Phillies

Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

Countdown to Clearwater: Rotation has veterans, developing talent, depth

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Day 5: The rotation

Starting pitching is probably the most tangible area of progress in the Phillies’ rebuild.
 
Don’t misunderstand. When it comes to a starting rotation, these Phillies aren’t the Mets or Nationals. And they’re certainly not the 2011 Phillies.
 
But through a series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by predecessor Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects, the Phillies have built some solid starting pitching depth in recent years.
 
The depth will be on display next Tuesday when mitts start popping and pitchers and catchers hold their first official workout in Clearwater.
 
The Phillies have 15 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster and 10 of them have come to the organization in trades since the rebuild started after the 2014 season. Eight of 15 starters on the 40-man roster made at least five starts with the big club last year. Some of these pitchers could eventually end up making a conversion to the bullpen, maybe as soon as this season. In fact, manager Pete Mackanin has already hinted that lefty Adam Morgan, who made 21 starts last season, could get a look as a reliever this spring. But as camp begins, all 15 are starters and the club will adjust from there.
 
On paper, the Phillies’ season-opening five-man rotation looks to be set. Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are all penciled into spots and all Aaron Nola needs to do to fill out the rotation is prove his health.
 
But over and over in this game, history has taught us that a team can never have enough starting pitching. The 1997 Phillies remain an example of that. During the final week of camp, the team sent Calvin Maduro to Triple A. A few days later, the club put five pitchers on the disabled list and Maduro was brought back from minor-league camp not just to pitch in the rotation but to hold down the No. 2 starter's job behind opening day starter Curt Schilling.
 
So guys like Morgan, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson will all be major factors in camp, though Thompson might be a little behind the others in early workouts because of what is said to be some mild soreness in his right wrist. Eflin is coming back from a pair of surgeries to repair tendinitis in both knees. The right-hander turns 23 in April and could be set to break out now that he’ll be pitching on healthy knees for the first time in his career.
 
The quartet of Morgan, Eflin, Asher and Thompson made 47 starts in the big leagues last season and will almost surely get time in the Philadelphia again this season. 
 
“With Hellickson, Buchholz, Eickhoff, Nola and Velasquez, the rotation is pretty solid when you think about it,” Mackanin said. “And with the inventory we have behind those guys, it’s not like you’ll be bringing up guys and crossing your fingers. They have some experience. And all this creates good competition.”
 
Other young starters who will get a look in big-league camp include Ben Lively, an 18-game winner in the minors last season, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Mark Appel, Drew Anderson and Elniery Garcia. All project to open at Double A or Triple A.
 
The projected big-league rotation is a blend of experience and youth. Hellickson, who turns 30 in April, returns to the club after recording a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts last season. Buchholz, 32, was acquired from Boston in a salary dump. He pitched his way in and out of the Red Sox rotation last season and is looking for a rebound season to carry him into free agency. The Phillies hope both veterans pitch well and become July trade chips, bringing back young talent and opening spots for younger pitchers to rise from Triple A.
 
Eickhoff, 26, could be poised for a breakout season in 2017. He emerged as a mid-rotation rock last season, delivering 20 quality starts and becoming just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling.

Velasquez needs to improve his economy of pitches to stay in games longer, but there’s no doubting the power stuff that helped him strike out 10.4 batters per nine innings last season.

Mackanin’s decision on an opening day starter will be an interesting spring storyline. He could give the nod to Hellickson for a second year in a row or go with Eickhoff, who led the staff in starts (33), innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season.

If Hellickson and Buchholz pitch well in their walk years, if Nola is healthy and Eickhoff and Velasquez continue to improve, the Phillies stand a good chance to stay in games for six innings most nights. This isn’t the Mets’ or Nationals’ rotation and it surely isn’t the 2011 Phillies, but, with a sprinkle of veterans, some developing talent and more percolating in Triple A, it ain’t bad.

Next: Day 6 – A look at how the bullpen shapes up

Has Manny Machado played (and talked) himself out of Philly before ever getting to Philly?

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Has Manny Machado played (and talked) himself out of Philly before ever getting to Philly?

A hearty congratulations to Manny Machado for getting through Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday without doing anything stupid, anything to hurt his free-agent platform.

Or should we say anything else?

Machado, the gifted shortstop/third baseman who has long been the fancy of the Phillies’ front office, didn’t exactly author a brilliant campaign speech when he acknowledged his raging allergy to hustling in an interview with baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal earlier this week.

“Obviously, I’m not going to change,” Machado told Rosenthal. “I’m not the type of player that’s going to be Johnny Hustle. It’s not my cup of tea, not who I am.”

Can you imagine the reaction that Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, had to these comments? (No, Danny, no. That’s a heavy chair, do not throw it through the window!)

In less than a month, Lozano will start shopping the 26-year-old infielder to prospective buyers. Estimates on Machado’s price tag have hovered around the $300 million mark, give or take a Brinks truck or three. Now, the first question that Lozano is going to hear from the potential suitors won’t be about what it will take to sign his client or whether Machado wants to play shortstop or third base, it will be about the player’s aversion to hustle. Or, as it is known in other circles, playing hard.

