'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

'Buddies' with Kapler, Velasquez feels like new pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Vince Velasquez lit up the room like he lights up radar guns Wednesday morning. He talked enthusiastically about how good his arm feels, about how he has come into Phillies camp with a new mentality after last season’s struggles. He mentioned that his musical tastes include The Temptations. He talked about eating healthier this winter, learning “a few little Mexican recipes” from his mom and cooking for himself.

The 25-year-old pitcher sounded a lot like he’d spent the winter worshipping at Gabe Kapler’s altar of positive energy.

In a way, he had.

“We communicated a lot,” Velasquez said of his new manager. “Like we were buddies. Like, ‘What’s up, how are you doing, how’s your day going?’"

Mind you, Velasquez spent the winter in Southern California and Kapler in Philadelphia.

But Kapler made a point to keep in touch with his players via text.

“It was frequent,” Velasquez said. “Not every manager would hit you up on a regular basis to check in on you and see how you were doing. A little small talk like that can give you that little boost.”

Now that camp is open, Kapler is doing his communicating face to face. He bounces from the field to the clubhouse to the weight room as if he's on an imaginary pogo stick.

Velasquez remains impressed.

“It’s amazing how one person or just one human being can change your ways by creating a different vibe,” Velasquez said. “I love it. It’s amazing how much he brings to the clubhouse and just how live it is right now. This is the first day and we’re already bumping music. We have a whole different approach going into spring training and that’s something that enlightens us and gives us something to look forward to. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a really interesting year, a really fun year.”

Last year was not fun for Velasquez. For the second straight season, he failed to harness the electricity in his powerful right arm. He struggled to pitch through the middle innings. And he had health issues. A blood clot in his pitching arm ended his season in early August. He is healthy now — and firing. Kapler gushed about seeing Vinny Velo throw in the bullpen on Tuesday.

“Velasquez stands out to me as a guy who looks incredibly healthy and strong,” Kapler said. “The stuff was coming out with electricity. He was commanding his pitches. His presence was strong.”

Having so much down time last season forced Velasquez to take stock of himself as a pitcher. He said he reflected on the times when he would struggle and how those struggles would cause him to lose focus. He believes he will look back at those struggles as growth experiences.

“Injuries don’t really help as far as doing what you need to do to get back out there, but they do help you learn from standing on the sidelines and looking from the outside in,” he said.

He added that he has learned techniques to slow the game down when things are going haywire. For example, he said he now can back off the mound and sing a song to himself. Something from The Temptations.

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

Velasquez came to the Phillies in December 2015 as the centerpiece of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade. Ken Giles went to Houston in that deal and helped the Astros win the World Series in October.

The Phillies banked on the potential of a power arm when they acquired Velasquez. He showed that potential when he struck out 16 San Diego Padres in April 2016. Big things were expected from Velasquez last season, but he sputtered. He made just 15 starts and averaged less than five innings. His ERA was 5.13. His walk rate jumped to 4.3 per nine innings from 3.1 in 2016 and his strikeouts slipped to 8.5 per nine from 10.4.

The combination of Velasquez’s power stuff and his inconsistencies has led to almost constant speculation that he could end up in the bullpen someday. He might be an excellent one-inning guy someday, maybe even a closer. But that conversion is not in the current plan. Starting pitching is valuable and the Phillies, for now, remain committed to developing a starter. Velasquez is happy about that, but he knows this is a big year in proving himself.

“It is,” he said. “But I know what I'm capable of. I feel like I can really fulfill this spot and do what I like to do and that's be a starter. I have nothing but confidence.”

Despite averaging under six innings per outing last season, Velasquez has set a high personal bar for the coming season.

“Two-hundred innings,” he said. “I’m really excited. I don’t have the exact words to put it into play, but I’m really looking forward to having a bounce back year.”

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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