Phillies

Bryce Harper? Manny Machado? Phillies should sit this one out

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Bryce Harper? Manny Machado? Phillies should sit this one out

Be bold.

That two-word mission statement set forth by Gabe Kapler became the center of the Phillies’ marketing push for the 2018 season. Many Phillies fans are hoping that mindset defines the team’s approach to this offseason as well.

The dots are easy to connect here: 

• The Phillies showed some promise this season before the wheels came off in mid-August. 

• Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will both be available in free agency.

• The Phillies have the financial wherewithal to land one of those two players.

When asked about the club’s future following the season, both general manager Matt Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail acknowledged the need to get better. But neither was willing to put the Phils’ eggs entirely in this year’s free agent basket.

You don’t want to pay sticker price if you can avoid it. This could just be a case of maintaining some leverage in future negotiations, but there are also legitimate reasons for the Phillies to temper their free-agent appetite.

I know nothing about building a house, but it seems logical that you ensure the foundation before getting to an addition. The Phillies are still in the foundation portion of their rebuild. That might be frustrating to fans that haven’t seen a postseason game at Citizens Bank Park in seven years, but that’s the reality.

Outside of Aaron Nola and possibly Rhys Hoskins, there’s no safe bet on the current roster to be an everyday contributor for a championship-caliber team. There are reasons to hope players like Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro and Roman Quinn will join that group, but they have not ascended there yet.

The anticipation surrounding this offseason reminds me somewhat of the mood following the 2002 season. After pushing the Braves to the final weekend of the 2001 season and clearing the deck of the Scott Rolen mess the following July, the Phillies went all-in prior to the 2003 campaign. Jim Thome, David Bell and Kevin Millwood were all acquired to push a team that had missed the postseason for nine straight seasons over the top.

It didn’t play out that way. Millwood was miscast as an ace. Bell was a basically a replacement-level player for most of his tenure. Thome was spectacular but eventually served as a Ryan Howard roadblock. As important, the talent around them was not as good as the front office originally hoped. It took another four years and an almost entirely reworked core to get the Phils back to October.

Admittedly, Harper and Machado are significantly younger than Thome was when he signed with the Phillies. They also have higher ceilings. There’s no doubt that adding one of these players makes the team better immediately. But neither player solely bridges the gap between the Phillies and top teams in Major League Baseball. 

Yet, making the commitment necessary to land a Harper or Machado changes the expectations. A team that makes that type of splash almost instinctively has to take on the mindset of a contender. That will certainly be the way the fan base sees it. And that can be dangerous. 

Icing is delicious. But it tastes best on a fully baked cake with all of the ingredients. Similarly, free agency works best when used to add a finishing touch.

You’re ready when you’re ready. And the Phillies aren’t ready for that yet. 

That might change next offseason. 2019 could call for boldness. But right now, the Phillies might be better served to sit this one out.

Be hesitant.

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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