Kapler wants Phillies to be bold — like the Super Bowl champs

Kapler wants Phillies to be bold — like the Super Bowl champs

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The manager’s opening speech is one of the grand traditions of spring training. Rules are covered (work hard, be on time, usually covers it), goals are established (Hey, everyone is tied for first place, to hell with the skeptics, let’s go out and win the World Series!) and an overall tone is set for camp and beyond.

Giving that speech for the first time is exciting and even a little nerve-racking. Gabe Kapler began thinking about what he would say to his team months ago. And now, with Phillies pitchers and catchers opening camp on Wednesday and the full squad set to report over the weekend and hit the fields on Monday, Kapler’s time to address the entire group for the first time is almost here.

“I know what that message is with a tremendous amount of clarity,” the new skipper, looking tan, muscular and ready to kick some ass, said Tuesday. “It’s critically important. It’s everything.”

Kapler was asked for a taste of what he will tell his troops.

“I can give you a little bit,” he said. “One of the questions I’ve been asking a lot of our players is what does it mean to play boldly? What does it mean to deliver a pitch boldly? What does it mean to take a swing in the batter’s box boldly? What does it mean to communicate boldly?”

Kapler went on to talk about conviction, courage and fearlessness, attributes he wants to see in his club. He wants to build an environment where there is no fear so his players can be comfortable and bold.

And if they are bold, they can shock some people.

Just like another team in town did recently.

“We would be foolish to not take cues from what the Eagles accomplished,” Kapler said of the Super Bowl champs. “Not just over the last couple weeks, but over the summer when coach (Doug) Pederson addressed his team and said, ‘This is what the world thinks and this is what we think you are. We get some development from our young quarterback, and we get some development on defense, we’re going to be much better than people think.’ 

"I think if everybody on our roster takes a small step forward, we have an opportunity to shock people. That’s the message we’re going to convey in camp. Ultimately, the message is we can win. It’s not like a delusional statement. It’s more like we all take that small step forward, we all get a little bit better, we all develop just enough where we surprise people.

“I think it means being very competitive when September rolls around. So being in the mix, being in the hunt, fighting for the National League East. I don’t think there has to be any major declaration made here. We’re fighting for the National League East in September.”

On paper, the Phillies don’t have the starting pitching to dethrone the Washington Nationals.

But Kapler is nothing if not positive. He runs on positive, can-do energy the way some people run on Wawa coffee.

“Yes,” he said when asked if the Phillies have the personnel to win.

He raved about what he has seen in early workouts from pitchers Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta, two big arms who know how to show it off in the bullpen.

Of course, the Phillies are still looking for more starting pitchers and may end up bringing in an arm in the coming days or weeks (see story).

Kapler has been in Clearwater bonding with early-arriving players, stressing boldness, for two weeks. He watched the Super Bowl at “a tiny wine bar in Tampa.” The fitness buff did not drink, but he had two bacon burgers, and you can bet he passed on the bun.

“It was one of my favorite three-hour stretches that I can remember in a really long time,” Kapler said. “It was quiet. I just locked into the game. It was really remarkable. And, obviously, we talked about the cues that we can take from the Eagles. We talked in this conversation about being bold. Well, those guys were nothing if not bold. The play-calling. The relentlessness on the field. Across the board, they played with boldness. So that was an inspiring day.”

Now, the ball has been handed off to the Phillies.

And Gabe Kapler has a message for the lads:

Be bold.

Aaron Nola among MLB's best bargains, and here's what next deal could look like

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Aaron Nola among MLB's best bargains, and here's what next deal could look like

Would you believe that only two players in MLB have been a better bargain in 2018 than Aaron Nola?

Spotrac, the well-known contracts website, put out its list of baseball's best values so far this season and Nola ranks No. 1 among all starting pitchers.

He also ranks No. 3 among all players, behind only Boston's Mookie Betts and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez.

Nola made his first All-Star team by going 12-3 with a 2.30 ERA in his first 20 starts. He leads the NL in wins, has the lowest home run rate in the league, ranks second in innings and ERA, third in WHIP and fourth in strikeouts. 

He has legitimately pitched like a Cy Young-winner with nearly 60 percent of the season in the books.

