Phillies

Phillies president Andy MacPhail: 'Let’s stay on track'

Phillies president Andy MacPhail: 'Let’s stay on track'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Dressed in red gym shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with the words Train to Reign, two dozen Phillies pitchers and catchers went through one final informal workout on the green lawns of Carpenter Complex on Monday.

Stuff gets real, as they say, Tuesday morning when pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout of spring training.

Not long ago, this day was accompanied by the electric buzz of high expectations and World Series hopes. The Phillies hope those days return soon, but for now, they remain an active construction site as they enter Season 3 of a rebuild.

There have been signs of progress in the reconstruction. Most tangibly, the team improved by eight wins, finishing with 71, last season.

Another sign of growth can be seen in the improved depth in the team’s starting pitching ranks.

When the rebuild started, the starting pitching depth was in bad shape. A series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects has improved it greatly.

That depth will be on display as camp officially begins Tuesday. 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.

As the rebuild continues, pitching will remain a focus.

Club president Andy MacPhail made that much clear in a state of the team meeting with reporters on Monday.

“After improving the pitching, the next thing we should do is improve the pitching, and then after that, we should improve the pitching,” MacPhail said.

The Phillies are a big-market team with large revenues. MacPhail is confident that the team can attract big bats through free agency. His goal remains building with a foundation of arms.

“My experience has been that you can find the hitters,” he said, citing Klentak’s offseason additions of Howie Kendrick (trade) and Michael Saunders (free-agent signing). “Particularly in our ballpark. And we have resources. When you have to sign pitchers through free agency — they’re fragile, they’re expensive. There are times when you’re going to have to do it, but the more you can avoid it, the more you should. To me, it’s about pitching.”

The Phillies brought back veteran Jeremy Hellickson and traded for another, Clay Buchholz, to lead a still developing starting staff that will include Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola in 2017 — with promising arms like Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Nick Pivetta knocking on the door.

The rotation will certainly be respectable. It should keep the Phillies in a lot of games for six or so innings most nights.

It’s not difficult to envision the Phillies making the next step and improving on those 71 wins in 2017.

Manager Pete Mackanin believes the team can push .500.

And MacPhail?

“I've been around too long to get involved with that,” he said with a laugh. “I'm focused not so much on a number for next year. I'd like to see improvement. That can demonstrate itself in a lot of ways. So I'm looking for improvement — measurable, meaningful improvement. That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that's my goal for 2017.

“The fans and the media are pretty sophisticated. They're going to know improvement when they see it. I wouldn't put a number by it. Sometimes you can move the win number up but not really have a good year. We're trying to create a foundation for a baseball franchise. The more players that demonstrate on our current team that they belong and are part of the future and the more players that percolate up from our system that demonstrate they can be part of our future, that's a good year.”

Phillies management and ownership has repeatedly said that it will spend significant money on free agents once the team develops a solid core of players. Mackanin made that clear this winter when he said: “Over the last couple of years it’s been, as I call it, an experiment. We’re trying to find out who’s going to fit in and bide time until we’re going to spend a little bit of money and make our move.”

The Phillies spent over $65 million in acquiring (through trades and signings) and retaining veterans this winter. No, it wasn't the $125 million they spent on Cliff Lee a few winters ago, but those days will come again, possibly in two years when a mega free-agent class featuring Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hits the market.

“We could have had a year where we let our payroll slip way down,” MacPhail said. “Quite frankly our ownership doesn’t have a great appetite for that. One year with the worst record in baseball (2015) was enough for them.”

It’s not out of the question that the Phillies make a splash even before the free-agent class of 2018 hits the market. Some of the talent in that projected class could become available in trades as soon as this July.

The Phillies will have their antennae up for these types of deals and they’ve added enough young talent that they could swing one of them.

“We know that as teams fall out of contention, they are going to be looking at opportunities to get the maximum amount for their playing talent and often that comes as a result of a trade maybe a year or two prior to free agency,” MacPhail said. “Our goal is to be ready for that eventuality, identify those teams that might find themselves in that situation and be ready to move if the opportunity presents itself.”

MacPhail’s final comment on the eve of spring training 2017 captured the goal of the season:

“Let’s stay on track,” he said.

Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

Phillies’ next 3 opponents have even more to play for, which doesn’t bode well

The Phillies will begin their final road trip of the season Tuesday and they’ll be either four or five games out of the second wild-card spot with 14 to play, pending the result of Cubs-Reds Monday night.

The first stop of the 11-game trip is Atlanta, where the Braves will have as much to play for as the Phillies. They are four games behind the Dodgers in their long shot attempt to gain home-field advantage in the NL playoffs. If the Dodgers had a larger lead and no advantage was to be gained, Atlanta might have been resting key players by now.

After that three-game set comes a weekend series in Cleveland. The Indians are 1 1/2 games behind the Rays for the second AL wild-card spot. That series against the Phillies will be a must-win for Terry Francona’s club.

The last stop is D.C. for five games, including a doubleheader on day two. The Nationals are in good shape, leading the wild-card race by 1 1/2 games over the Cubs and 2 1/2 games on the teams chasing them. The Phillies will see all three of Washington’s aces in that series.

