Phillies

Charlie Manuel is back to do what he does best: Break tension and build confidence — can it save a team?

Charlie Manuel is back to do what he does best: Break tension and build confidence — can it save a team?

Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, the day after the Phillies got just three hits in a loss to the Giants, and three days after they were one-hit by the Giants, Gabe Kapler offered that his team’s hitters that day would alter their approach at the plate.

“We’re going into the game with the approach of we’re not providing much information today,” Kapler said. “We’re just going to be athletes. We’re going to go out there and let our natural athleticism take over. We know that when we’re loose and relaxed, we produce our best swings, so it’s about being easy. With runners in scoring position, or in other big situations, nobody is trying to take anyone deep. Simple approach to take the pressure off.”

Loose. Relaxed. Clear minded. Tension free.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Charlie Manuel talk hitting, you’ve heard all of these buzz words.

Now, you’re going to be hearing more of them.

And so are Phillies hitters.

The 75-year-old batting cage rat is the Phillies new hitting coach. The team turned to him Tuesday in a desperate attempt to save a season of high expectations, a desperate attempt to end a seven-year playoff drought. The Phillies have not played postseason ball since Manuel’s 102-win 2011 team had a bad week at the worst possible time and was eliminated in the division series. Back then Manuel was in the midst of the most successful run ever enjoyed by a Phillies skipper — five division titles, two National League pennants and a World Series title. His legacy as the most successful skipper in Phillies history is secure. Now, he’s trying to do the organization a solid by helping it get to a place it hasn’t gotten to since he was in charge.

Manuel is not leaving his role as a front office adviser to run the ballclub. That’s Gabe Kapler’s job, but how long it remains Gabe Kapler’s job — i.e., will he return next season? — could come down to how successful Manuel is at waking up this slumbering offense over the final 43 games of the season. (It would help if Big Chuck could find three starting pitchers who can go seven innings, but that’s not his job and it’s too late for that anyway. At least for now. But next season — hoo boy.)

Slumbering is a fitting word to describe the Phillies’ offense. Pressing might be a better word. Certainly it seems as if these guys are putting way too much pressure on themselves and that’s no way to hit.

Rhys Hoskins, who takes seriously his role as a team leader, is coming off a 2-for-24 road trip. He has one RBI this month. He wants to be a great Phillie, on and off the field. There are nights when you can almost see him turning the bat handle into saw dust, trying to do too much, trying to please too many.

Bryce Harper has looked that way all season as he tries to hit 800-foot home runs when paint scrapers, or line drives in the gap, will do.

J.T. Realmuto has also looked that way all season as he plays to show a team and a city he was worth a high price in prospects.  

This is all right in Manuel’s wheelhouse. Pressing hitters. Hitters who lose their natural reactive skill because they think too much. Hitters lacking confidence.

This is Manuel’s specialty. He’s not going to come in and rip apart swings. He’s going to come in and preach what he always has — get a good ball to hit, catch it out front, be ready to hit, be aggressive in the zone. He’s going to tell his hitters that home runs are nice, that home runs are great — no one loves them more than Chuck — but home runs are things that happen when you get a good ball to hit, execute a good swing and catch the ball out front. Manuel will keep it simple for these guys — just like Kapler was saying Sunday in San Francisco when the heat was getting turned up.

Manuel’s simple approach is embodied in something he likes to say: If you’re not hitting .300, you have a problem. He knows that not everybody is capable of hitting .300. But that should be the goal of every hitter. And if you’re strong and have some pop and catch that good ball to hit well, that well-struck fly ball just might end up over the fence for a home run. And when you hit that home run, or get that runner home, you’ll hear it from Manuel in a reassuring tone that will build confidence. That’s another Manuel strength — building confidence, and confidence is baseball’s magic potion.

Manuel has some work to do. The Phillies offense has been inconsistent all season. Since the All-Star break, the offense has been particularly bad. Entering Tuesday, it ranked 27th in the majors in runs, 27th in batting average, 26th in OPS and 28th in extra-base hits since the break.

And it ranked 28th in the majors with a .211 batting average with runners in scoring position since the break.

That’s a sign of a pressing team.