At some point soon, the conversation will shift toward a long-term extension. Nola is set to go through the arbitration process for the first time this winter and cannot become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

This is the last season Nola will be this drastically underpaid relative to his performance. The Phils could explore a contract that buys out his three arbitration years and the first two or three free-agent years. They did this with Odubel Herrera. 

League-wide, teams routinely do this with star players in order to save some money in those first couple post-arbitration years. Players, especially pitchers, value the long-term security because of the frequency of long-term arm injuries.

How much money are we talking? The Braves, in a similar position with Freddie Freeman before his first arbitration year, signed him to an eight-year, $135 million deal. It made sense for Freeman because it's life-changing money, and it made sense for the Braves because they got his first five post-arbitration years for an average of $21.3 million per year. That's a team-friendly deal for a perennial MVP candidate like Freeman.

The Cardinals, in the same spot with Carlos Martinez, struck a five-year, $51 million contract. It's a good deal for the Cards because they get Martinez's first two post-arb years for $23 million and hold club options for $17 million and $18 million the following two years.

That Martinez contract seems like more of a template for Nola than the Freeman megadeal, but Nola is a better and more accomplished pitcher than Martinez. If his extension has the same length as Martinez's, one would think it would be closer to $70 million than $50 million.

Regardless, Nola's cost-effectiveness is a major reason the Phillies are in first place at the All-Star break with a real chance to add top talent by the trade deadline and/or this offseason. If Nola was already making $25 million per year, the Phillies' spending options wouldn't be as seemingly limitless as they are right now.

A long-term extension with Nola would have obvious benefits to the Phils because it could allow them to save some money in 2022 and 2023, when more of their young players will have richer deals and the payroll will be more of a concern.

As Phillies wait for answer on Manny Machado, keep an eye on J.A. Happ

As Phillies wait for answer on Manny Machado, keep an eye on J.A. Happ

As the Phillies wait for the Baltimore Orioles to make a decision on where they will send Manny Machado, here is another name that is on the team's list of July trade considerations:

J.A. Happ of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The left-hander ranks behind Machado and his Baltimore teammate, Zach Britton, on the Phillies' wish list, but there is definite interest, according to a league source.

In fact, the Blue Jays have spent much time scouting the Phillies' minor-league system recently, according to a league source.

Happ, 35, is in the final season of a three-year, $36 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. In 19 starts, he is 10-6 with a 4.29 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.

Happ, of course, was originally Phillies property, selected by the club in the third round of the 2004 draft out of Northwestern University. He debuted with the Phillies in 2007 and earned a World Series ring with the club in 2008. He finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 and was traded to Houston as part of the package for Roy Oswalt the next summer.

The Phillies have not had a left-hander make a start for them since late in the 2016 season. Having a lefty in the rotation is not imperative, but there would be value to it in a pennant race — and beyond — if the Phils could land the right one. Landing a lefty starter could open the possibility of using Vince Velasquez as a one-inning bullpen weapon in the postseason.

The Phillies have long been connected to Cole Hamels, another lefty starter who, of course, has significant Phillies roots. However, there has been no evidence to date that the Phils are pursuing Hamels, who has a $20 million contract option for next season that can be bought out for $6 million.

Neither Happ nor Hamels have pitched especially well lately. Happ, however, was named to the American League All-Star team on Sunday, a nod to his consistency earlier in the season.

Machado update

As for Machado, the Phillies, according to well-placed sources, are one of two or three teams — the others being the Dodgers and Brewers — awaiting a verdict in the Machado sweepstakes. Some industry sources question whether the Brewers have the prospects to get a deal done. The Dodgers and Phillies do have the prospects. The Phillies would be willing to part with a more significant package if Britton, a lefty closer, is included in the deal. It would not be surprising if there is a resolution to all this later this week.

Machado, a slugging left-side infielder, is eligible to become a free agent at season's end. The Phillies are willing to trade for him now and take their chances that they can sign him later this summer or in the offseason, provided they trade from depth areas of their farm system and don't mortgage their future.

Over the weekend, club president Andy MacPhail said the team's play — first place in the NL East at the All-Star break — had put management in a position where it needed "to try to augment our current group to try to preserve our place in the standings for as long as we can."

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