Phillies

Tight 40-man roster could impact Phillies' roster decisions as much as performance

Tight 40-man roster could impact Phillies' roster decisions as much as performance

TAMPA, Fla. -- Less than three weeks before opening day, Pete Mackanin is still evaluating candidates for his bench.

"It'll probably go right down till the end," the Phillies skipper said of the decisions that he and the front office must make.

Mackanin was in full evaluation mode Wednesday night as the Phillies made the short drive across the causeway to play the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field. The Phils' starting lineup included four candidates for reserve roles.

Chris Coghlan batted leadoff and got his first start at second base.

Brock Stassi started at first base.

Aaron Altherr started in center field.

And Andrew Knapp was the designated hitter.

Two of the five spots on the Phillies' bench appear to be accounted for. Andres Blanco, the team's top utility man, is a shoo-in, and Altherr, a standout defensive outfielder who, like Blanco, is already on the 40-man roster, is a good bet to make the 25-man roster.

Coghlan's versatility -- he plays the outfield as well as second and third base -- and major-league track record could help his chances, though nothing is certain.

"We have to come up with two spots, maybe three," Mackanin said before Wednesday night's game.

One of those spots will have to be a backup catcher.

Spring performance will certainly play a role in the Phillies' decisions, but there is more to it. The 40-man roster is tight after the club added 11 young players to it in November, and the front office would like to retain as much depth as possible. Nonetheless, the team is going to have to trade from its 40-man roster or expose one or more players to waivers in order to finalize its 25-man roster. In addition to possibly needing to clear spots to finalize the bench, the team may need to clear a spot to add a lefty reliever.

Coghlan, Stassi and Daniel Nava, all candidates to be a bat off the bench and play some outfield, are all on minor-league contracts. The Phils would have to clear a 40-man roster spot to carry any one of them. A roster move would also have to be made to carry Bryan Holaday or Ryan Hanigan as the backup catcher.

Being on the 40-man roster already is a boon to Altherr's and Knapp's chances to make the club.

Knapp is a catcher by trade and he can also play first base. He is also a switch-hitter, which would come in handy.

Knapp came into camp knowing there was an opportunity to win a job, and he expressed confidence he could do just that. However, he entered Wednesday night's game with just one hit in 18 at-bats. In an effort to get him going, the Phils had Knapp get at-bats in a minor-league game Wednesday afternoon.

"I like Knapp," Mackanin said. "He's definitely a top candidate for that backup catcher job.

"I know he's a better hitter than he's shown in the spring. He might be pressing a little. I had a talk with him about three days ago. I said, 'Look, don't overthink this thing. Just go out there and have fun. See it and hit it. Just relax.'

"Once again, you should never judge a player's performance in spring training or September. But I'm looking at the quality of the at-bats. In other words, let's look at Stassi, who is killing it. You have to be careful with getting too excited about that even though he's looked very good.

"By the same token, why would you get worried about a guy who's not hitting? I expect Howie Kendrick to hit during the season. He's not having a good spring. But that doesn't concern me because he's a proven guy. So it works both ways. At least you try to make it work both ways."

Knapp came to the plate three times in Wednesday night's game. He struck out in the third inning and grounded to second in the ninth. In between, he had a nice plate appearance against Aroldis Chapman in the sixth. Knapp worked a full-count walk against the fireballing lefty. It was the Phillies' only walk on a miserable offensive night that saw them produce just one hit and strike out 13 times.

Time for Phillies to worry more about Braves than Nationals

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Time for Phillies to worry more about Braves than Nationals

All season, the expectation has been that the Nationals would eventually overtake the Braves for the NL East lead. Yet here we are 45 percent of the way in and the Braves are still picking up clutch hits, getting outs in the eighth and ninth innings and maintaining a 3½-game division lead. They've been eight or more games over .500 every day since May 12.

The Braves have outscored their opponents by 73 runs — 28 more than the Nationals and 65 more than the Phillies.

As for the Phils, it's a longshot but not infeasible to still be in contention three months from now. They'd first need to continue to hold their own during this rough portion of the schedule and then take advantage of the 12-game run to the All-Star break vs. the Marlins, Mets, Orioles and Pirates (lost 20 of 30).

The most realistic playoff path for the Phillies is the second wild card, but both the Braves and Nats will be worth focusing on because they'll be in both races. And the Braves, because of how they've played in the first half and when they play the Phillies in the second, are a more dangerous team than anticipated.

Clutch hitting

The Braves have been remarkably clutch all season. They've hit an NL-best .286 with runners in scoring position with an .880 OPS that is 38 points higher than any team in baseball.

"Clutch" is not regarded as a projectable skill or trait from year to year, but we've seen plenty of teams stay hot in key situations for an entire season. In the last five years, there have been six teams that performed just as good or better with RISP than the 2018 Braves over a full season.

The Nationals' offense has been just average. It should get better as recently-activated Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton get some games under their belts, but with Bryce Harper not having nearly the season he had a year ago and 2017 surprise Ryan Zimmerman spending most of this season on the DL, it's just not the same team. 

Harper is still walking and hitting for power, but he's batting .209 a year after batting .319 and his OPS has dropped by 198 points.