In some cities, admitting you don’t, won’t or can’t hustle could make you toxic.

New York is one and the Yankees just so happen to need a shortstop next season as Didi Gregorious recovers from elbow surgery. People close to Machado have told me he likes the idea of being a Yankee because, one, they are the Yankees, and two, he wants to play on the East Coast with a team that trains in his native Florida.

The Phillies also play on the East Coast and train in Florida. They also have a lot of money and a longstanding interest in Machado. They tried to acquire him from Baltimore in July and were willing to include big talent in the deal if Machado would have agreed to a contract extension. The Dodgers ended up getting Machado and the Phillies, quietly confident that they could land the player as a free agent this winter, moved on.

But now you have to wonder if Machado could work in Philadelphia. It’s almost become cliché to say the city — i.e., the fans who pay the bills — likes a certain kind of athlete, one that goes all-out all the time, but when you think about some of the city’s all-time favorites — Chuck Bednarik, Bobby Clarke, Brian Dawkins, Chase Utley — you realize it’s not cliché, it’s fact.

Even before Machado made news for the wrong reasons this week, there had been whispers that some in the Phillies organization would prefer to steer clear of Machado for just the reasons that the player articulated in his ill-advised and ill-timed comments. To the best of our knowledge, general manager Matt Klentak remains open-minded, and that’s good because Machado is a great talent and the Phillies need some of that if they are going to put a winner on the field.

But this whole issue has complicated things for Klentak and an ownership group that is poised to write some big checks this winter. Whether or not to pursue Manny Machado is going to require a lot of thought and a lot of weighing the rewards of his talent versus the risk of his makeup.

And who are those guys over there in the corner grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats? Looks a little like Bryce Harper and Scott Boras.

National media doesn't realize how Philly viewed Gabe Kapler in Year 1

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National media doesn't realize how Philly viewed Gabe Kapler in Year 1

ESPN's fake draft of the top 50 coaches among the four major sports had several Philly ties.

One, in particular, was … interesting.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler ranked 39th overall. (Doug Pederson was 15th, and Brett Brown was 40th.)

Again, this includes coaches (or managers) in all four sports. Kapler was ninth among MLB managers. 

ESPN's write-up included a few massive understatements:

The Phillies underwent a 14-game improvement in 2018 and played meaningful baseball in September for the first time in years, but notoriously hard-to-please Philadelphia fans probably won't quite view Kapler's first year through that lens. The Phils were 64-49 and in first place on Aug. 7, then went 16-33 the rest of the way, which elicited some Kapler-focused grumbling.

"Some grumbling." LOL. Search Kapler's name on Twitter and take a look at the last two months of his mentions. It wasn't "some" grumbling, it felt more like 90 percent of the fan base despised him.

I've been on this planet nearly three decades and have spent waaaaaay too many hours consuming sports, mostly baseball. I haven't spent more than six months outside of Philly at any point. And in that time, I have never, ever seen such a passionately negative reaction to any coach or manager in his first year. 

Some of the criticism of Kapler was fair. Some was completely over-the-top. A lot of the time, the criticism was based on aspects of his personality that people projected. In real life, Kapler is a pretty chill guy. When the cameras are off, talking baseball with him is just like talking baseball with a dude who knows a lot about the game. He's as accepting and understanding of criticism as any athlete or coach I've covered, which is refreshing. There were valid on-field questions and understandable confusion over some of Kapler's press conferences, but people kind of ran away with their imagination when it came to his personality.

The main issues fans seemed to have with Kapler in Year 1 were what they deemed overmanaging, and his often flowery descriptions of players' strengths.

Kapler did overmanage at times. He did it on opening day when he removed Aaron Nola too early. Some of the defensive, late-game switches didn't make a ton of sense based on the closeness of the game and the potential for extra innings.

There was also some overmanaging in August and September, but you have to consider the hand Kapler was dealt. For much of the second half, the Phillies had a roster filled with players who could either hit but not field, or field but not hit. What many fans deemed overmanaging was really just Kapler trying to optimize for offense or defense based on the situation.

Kapler's managerial style is new to this city, and old-school cities like Philadelphia don't always appreciate "new." That's not meant as a sweeping generalization but rather an acknowledgment of a portion of the fanbase. If Doug Pederson's two-point conversion attempts failed more than they succeeded those first couple years, fans would have yelled that he was trying to reinvent the game. When "new" works, the shouting isn't as loud.

In reality, a lot of what Kapler and GM Matt Klentak did this season is happening in many cities across baseball. It happens with the Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox, Rays, Brewers. The Cubs are just as analytically-driven if not more, aside from the fact that they barely use defensive shifts.

It's interesting that, nationally, Kapler is still viewed favorably despite the Phillies' epic collapse the final seven weeks. It's either a sign that these list-makers are out of touch, or that all the Kapler noise from commenters on websites, callers on the radio and folks on social media isn't an indication of how he's actually perceived.

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