Matt Klentak

Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

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Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

It's not clear whether the Phillies will add a starting pitcher before opening day, but surely they would like to.

General manager Matt Klentak “is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective,” manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. “That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation.”

Klentak has kept a close eye on the trade market, but has found the prices (i.e., the young talent that must be surrendered) for top, controllable starters to be prohibitive.

He has kept a close eye on the free-agent market, but the length of contracts that top pitchers are looking for has given him pause.

For months, the Phillies have distanced themselves from speculation that has connected them to elite level free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

But with spring training less than a month away and both pitchers still unsigned, the Phillies would at least have to consider both pitchers if their asking prices experience a January thaw.

Six or seven years? No way.

Three years? Hmmm. Let's talk.

The Phillies are hosting a number of their young players this week. Rhys Hoskins, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Leiter and Nick Williams were all in town on Tuesday.

Williams has set his sights on making the National League All-Star team in 2018.

“That's what I'm shooting for,” he said at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. “I think I had a pretty good year last year. I'm shooting for more now. I don't think being an All-Star is shooting too high.”

Williams, 24, hit .288 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs and an .811 OPS in 83 games, mostly in right field, with the big club as a rookie last season.

To give himself the best chance of surpassing those numbers — and achieving his goal of making the All-Star team — Williams has spent the offseason in Austin, Texas, working with personal trainer Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas football player.

Williams is working hard on agility, which will help him in the outfield and on the base paths.

And guess who one of his daily workout partners is?

Free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Back in Austin, between reps and protein shakes, Williams has occasionally talked up Philadelphia as a potential landing spot to Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who will turn 32 in March.

“He loves it here,” Williams said of Arrieta, who, as a free agent and a Scott Boras client, is astute enough not to rule out any team, particularly one as deep-pocketed as the Phillies. “He has told me he likes working with young guys. I'm like, ‘All right, come on up.’ But I'm not writing the check. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t really dig into that because I'm not really in his position.”

Williams smiled.

“I hope to be one day,” he said.

Williams marveled at Arrieta's work ethic in the gym.

And he expressed gratitude for the kindness and generosity Arrieta has showed him.

“He's bought a lot of my protein shakes,” Williams said.

Time will tell if the Phillies add a starting pitcher to the group that already consists of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and other youngsters. The hunch is they will, though it's unclear what the magnitude of that talent will be. Klentak's search for an arm likely won't stop with the addition of one pitcher and it will likely continue through July. And beyond. The quest to build a championship-caliber staff never stops.

“The pursuit is very real,” Kapler said of Klentak's search for pitching. “I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in [to spring training] with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look because we thought that we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on this season or in the offseason next year.”

Phillies sign 3 to clear up arbitration cases

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Phillies sign 3 to clear up arbitration cases

Updated: 3:15 p.m.

The Phillies wrapped up all of their potential salary arbitration cases when they agreed to 2018 contracts with infielders Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco and relief pitcher Luis Garcia on Friday.

Earlier in the week, the team agreed on a contract with catcher Cameron Rupp.

Those were the club's only arbitration-eligible players.

Hernandez, a second-time arbitration-eligible player, will make $5.1 million in 2018, up from $2.55 million last season. 

Franco and Garcia were both eligible for salary arbitration for the first time.

Franco will make $2.95 million, up from $560,000 last season. The 25-year-old third baseman had a disappointing season in 2017, hitting just .230 with a .281 on-base percentage. He did hit a team-high 24 home runs.

Franco has great potential and club management will be looking for him to put it together in 2018. But even a strong season from Franco probably won't sway the club away from making a run at Manny Machado, who is scheduled to hit the free-agent market next winter.

Garcia, who turns 31 later this month, will make $1.2 million in 2018, up from $550,000 last year.

Back in October, new manager Gabe Kapler mentioned Garcia as a player who had caught his attention. Consistency had long eluded the hard-throwing right-hander but he found it in 2017 and had his best season. He added a splitter to his power fastball-slider mix and posted a 2.65 ERA in 66 games. He gave up just four earned runs in 22⅓ innings over his final 23 games, and three of those runs came in one outing.

Hernandez, the team's 27-year-old second baseman, has been one of the Phils' top players the last two seasons. He hit .294 and posted a .372 on-base percentage over that span.

