signed him for $60 million. Such a lowering of demands could make Arrieta a Phillie. Of course, there are other teams interested. Arrieta has long been linked to the Cardinals and Nationals.

Arrieta would come with some risk. All pitchers of his age and odometer reading do. He won the National League Cy Young Award in 2015 while going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA for the Chicago Cubs. He went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA the following season and slipped to 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 2017. That trend downward has coincided with a slight drop in velocity and that has given teams pause at signing Arrieta to a long-term deal. It would seem that even the Cubs had reservations about Arrieta as they let him walk and signed free agent Yu Darvish.

In the last few days, a couple of big-name Boras clients have signed. Eric Hosmer went to the Padres and J.D. Martinez to the Red Sox. Arrieta might be next. If he would come at the Phillies’ price he might end up being a Phillie.

Signing Arrieta would cost the Phillies a second- or third-round draft pick in June.

Phillies tell hulking power hitter Dylan Cozens to tone it down

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Jim Salisbury/NBCSP

Phillies tell hulking power hitter Dylan Cozens to tone it down

CLEARWATER, Fla. – At 6-6, 245 pounds, Dylan Cozens was the biggest player in Phillies camp last spring.

This year, he's bigger.

“Yeah,” Cozens said with a laugh. “I’m 270 pounds now.”

And it’s all muscle.

Cozens, a 23-year-old corner outfielder, hit the weight room hard this offseason. So now, his muscles have muscles.

There is a plan behind the added strength. Cozens struggled at Triple A last season. He hit just .210 and struck out 194 times. He still has awesome power from the left side, as evidenced by 27 homers and 74 RBIs last season. But he needs to make more contact if he’s going to board the same Philadelphia-bound train that Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro did last season.

More contact is the reason for the added strength.

“Just to have easier power,” Cozens said. “The plan is easier swings with two strikes.

New manager Gabe Kapler spent significant time digging into the Phillies' roster this winter, learning everything he could about his new players. That included players who hadn’t reached the majors yet, prospects like Cozens, the Double A Eastern League MVP from 2016.

Kapler and the Phillies' staff, which includes new hitting coach John Mallee, are looking for Cozens to simply swing a little easier. That could equal more contact, and more contact – for a man of Cozens’ size – will equal more home runs.

“Effort level is always big when it comes to making contact,” Kapler said. “I’m not trying to hit the ball 500 feet. I can hit it 400 feet and it’s still a homer. And by the way, I’m this big and strong and all I really need to do is make flush contact with the baseball. So thinking about being a good hitter first and a power hitter second will actually increase his home run totals and increase his on-base capabilities, which are both things I think he’d be happy with.”

Kapler trotted out an analogy in talking about Cozens.

“Effort level speaks to how hard I’m swinging,” Kapler said. “Am I coming with my 90 percent effort level or am I coming with my 100 percent effort level? If all my muscles are firing and my jaws are clenched and I’m going full speed ahead, I might not be running as fast as if I was more like a cheetah, right? I think that’s the message we would send to Dylan. You’re more a cheetah than a brute. Let it fly, be easy, and that’s going to create loud contact for him because he’s as strong as any individual I’ve been around. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a guy with that level of strength and power ever on a baseball field before.”

Cozens arrived at camp early and has been working with Mallee and Charlie Manuel.

Manuel never met a power hitter he didn’t love. He raves about some of the moon shots that Cozens has hit in batting practice.

“He’s got talent,” Manuel said, emphasizing the last word. “He hits balls completely out of the ballpark. If he controls his swing, he’ll be fine.”

Cozens was recruited to play defensive end by the University of Arizona, but instead signed with the Phillies after being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft. He looked to be on a fast track to the big leagues when he pulverized Eastern League pitchers in 2016. Despite striking out 186 times, he hit .276 with 40 homers, 125 RBIs and a .941 OPS. Last season, his OPS dipped .719. He hit .217 against right-handers and .194 against lefties.

“It was terrible,” Cozens said of his season. “I lost my core mechanics. Just a lack of confidence. I doubted myself. Mentally and mechanics-wise, I felt like it was a mess. I was all over the place. I wasn’t consistent at all. I got in my own head.

“I was trying all sorts of different things. I was in on the plate, off the plate, bigger leg kick, smaller leg kick, toe tap, no stride.”

As Cozens fiddled with his mechanics he saw several friends and longtime teammates – players that he’d always been mentioned with as the next generation of Phillies – go to the majors. A year ago at this time, Cozens was thinking he’d play in the majors in 2017. Looking back now …

“I didn’t deserve it,” he said. “I don’t think where I was at with my mechanics being all over the place, and where I was mentally being all over the place, it would have been a good start for me. You don’t want to go up there and fail. You want to be ready for when you’re up there and I didn’t feel like I was ready.”

Cozens’ current swing mechanics are closer to what they were in 2016: Small leg kick. A little hand movement.

“Toning it down,” he said. “I know I can play better than I did last year.”

And so does Kapler.

“You don’t ignore the fact that he needs to make more contact,” the manager said. “That’s 100 percent true.

“If you ask him, he’ll say, ‘If I make more contact I will hit more home runs and be much more valuable to my team. I will reach base more and I will give myself a better chance to be a Philadelphia Phillie.’ “

That’s the goal for Dylan Cozens. One bad season hasn’t changed that. He still has the tools to make it happen.

"I want to have an amazing spring training and force them to make a decision to keep me up there," Cozens said. "It’s probably unlikely, so go to Triple A, hit the ground running and make the decision hard on them.”