Crooked numbers

Ready for a stat that sticks out as the difference between the Phils and Braves?

The Phillies this season have scored three runs or more in an inning 35 times. That represents about 5 percent of their innings.

The Braves have scored three runs or more in an inning 74 times, which represents 12 percent of their innings.

The Phils have had trouble all year stringing hits together and capitalizing on big opportunities. They stranded the bases loaded with one out twice in the Cardinals series, once with Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera, once with Scott Kingery and Nick Williams. The first missed opportunity prevented the Phils from breaking open a two-run lead in a game they wound up losing, the second kept the game tied.

Starting pitching

The Nationals have the best starting pitcher in baseball in Max Scherzer, but with Stephen Strasburg injured they no longer have a big rotation advantage on the rest of the division. Strasburg was placed on the DL on June 10 with right shoulder inflammation and hasn't yet resumed throwing.

The best active 1-2 punch in the division is either Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez or Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

The Braves' rotation, though, has been surprisingly good this season, mostly because of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. 

Foltynewicz also hit the DL last week but could return as soon as Sunday. A hard thrower whose command has now matched his stuff, Foltynewicz has a 2.16 ERA with 94 strikeouts in 79 innings and has been the breakout pitcher in the National League in 2018.

The lefty Newcomb, a 2014 first-round pick acquired in the Andrelton Simmons trade, is 8-2 with a 2.70 ERA and .204 opponents' batting average.

On pace ...

The over/under win totals set in Vegas before the season had the Braves at 74.5 wins, the Phillies at 75.5 and the Nationals at 92.5.

As of Thursday, the Braves are on pace to finish 95-67. 

The Phillies and Nationals are each on pace to go 89-73.

Since MLB instituted the two-wild-card format, no team has made the playoffs with fewer than 87 wins.

The season series

The Phillies face the Nationals in D.C. this weekend and will miss Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez. That's huge, especially with another four-game series the following weekend.

The Phillies have faced the Nationals just three times all season so 16 games remain. After the two upcoming series, the Phils draw the Nationals for two series in August and one in September.

As for the Braves, the Phillies won't get a chance to improve upon their 5-7 head-to-head record until the end of September. The teams meet for a four-game series Sept. 20-23 in Atlanta and then again the final series of the season Sept. 28-30 at Citizens Bank Park. Seven of the final 11 games are the Phillies vs. Braves.

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Odubel Herrera is making good on his 'bet on me' prophesy

Odubel Herrera is making good on his 'bet on me' prophesy

Odubel Herrera wasn’t messing around when he said, “Bet on me,” as he showed signs of breaking out of a lengthy slump last week.

Since Herrera uttered those words, the Phillies are 4-2 and Herrera has delivered 11 hits, including five homers, and seven RBIs. He had his fourth multi-hit game in the span Wednesday and provided the big blow — a booming, go-ahead homer off the scoreboard in right in the seventh inning — to key a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Herrera's bat is ablaze and if you did bet on him — as he urged — you’re cashing checks.

“When I told you that you should bet on me, I meant it, because I knew that I was getting close to being my regular self and I'm going to keep working to stay positive and stay doing what I'm doing,” Herrera said.

The slump took Herrera from an NL-best .361 batting average on May 17 to .283 in 23 games.

Wednesday’s single-double-homer performance left him at .299 and had people comparing him to Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.

Starting pitcher Jake Arrieta compared Herrera to Vladimir Guerrero for the way he can square up any pitch.

Manager Gabe Kapler used Ichiro Suzuki as a comp.

“They’re different style hitters, but not that different, though,” Kapler said. “It doesn’t matter where the baseball is. They have unique bat-to-ball skills.”

Herrera’s eyes lit up when he heard Kapler’s Ichiro comp.

“It's amazing to hear that because Ichiro is a legend,” Herrera said. “To be compared to someone like him is an honor. It's great.”

Herrera is not a legend, but he's colorful and his confidence is well established.

“I’m coming,” he said with a laugh. “I’m coming.”

Herrera pounded a go-ahead homer to right off Sam Tuivailala in the seventh, a half-inning after the Cardinals had tied the game on Yadier Molina’s two-run homer against Arrieta. The bullpen made the lead stand up (see game recap).

Herrera crushed the ball. It left the park in the blink of an eye at 109 mph and was projected to travel 422 feet.

“Fresh,” said Herrera, describing the feel of the ball impacting his bat.

As Herrera’s ball climbed out of the yard, Kapler made eye contact with Scott Kingery in the dugout.

“We were standing on the steps, and we just kind of looked at each other in awe,” Kapler said. “It was one of those, ‘Wow!’ moments. He’s so hot, but he’s such an incredible athlete. What he’s doing, I don’t remember seeing. It’s really special. It’s really elite barrel accuracy. I really don’t know how to describe it. He just knows how to find the barrel, knows how to find the sweet spot and it’s really impressive.”

How did it turn for Herrera?

“I kept working in the cage and now things are working out for me,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an adjustment. I’m just making good contact again and trying not to think about it too much.”

Herrera has heated up just in time for one of the Phillies' most important series of the season. After Thursday's off day, they will play at NL East rival Washington on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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