The Nationals clinched their eighth consecutive winning season over the weekend. That streak began the same year as the Phillies’ current string of non-winning seasons.

The road to a wild-card spot is damn near impossible. Even the path to a winning record will be challenging for the Phillies, who must go 6-8 or better to finish with at least 82 wins.

There will be change this offseason, the question is how much. The Phillies put together some nice pieces but not a winning formula in 2019. That may have even been true if half the injured relievers were still active, given how few games the Phillies had the pitching advantage in the first five innings this season.

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Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

Bryce Harper fumes at umpire as Phillies lose more ground to put winning season in peril

After a homestand that saw them lose four of six games, and with a killer, 11-game road trip looming, the question no longer seems to be will the Phillies make the playoffs, it’s will they even have a winning season?

They have done neither since 2011.

Making the playoffs became the longest of long shots after the Phils lost a pair of games over the weekend to the Boston Red Sox. The Sox completed a two-game sweep with a 6-3 win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies scored just four runs in the series. Only two of their 12 hits were for extra bases and they struck out a staggering 25 times.

Twenty-freaking-five.

With 14 games remaining, the Phils are 4 ½ games back in the NL wild-card race and their overall record is 76-72. They need to go at least 6-8 to finish with a winning record and that won’t be easy with this remaining schedule:

Three games in Atlanta.

Three games at Cleveland.

Five games at Washington.

Three games at home against Miami.

Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington entered Sunday a combined 74 games over .500 and Miami gives the Phillies fits.

Finishing with a winning record will be a challenge.

But for now, manager Gabe Kapler remains focused on keeping the Phillies’ faint playoff hopes a-flicker.

“My only concern is the step right in front of us,” Kapler said after Sunday’s loss. “That's winning the game (Tuesday night) in Atlanta. I'm already past what happened in this Boston series. It's going to sting. It's going to suck. The plane ride's going to be difficult, and we'll start game-planning for Atlanta. One game at a time, one step at a time.

“We have no choice but to continue to fight. You know what? Sometimes you see the best come out in people when their backs are against the wall. Ours are against the wall. My expectation is that you'll see our best.”

The Phillies were not at their best on Sunday.

Starting pitcher Jason Vargas did not keep his club in the game and lasted just three innings for the second straight start. His ERA over his last four starts is a plump 7.63.

“It's one of those things where you don't want to say one game means more than the other but it's easier to say that earlier in the year than later in the year,” said Vargas, who surrendered a third-inning grand slam to Christian Vazquez. “When it comes down to it, you really feel like you're in a spot where you have to put Ws on the board and when it doesn't happen you feel like you let everybody down."

The Phillies were also not at their strongest on Sunday. At least they did not have their strongest personnel on the field, not after Bryce Harper got ejected for protesting a called third strike with home plate umpire Gabe Morales in the fourth inning.

Morales missed the call and Harper retreated to the video area behind the dugout. He watched the replay of the pitch, saw that it was outside the zone, returned to the dugout and shouted, “It’s not even bleeping close,” to Morales.

The umpire ejected Harper.

“Then I kind of let him have it,” Harper said. “It just sucks. You’re in the middle of a race and you’re in a 1-2 count and (Boston starter Rick) Porcello throws a front-hipper like he did in my first at-bat, which was a good pitch. I’m going to tip my cap when he throws me a good pitch, but I disagreed with that call and I kind of looked back at him and said, ‘That’s not a strike.’ He kind of looked at me like, ‘Yeah, right, stupid.’ It was that kind of look and I went back and thought, ‘Maybe he’s right.’ I went back and looked at it and it wasn’t close.”

Kapler was also ejected for defending Harper.

“I think everybody can look at the pitch and see why both Bryce was upset and I was upset on his behalf,” Kapler said. “It’s an enormous game, obviously, with a lot of implications and I thought, obviously, Bryce was right about the pitch, but just as importantly, I thought, in a game of this magnitude there could have been a little bit of a longer leash to allow him to stay in this game and allow it to play out on the field.”

A pool reporter attempted to speak with Morales shortly after the game. Morales was present but said he could not speak because crew chief Jerry Meals had already departed for the airport. Talk about your quick getaways.

Harper did not dispute that his getting ejected left his team in a bind.

“You can’t get thrown out in that situation, of course,” he said. “I don’t want to get thrown out in that situation. But, you know, it happened.

“I usually don’t complain unless it’s there. I’m pro pitcher, too. If a pitcher throws a good pitch, I’m all about it. Like I said, first at-bat Porcello threw that front-hipper and punched me out, so I tipped my cap to him right there. So the next at-bat, I’m kind of sitting on the same pitch because he kind of did the same thing and it wasn’t close. You get into a 2-2 count against him and you see another pitch. He might have punched me out on the next pitch, but also I might have hit a double in the gap and I’m on second base.

“On both sides, you have to be better, especially in these games right now. You have to be better back there. I know he’s not trying to call a strike or not call a ball, but he just has to be better for me.”



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