Asia can wait — for Tommy Joseph, it's all about playing in the bigs

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Asia can wait — for Tommy Joseph, it's all about playing in the bigs


CLEARWATER, Fla. — Asia can wait. Right now, Tommy Joseph is focused on playing in the major leagues. Maybe with the Phillies. Maybe with someone else.

Joseph, who hit 43 homers for the Phillies the last two seasons, is a man without a position in this camp. A series of concussions forced him to give up catching. The emergence of Rhys Hoskins and later the signing of Carlos Santana pushed him off first base. So Joseph finds himself angling for a reserve role with the club, and with management intent on having versatility on its bench, Joseph received a crash course in playing the outfield on Monday. Twenty-four hours later, he started in left field against the Tigers on Tuesday. It was his first experience in the outfield. Ever. He received a passing grade.

“The way camp has gone, everyone is going to have that opportunity to show their versatility and today was my opportunity to play left field,” Joseph said after the 11-6 loss to Detroit. “That’s one thing that’s transpiring in baseball. The more positions you can play, the better off you’ll be in getting an opportunity — no matter what team you’re on. That’s the way I looked at it. Give it a shot.

“When it comes down to it, you’re going to do everything you can to help your team win knowing that ultimately it’s a tryout for all the other teams, as well. Every team is watching every other game, whether they’re scouting you because they’re going to play you, or they’re looking at you because you might be valuable to their team.”

There are several ways Joseph’s situation could work out over the next month. He could make the club. He could be optioned to Triple A. He could be waived if the club needs 40-man roster space. He could be traded. What won’t happen — not now, at least — is him playing in Asia. There was serious interest in Joseph from teams in Japan and Korea this winter. Joseph spoke with former Phillie Darin Ruf, who is entering his second season in Korea, to get his opinion on the experience. In the end …

“You never want to give up the opportunity to play in the major leagues,” Joseph said. “Darin loves it over there. His family loves it. He recommended I go.

“But I want a chance to be here and play in the big leagues.”

Joseph played four innings in the outfield. He moved to right field on the fly for an out when the Phillies shifted for a matchup. Enterprising manager Gabe Kapler did not rule out doing that during the season.

“We continue to want our guys to be flexible and we want to give everyone their best chance to demonstrate that flexibility,” Kapler said. “First base is a position that we have some depth at on our major-league roster. We want Tommy to have every opportunity to succeed so we want to give him some looks out there — and we got his bat in the lineup and that’s an important factor as well.”

Joseph had a single, a double and drove in a run.

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will start one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

Phillies bullpen: 'Second layer' of relievers crucial with so many doubleheaders

With at least six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, the Phillies could find themselves in a position similar to this past Wednesday semi-frequently. And that is not good for a team with so many bullpen questions.

On Wednesday, the Phils did not use closer Hector Neris in the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees because he warmed up and threw one pitch to finish Game 1. Instead, the Phils went with Tommy Hunter in the last inning of a tie game at home — a spot that ordinarily goes to a closer — and he put four men on, allowing two runs without recording an out in a 3-1 Phillies loss.

What happens the next time Neris is used in Game 1 and things are late and close in Game 2? What happens if the Phillies are forced to also use their few other somewhat reliable relievers in the first game like Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez?

"We have to get our bullpen 2.0, which means we know that our veteran guys Neris, Morgan, Hunter and Alvarez, we know they have a track record," first-year Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday. "It's finding out what these other guys can do because they will have to assist and take the load off of those guys when it comes to finish a game, the second game of a doubleheader where you have a chance to sweep but you've used your high-leverage guys in the first game. 

"We don't want to get to that point where we have to throw our best guys two games and then have to do it again in two or three days. It's important that we have a second layer of bullpen guys that are established and trustworthy in those late-game situations. And that's what we're finding out here in the early part of this 60-game season."

Middle relief is an issue for most teams, but perhaps most importantly, the Phillies lack true right-handed setup options in front of Neris. They do not have a right-hander in the 'pen with a big, consistently plus fastball. Theoretically, it could be Nick Pivetta, but he so frequently misses over the middle of the plate. 

When you know you have the eighth inning locked down, close games become less stressful. When you don't have one, every night is a cross-your-fingers adventure.

"We're not a power bullpen per se, compared to a lot of other clubs," Price said. "But what we were excited about coming out of spring training was we had a true sinkerballer in Reggie McClain. We had a guy with a depth changeup like Deolis Guerra. Each one of these guys had a skill set that really seemed to work well. And then of course Ramon Rosso has one of the best arms in our bullpen, power and a hard breaking pitch."

Perhaps the Phillies' bullpen would be farther ahead if it had any semblance of a routine. Their season began two weeks ago Friday night, and entering the Braves series, the Phillies had missed as many games to postponements as they had played.

"This has been a mess for us," Price understated. "This isn't about excuses, it's about the reality. We went a stretch there where we weren't able to play a game. We had one scrimmage in that week. We got on the field one time in five days during a stretch and then we come out of it and go to Yankee Stadium right away. 

"Our starters are losing the ability to get stretched out and that puts a bigger onus on the bullpen. There's zero continuity. We haven't gotten to a stretch in the season where we've been able to play three, four, five, six, seven days in a row. Where guys can get regular work and start to understand if there is a role definition. Right now, we've got a kid like Rosso who hasn't pitched since opening day on July 24. 

"Setting expectations for young people that aren't terribly experienced at this level is unrealistic in these first couple weeks. But after these first couple weeks, we'll have a better idea of what to work with."

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