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

Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

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AP Images

Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

It’s not always easy being the No. 1 overall pick in the major league baseball draft. Oh, the attention is great and the money ain’t bad, but the spotlight is relentlessly glaring and it can burn a hole right through you if you don’t immediately produce.

Mickey Moniak has walked in these spikes for 2½ seasons now. He’s felt the euphoria of hearing his name called above all others. He’s also felt the glare and the burn.

And the main thing he’s learned?

“You can’t panic,” he said.

The Phillies selected the wide-eyed Southern California native with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft and lured him away from a UCLA commitment with a $6.1 million signing bonus. For 2½ seasons, the young outfielder’s every move has been closely scrutinized. That’s just the way it is when you’re a No. 1 pick. Moniak has had his ups and downs and maybe a few too many downs for some. But there are a couple of big reasons to believe that Moniak is headed in the right direction on the often fickle development curve:

• He’s 20 years old for gosh sake, and won’t turn 21 until May. If he had gone the college route, his junior season would not even have begun yet.

• And he played eye-opening ball over the final two months of the 2018 season at Clearwater of the Florida State League. Over his final 52 games, he hit .302 and with 24 extra-base hits and an .829 OPS. His strikeout rate came down and his walk rate went up. That his improvement came late in the season, after months in draining Florida heat that has eaten up more than a few players, was a promising sign.

Moniak’s late-season success was fueled by something intangible. He took a deep breath, put faith in his talent, stopped putting pressure on himself and had some fun playing ball again. It all started last summer when a group of his pals from high school in the San Diego area traveled across the country and visited him in Clearwater.

“There were 10 of us in a two-bedroom apartment just hanging out,” Moniak said with a laugh.

Moniak’s buddies came to all the games that week. They heckled him (good-naturedly) from the stands and he went on a tear at the plate. It felt like he was back in high school, playing pressure-free ball.

“Their support helped me realize that it’s still baseball, have fun with it,” Moniak said.

Moniak was in Philadelphia this week to participate in the team’s prospect education seminar. He had been to Citizens Bank Park after the team drafted him in June 2016. Back then, he was 170 pounds. He has added muscle to his frame and is now 6-3, 205 pounds. His left-handed swing has produced just 10 homers in his first two full minor-league seasons, but the added strength could one day lead to more power as he continues to climb the development ladder.

It’s unclear where Moniak will open the 2019 season. It’s possible that he gets some more time in the Florida State League with the idea of playing himself to Double A Reading before the season is over. More immediately, he will be in big-league spring training camp next month, a little reward for his strong finish last summer, and a reminder that he still has huge potential for a bright future.

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2019 a crucial season for Phillies outfielders Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera

2019 a crucial season for Phillies outfielders Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera

Earlier in the week, we looked at three Phillies pitchers entering make-or-break seasons, players who will need to push their careers forward in 2019 to maintain the role they want and/or currently have.

On to a couple hitters:

Roman Quinn

Quinn came up at the end of July and had a nice six-week run with the Phillies, hitting .345/.375/.560 with six doubles, three triples, two homers and seven steals. He also added a new dynamic in center field, with better speed, instincts, range and a stronger throwing arm than Odubel Herrera.

He went ice cold to end the season, going 5 for 47 with 21 strikeouts in his final 16 games, but the real make-or-break aspect of Quinn's upcoming season won't be the avoidance of a slump but the avoidance of a long-term injury.

Quinn will be 26 on May 14. The most plate appearances he has had in any season is 382 in 2014. In three of the four seasons since, he hasn't reached 300.

Quinn has dealt with so many injuries throughout his career. He's been through a torn Achilles, a torn left quad, a concussion, a strained ligament in his elbow and torn ligament in his right middle finger. 

It's not as though Quinn would face being released if he can't stay healthy this season. Even at 26, he's still inexpensive and cost-controlled for at least another five seasons. But this is the first real opportunity he's had to start on opening day. The Phillies are relying on him, maybe not to play every day but to play a lot in an outfield that also includes Andrew McCutchen, Herrera, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr. (If the Phils sign Bryce Harper, a trade of an outfielder would be the next logical move.)

If Quinn can play 120-plus games this season, reach 350-400 plate appearances and exhibit his trademark speed and defense with pop sprinkled in like it was last August, he can change the course of his career and what the Phils can realistically expect from him. He can turn himself into an everyday player for the Phils and a top-of-the-order table-setter.

Odubel Herrera

Herrera is already down in Clearwater working out. Smart move. He understands how important Year 5 is for him. 

Herrera is coming off by far his worst season as a major-leaguer. After hitting .288/.344/.430 from 2015-17, he hit .255/.310/.420 in 2018. He did set a career-high with 22 homers, but nearly every other offensive number plummeted. Herrera hit only 19 doubles after hitting 42 the prior year, and he stole only five bases, two years after swiping 25.

Aside from that, Herrera had a series of gaffes on the basepaths and in the field, the kind that can swing games and frustrate teammates. His level of concentration needs to improve, and already being in Clearwater in mid-January as opposed to living it up somewhere else is a good sign. It shows he's focused more on the 2019 season than soaking up every last bit of his offseason.

Herrera's value is lower than it has been the previous three years, but all it would take to reset that conversation for a while is a strong first half. In 2016, he had an excellent first half that led to an All-Star appearance. In 2015 and 2017, he had strong second halves, hitting .329 and .323. When he's going well, Herrera is able to take pitches but also be a bad-ball hitter who uses all fields. When he's not going well, Herrera gives many at-bats away and can be as easy to retire as Ryan Howard used to be during a cold spell.

"Consistency" is an oft-used word in sports that applies to very few athletes. Rare is the player who goes through an entire season without straying too far one way or the other from his baseline. Almost everyone is inconsistent, to a degree. Herrera's inconsistency is more dramatic, and if it remains that way this season in a healthy Phillies outfield, he could very easily lose out on playing time to Quinn, McCutchen and Williams. It's just a different situation in the Phils' outfield than it was the last four seasons with more ready-to-go talent.

We've seen enough of the good Herrera to believe he has the offensive skill set to hit .300 with 30 doubles and 20 homers in a season. For the Phillies to truly contend in a tough NL East, they will need a season like that, regardless of whether they land one of the free-agent superstars.

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