The Phils are deep at second base and top prospect Scott Kingery is expected to be ready to arrive in the majors during the first half of the 2018 season. With Kingery coming, there is a chance the Phils could cash in on Hernandez's value and trade him for pitching sometime between now and Kingery's expected arrival.

Hernandez will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.

Hernandez's former double-play mate, Freddy Galvis, was traded to San Diego in December. Rookie J.P. Crawford will move in at shortstop in 2018. Galvis settled his potential arbitration case with the Padres on Friday when he agreed to a one-year deal worth $6.825 million.

Rupp, who was eligible for arbitration for the first time, will make $2.05 million in 2018. He is one of three catchers on the 40-man roster along with Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp. Alfaro is out of minor-league options and will be given the chance to be the team's No. 1 catcher in April.

Phillies have arms (and names) coming

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Phillies have arms (and names) coming

The Phillies have a growing number of pitching prospects and along with good arms they have some colorful first names.

It might not be long before you hear Dan Baker shriek, "And tonight's starting pitcher is JoJo Romero."

Or maybe it will be Ranger Suarez getting the start (and the win) with a save going to Seranthony Dominguez.

And, of course, you've already heard about Sixto Sanchez. Who hasn't? The power-armed, strike-throwing 19-year-old phenom is one of the game's hottest prospects and a target of every general manager who tries to play Let's Make a Deal with Matt Klentak.

The Phillies are hosting their annual prospect education seminar this week at Citizens Bank Park and Romero, Suarez and Dominguez are all in town for the event. All three could be right back in Eastern Pennsylvania in April. They will all report to spring training in February with a chance to win a spot on the Double A Reading roster. Franklyn Kilome, another top pitching prospect in town this week, figures to open the season back in Reading, as well.

The Phillies went through the 2017 season without using a left-handed starting pitcher for the first time since 1918 and don't project to open the new season with one — unless Klentak, who is actively looking to add a pitcher, brings in a lefty before then.

Not too far down the road, if all continues to go well in the development process, the Phillies will have some choices from the left side. Cole Irvin, another prospect in town this week, could be ready for the Triple A rotation in April. The University of Oregon product, who will turn 24 later this month, is a lefty. And behind him is the lefty duo of Romero and Suarez.

Romero, 21, is a native of Oxnard, California. He pitched at the University of Nevada as a freshman and moved on to Yavapai College (Curt Schilling and Ken Giles are products of that program) in Arizona for his sophomore season in 2016. He was drafted by the Phillies in the fourth round that year. In his first full season of pro ball in 2017, Romero posted a 2.16 ERA in 23 starts at Lakewood and Clearwater. He gave up 104 hits, struck out 128 and walked 36 in 129 innings.

"He had a great year developmentally," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said. "He really figured out what he had and how to use it."

Romero throws a sinker and a four-seam fastball up to 95 mph. He complements that with an off-speed repertoire highlighted by a good changeup. He was born Joseph Romero, but JoJo evolved into his baseball name over the years and he's sticking with it.

"I like it," he said with a smile in the Phillies' clubhouse Wednesday.

Suarez, a 22-year-old from Venezuela, posted numbers similar to Romero's in 2017. He also pitched at Lakewood and Clearwater and registered a 2.27 ERA in 22 starts. He gave up 95 hits and struck out 128 while walking just 35 in 122 2/3 innings.

On Wednesday, Suarez was asked about his goals for 2018.

"Grandes ligas," he said.

He smiled and explained himself to Diego Ettedgui, the Phillies' Spanish language translator.

"The goal of every baseball player is to make it to the big leagues," Suarez said.

The Phillies signed Suarez for $25,000 in 2012. He has two brothers, Rayner and Rosmer, and a sister, Rangerlin.

"We have a family tradition that every name starts with the letter R," he said.

Dominguez, a 23-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic, is often asked about his unique first name. He said it was something his parents heard on television.

On the diamond, Dominguez's arm stands out more than his name.

"Ninety-eight, 99," he said when asked how hard he throws.

The Phillies will begin converting him from starter to reliever this spring. He has future closer written all over him.

"He has a chance to really dominate in the late innings," Jordan said.