Gerrit Cole

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

ap-phillies-matt-klentak.jpg
AP Images

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.

Phillies woeful again with runners in scoring position during loss to Pirates

Phillies woeful again with runners in scoring position during loss to Pirates

BOX SCORE

There are many reasons why the Phillies have the worst record in the major leagues.

Their inability to consistently produce hits with runners in scoring position is a big one — and it has been glaring during the first three games of the current homestand.

The Phils lost, 5-2, to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay). For the second night in a row, the Phillies had trouble getting base runners home.

They were 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position in Tuesday night's 3-0 loss to the Pirates and 1 for 8 in those situations on Wednesday night.

Not good.

The Phils jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on the strength of a two-run home run by Maikel Franco, but got nothing the rest of the game.

"We just can't string together enough hits to score some crooked numbers," lamented manager Pete Mackanin.

Just four days before the All-Star break arrives, the Phillies are baseball's only sub-30-win team — and it's not even close. The Phils are 28-55. The San Francisco Giants have the next lowest win total and they won their 34th game on Wednesday night.

The Phils beat Pittsburgh, 4-0, on the back of Aaron Nola in the first game of this series. In the three games, the Phillies are just 1 for 20 with runners in scoring position. For the season, they are hitting just .235 with runners in scoring position. That ranks in the bottom four of major league baseball. The major-league average is .260.

On Wednesday night, the Phils got a one-out triple from Tommy Joseph in the third inning. He died on third. They got a one-out double from Daniel Nava in the seventh. He was gunned down at the plate — with ease — by Pirates rightfielder Gregory Polanco as he tried to tag and score on a fly ball by Franco. With a poor offensive team that struggles to score, Mackanin has instructed third base coach Juan Samuel to take chances. Samuel did. Polanco responded with a perfect throw. Dead duck.

"I'm glad Sammy sent him," Mackanin said. "It was just a perfect throw."

Nava reached base four times on two singles, a double and a walk. Mackanin has an obligation to play the kids, the guys that might be part of the future, but he also has to keep finding at-bats for Nava, for a couple of reasons. One, the team could end up getting something for Nava at the trade deadline if he keeps hitting. The return would probably be modest, but it's worth letting Nava play more to see what he could bring. And, two, Nava has one of this team's best bats at the moment.

"He gives us the best at-bats on the team, quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "I'm going to try to keep him in there as much as I can."

Nava will likely join Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera in the outfield on Thursday. It appears that rookie Nick Williams, three times a strikeout victim Wednesday night, will get a day off Thursday.

After giving up the two-run homer (on a hanging curveball) to Franco in the first inning, Pirates starter Gerrit Cole was tough. He did not allow a run the remainder of his six innings and struck out eight.

Cole got all the run support he needed in the fourth inning when rookie Ben Lively was tagged for four runs. Two of them were unearned after he made a throwing error with two outs. The next batter, Cole, then stroked a 1-1 fastball up the middle to score a pair of unearned runs and give Pittsburgh the lead.

"Lively was pretty good tonight until that fourth inning when the wheels kind of came off and he made some bad pitches in the zone," Mackanin said. "He rushed on that [throwing error] then he gave up the hit to the pitcher. I would have let him go back out there but he had too many pitches, 84 pitches in four innings, and I didn't want to send him back out there."

Lively said, "I left too many pitches over the plate in the [fourth] inning."

And the Pirates did something with them.

As for the Phillies ... 1 for 20 with runners in scoring position the last three nights says a lot.

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Phils get good look at Pirates' top 2 trade candidates

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Phils get good look at Pirates' top 2 trade candidates

Phillies (28-54) vs. Pirates (38-46)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

After blanking the Pirates in the series opener Monday, the Phillies themselves were shut out on July 4, the second time this season Pittsburgh's pitching has kept them off the board.

The Phils have five games remaining before the All-Star break, meaning one more chance for each starting pitcher to build a little momentum. 

1. Lively from New York
There was some good and some not so good from Ben Lively last Saturday at Citi Field.

He had four walks, including one of pitcher Jacob deGrom, and threw a wild pitch. For such a control-oriented pitcher, it was surprising to see. 

But Lively was able to minimize the damage, allowing just two runs over 6⅓ innings. The pair of double plays he induced in the first two innings certainly helped.