Charlie Manuel has always said a hitter needs to be tension-free and confident to succeed.

He’s coming in to work on those intangibles.

And if he can work his magic, the results should be better and maybe, just maybe, the Phillies can live to breathe a little October air for the first time since he was skipper.

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Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

MLB's 2020 Hall of Fame ballot was released Monday and it included six former Phillies of varying degrees of popularity. In fact, it's hard to even say which of the six is the most beloved in Philly. 

Bobby Abreu
Raul Ibanez
Cliff Lee
Scott Rolen
Curt Schilling
Billy Wagner

• At first glance, you might say Lee. He had great moments with the Phillies, memorable playoff games, and that low-key swag that drew fans to him. But things ended in a clunky way when he came back the second time. An elbow injury caused Lee to miss the final 1½ years of his contract and he was pretty much invisible during that time. He was also noticeably absent when the 2009 NL Championship team got together at Citizens Bank Park this past summer. The answer is still probably Lee, but it was a sour end for plenty of folks.

• Abreu is very well-respected around the game for being an ahead-of-his-time player with gaudy, well-rounded stats, but he was and still is polarizing around here. A portion of the fan base will always look at Abreu as an overrated compiler who was scared of walls. The other portion — it may be an even 50-50 split these days — appreciates the player Abreu was and realizes he'd be worth $200 million today.

• Phillies fans haven't forgotten Rolen's elite defense. Rolen was truly one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. But he orchestrated his way out of here and that is remembered equally, if not more so. 

• Schilling ... not delving into that one beyond an acknowledgment that his playoff performances were legendary, he had four excellent seasons and his post-playing career has been very strange.

• Ibañez was well-liked here and everywhere else he played. He may manage in the majors some day soon. He had an incredible first half in 2009, his first year with the Phillies, then was just slightly above average the rest of his three-year career with them.

• Phillies fans don't feel especially attached to Wagner, who was great here but lasted only two seasons. Unlike the other five on the list, Wagner should be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. Wagner was a more dominant reliever than Trevor Hoffman or Lee Smith. He had six seasons with an ERA under 2.00. He saved 422 games. He could have hung around for three more seasons to hit the arbitrary number of 500, which would have made him a Hall of Famer. Instead, Wagner retired on his terms after posting a 1.43 ERA for the Braves in 2010.

It will be interesting to see whether Abreu, a first-time candidate, gets the groundswell of support we've seen in recent years with players like Tim Raines.

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Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on Zack Wheeler, a right-hander who is seen as having much untapped potential.

The vitals

The very talented Wheeler has a big fastball — his career-high 96.8-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors among starting pitchers in 2019 — and excellent breaking stuff, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from blossoming into a star. He is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets' manager. Wheeler will turn 30 in May.

Why he fits

His career is trending upward and a team might be getting him just as he’s about to put it all together. Wheeler has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts. He has pitched 182⅓ and 195⅓ innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career. In both 2018 and 2019, he was one of the best in baseball after the All-Star break, going a combined 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA.

Wheeler also reached a career high by throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a top-10 mark that placed him ahead of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Given the supply and demand for starting pitching in the majors, Wheeler is headed for a big payday, but not as big as the top arms in this market. That might allow the Phils to spread around their dollars and fill multiple holes.

Why he doesn’t fit

From Charlie Morton in the starting rotation to David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers. Wheeler missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored.

The Phillies need to be protective of their high draft picks. They would surrender a second-round pick for the right guy. The question remains: Is the inconsistent Wheeler the right guy? When push comes to shove, the Phils would probably do it.

The price tag

Some team is going to bet on Wheeler being ready to reel off several years of good health and effectiveness. The industry feel is that Wheeler could come in somewhere between the four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi got from Boston last year and the six-year, $140 million that Patrick Corbin got from Washington. In other words, he could be looking at a $100 million payday. 

Scout’s take

“The velocity is intriguing. My concern is he gets hit too hard for the kind of stuff he has. He’s had some health glitches so that makes it a risk for the kind of money he’s going to get. But the raw stuff and potential are definitely there. It just depends on a team’s willingness to risk.”

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