Phillies

Evolution of free agency is hurting players but could help Phillies with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper

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Evolution of free agency is hurting players but could help Phillies with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper

It's been a strange MLB offseason. Or maybe it's been a normal MLB offseason, by the current standards. 

Here we are on Jan. 10 and the top three players on the free-agent market (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, A.J. Pollock) remain unsigned and the best catcher (Yasmani Grandal) was forced to take a one-year deal. 

The "middle class" of baseball players is no longer getting paid like it was from around 2007-16. Front offices are smarter now and more shrewd with their investments. It means fewer albatross contracts and probably more profits for owners ... but does that benefit the common baseball fan in any way?

Consider this: Free agency opened 73 days ago and there is only one position player who has signed a contract guaranteeing more than $10 million over at least three years. Andrew McCutchen. That's it. Just five years ago, this is the kind of contract teams were giving fifth starters like Scott Feldman.

It's a decline from even last offseason, which was a bad one for players. Last year, seven such contracts were given to position players. This offseason, Harper and Machado will obviously get them but will anyone else? At this point, a guy like Pollock might find it more worthwhile to take a high-priced one-year deal and re-test the market next year. It's what Grandal did by agreeing Wednesday to a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers, a contract nobody would have seen coming at the beginning of the offseason.

Another ominous sign for players looking to cash in: There are reportedly no more than four teams seriously pursuing either Harper or Machado. By most accounts, it's the Phillies, Yankees and White Sox after Machado and the Phillies, Nationals and Dodgers after Harper. That could change if a mystery team swoops in, but so far, neither race includes as many competitors as expected.

Part of that is because contenders like the Cubs and Indians aren't looking to add payroll and teams like the Giants, Diamondbacks, Mariners and Rangers are retooling. You can't really blame those latter four teams because they're more than one Bryce Harper away from seriously contending. (Then again, the same could be said of the White Sox and perhaps the Phillies.)

According to USA Today, the White Sox offer for Machado is around $200 million. Before your jaw drops, we don't know how many years were involved in that offer. If it's five years, $200 million, that's a fair annual salary for Machado. If it's 8 years, $200 million, they should've been laughed off the phone or out of the room.

When the offseason began, nearly the entire baseball world expected Machado and Harper to get between $300 million and $400 million. MLBTradeRumors, which does a good job forecasting contracts, projected a 14-year, $420 million deal for Harper. An offer close to that now seems remote.

Unless the pace and competitiveness of free agency changes, the Phillies have even less of an excuse to not land one of the two megastars.

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Phillies' Odubel Herrera does some between-the-ears work — and it shows

Phillies' Odubel Herrera does some between-the-ears work — and it shows

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Despite having just 12 plate appearances coming into Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against the Baltimore Orioles, Odubel Herrera sure looked locked-in.

He singled, doubled and homered on his way to a four-RBI day in the Phillies’ 11-4 win.

Opening day is Thursday.

“I’m ready,” Herrera said. “I want to start the year hot. I want to get going quickly. It’s important to the team and it’s important to me.”

Herrera missed significant time early in camp, first with a hamstring injury then a flu bug that visited a number of players this spring.

Herrera offered up Sunday’s performance at the plate as proof that he didn’t just sit around the athletic trainer’s room for three weeks before playing in his first Grapefruit League game March 16.

He worked in the batting cage, seeing pitches and fine-tuning his swing.

He worked in the weight room.

He also did some between-the-ears work.

While his mates were on the field, he spent some time in the video room with Geoff Miller, the team’s mental skills coach.

“We did exercises where I could visualize the game and kind of not lose time, as if I was still playing,” Herrera said through Diego Ettedgui, the team’s Spanish-language translator.

According to Herrera, Miller cued up videos of some of Herrera’s stellar performances last season.

“Maybe we’d watch a really good at-bat that I had in a game,” Herrera said. “He’d ask me to go through the at-bat. ‘What were you thinking in the at-bat? What was your approach? Try to visualize yourself in that moment again. How can you repeat what you did there because you were successful?’ Little tactics to build confidence.”

Herrera, 27, is one of the Phillies’ most talented players. He made the NL All-Star team in 2016 and signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension later that year. In addition to being talented, however, Herrera is also inconsistent. Last season was a case in point. He hit .361 with a .989 OPS in his first 40 games. Over the final two months of the season, he hit just .189 with a .530 OPS and lost playing time to Roman Quinn.

Herrera’s poor finish last season earned him a mandate from general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler: Get into better physical shape. Herrera reported to camp down 20 pounds in February. The bosses also wanted to see Herrera become more focused mentally. Herrera said he’s embracing the mental side of the game more now.

“I feel like I need to take advantage of everything that can help me or the team,” he said.

Kapler has seen improved focus in Herrera’s behind-the-scenes work this spring — and on the field Sunday.

“It’s really interesting how his performance coincides with his engagement so strongly,” Kapler said. “When he’s locked in from every angle, he just plays great baseball. He looks like one of the best players on the field all the time and I think that’s what is happening right now for him.

“We want to maintain this level of focus. It’s wonderful to do it in spring training. Our expectation is that he continues to maintain that focus and concentration and that high level of play throughout the season.”

If Herrera needs a reason to be motivated to maintain his sharp mental focus, there is one getting at-bats at the minor-league complex. Quinn will open the season on the disabled list, but he won’t be out long. There is no landing spot in left or right field for Herrera. Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper are going to play. If Herrera wants to stay in the lineup, he has to lock down the center field job with more performances like Sunday’s.

We’ll begin finding out if he can do that Thursday.

“I feel like this will be a really good year for me and the Phillies and hopefully we can make something special happen,” Herrera said.

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Rhys Hoskins is still sore; Phillies remain confident he will be ready for opening day

Rhys Hoskins is still sore; Phillies remain confident he will be ready for opening day

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Even after backing off a tentative plan of playing Rhys Hoskins on Sunday, the Phillies remain optimistic that he will be ready to play in Thursday’s season opener.

“The game plan is for him to play [Monday] and be ready for opening day,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We feel confident in that.”

Hoskins, the team’s first baseman and cleanup hitter, has not played since last Sunday when he hurt his left shoulder taking an awkward swing. An MRI showed no structural damage and Hoskins has continued to do drills. The Phils had hoped to play Hoskins on Sunday, but he was held out of the game against Baltimore. He was able to take batting practice.

“There’s been steady improvement but there’s still a little bit of soreness,” Kapler said. “Rhys is very important to us and our season and we’re always going to lean toward the side of caution, expecially this close to opening day. We wanted to give him some extra time to improve.”

Hoskins said much of the same: There’s still a little soreness, he’s improving and he’ll be ready for opening day. He said he was confident that he would play in the team’s final Grapefruit League game on Monday afternoon against Tampa Bay in Clearwater.

The Phillies’ lineup Sunday reflected some concern for Hoskins. Maikel Franco moved over from third base and started at first for the second time in three games. He is essentially the team’s backup first baseman. Scott Kingery started at third base. If Hoskins were to miss any time, this would be how the Phillies would cover him. At the moment, however, the team is confident that Hoskins will not miss any time.

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