Six starts into his big-league career, the 25-year-old Lively is 1-3 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. He's struck out 13 and walked 12 in 38⅔ innings. 

Lively's rate of 3.03 strikeouts per nine innings is by far the lowest in all of baseball among starters with at least 30 innings. Texas' Andrew Cashner is next-closest at 4.36.

One of the reasons this matters is that a pitcher often needs a swing-and-miss when he's in a jam with less than two outs. If you can't get that swinging strike, you're relying on soft contact and apt defensive placement.

Lively has avoided catastrophic outings by getting good results with runners in scoring position — his opponents are just 7 for 37 (.189). With two outs and runners in scoring position, they're 2 for 13.

This will be Lively's third start at Citizens Bank Park. In the first two, he went 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA.

Righties have hit .286 off Lively and lefties .279, but lefties have a .372 OBP with eight walks and just five K's. Ordinarily, you'd see a team stack the lefties against a pitcher with those numbers, but the Pirates don't have a ton. There figure to be three left-handed hitters max in the lineup in outfielders Gregory Polanco, Adam Frazier and switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell. John Jaso also hits from the left side but plays only the corner outfield and first base, so if he starts it would come at the expense of one of those three.

2. Phils get Gerrit Cole
The Phillies face Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, whom they missed in Pittsburgh in May.

Cole, perhaps the top starting pitcher on the trade market, is having his worst big-league season. Through 17 starts, he's 6-7 with a 4.51 ERA. He had a 3.23 ERA the prior four seasons.

He also sports his lowest career strikeout rate (7.6 per nine), and he's already allowed more home runs than ever before. Cole has been taken deep 18 times this season; his previous career high was 11, and he allowed 18 homers combined in 2015 and 2016 in 223 more innings than he's pitched in '17.

His velocity is still the same at an average of 96 mph, it's just come down to command. His opponents have hit .296 against the heater, which he's thrown with a bit less frequency.

Cole has one of those power sinkers — a bowling-ball type fastball that comes in heavy and drops at the last second — and a power slider with tight, late break that often gets right-handed hitters to chase. Those pitches have helped him to a career groundball rate of 47.7 percent, fifth-highest among NL starting pitchers with as many innings as him over that span.

Cole has faced the Phillies six times and gone 3-3 with a 3.45 ERA. In his last start against them (last Sept. 12 at Citizens Bank Park), Cole allowed five runs and eight baserunners and lasted just two innings.

A few Phillies have decent numbers against him. Maikel Franco is 3 for 6 with a double. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 9 with a homer and a double. Odubel Herrera is 3 for 10 but with six strikeouts.

3. McCutchen hitting his way out of town
Andrew McCutchen is doing exactly what the Pirates needed him to do to reestablish his trade value. Pittsburgh wasn't enticed by the offers it got at the winter meetings or this offseason after a down 2016 from its franchise player. But the way McCutchen is hitting and hitting for power right now, interest is bound to pick back up over the next four weeks.

McCutchen hit two missiles for home runs on July 4, giving him 16 on the season. His batting average is up to .288 through 81 games, which is hard to believe considering he was hitting exactly .200 through 45.

In 151 plate appearances since May 24, McCutchen has hit .408/.503/.736 with nine doubles, 10 homers, 29 RBIs and 30 runs. Over that span, his batting average ranks first in the majors and his OBP and slugging percentage are second.

And in his last four games at Citizens Bank Park, McCutchen is 9 for 17 with five homers (four solos) and a double.

4. Galvis in the two-hole
Freddy Galvis has been at his most productive this season when batting second. He's hit .310/.363/.476 out of the two-hole, where he's hit 12 games in a row.

Galvis had a double, two walks and a stolen base Tuesday, the Phils' best individual performance on a weak offensive afternoon. 

Galvis has hit .304 with an .828 OPS over his last 30 games, and .357 with a .961 OPS over his last 13.

5. This and that
• Andrew Knapp walked three more times Tuesday as his OBP rose to .361. He hasn't been all that clutch, hitting .194 with RISP and going 1 for 8 with five strikeouts with a man on third and less than two outs, but turning the lineup over at the bottom of the order is important and it's good to see Knapp showing some command of the strike zone.

• At .344, Aaron Altherr's on-base percentage is the lowest it's been since his sixth game of the season.

• Aside from McCutchen, the Pirates on Tuesday went 2 for 26 with no extra-base hits and nine strikeouts.