Phillies

How will Gabe Kapler's bench shape up?

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How will Gabe Kapler's bench shape up?

As the confetti gets swept up along Broad Street and the Flyers and Sixers push into the second halves of their seasons, Philadelphia’s sporting calendar moves on. The Phillies report to Clearwater for spring training next week with a new manager, a new bat in the lineup and a couple of veteran additions in the bullpen.

New skipper Gabe Kapler will look for veteran stability from relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, both signed as free agents. First baseman Carlos Santana, with a career on-base percentage of .365, has also joined the club as a free-agent signing.

Neshek and Hunter will join a returning cast of relievers that showed promise in the second half of last season. The Phillies made no upgrades to their starting rotation this winter. One may still come before the March 29 opener in Atlanta, but for now, management is committed to giving its core of young starters innings and the opportunity to show improvement.

Innings, however, could be a challenge with a staff prone to running high pitch counts. Therefore, there is a pretty good chance that the Phillies will open the season with an eight-man bullpen, which would mean just a four-man bench. The bench is hugely important in the National League and Kapler has promised to use his entire roster. A premium will be placed on versatility.

So, as camp gets set to start, let’s take a look at some of the decisions the team will have to make on its bench.

There are two key areas that will get significant focus: the backup catching position and the backup infield spot.

Catchers
Jorge Alfaro’s game still needs polish, especially behind the plate, but he is out of minor-league options. That means he is going to get significant playing time, probably No. 1 reps, and a chance to finish his development in the major leagues. Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp both return. Both can be sent to the minors or one could end up being traded. Rupp’s experience and ability to pop a long ball off the bench could help him stick, but Knapp is a switch-hitter with some plate discipline and the ability to play first base. That could help his chances. It could also factor in the decision if the Phils wanted to carry three catchers.

Nonroster invitees Logan Moore, Matt McBride and Eric Fryer could also be in the mix.

Infield
J.P. Crawford is moving in at shortstop. The Phillies need to carry a versatile Andres Blanco-type of utility infielder who can play the position if needed. Nonroster player Pedro Florimon could be that guy and his ability to play the outfield, as well, should help his chances. Florimon played well for the Phillies at Triple A and later in the majors last season and the team was obviously impressed as it re-signed him to a minor-league contract early in the offseason.

But the position is so important that management did not stop at Florimon. It has created competition with the signings of versatile veterans Adam Rosales and Ryan Flaherty. Also, Jesmuel Valentin, who hung around until the last cut last spring, will return. Scott Kingery will be in camp and should be a factor in the infield sooner rather than later. But he is likely to open the season in Triple A, a move that would delay his potential free agency until after the 2024 season.

Tommy Joseph returns and will be in line to make the team as a backup first baseman. His power (43 homers the last two seasons) is attractive, but he lacks versatility. Look for Joseph to get a lot of looks in Grapefruit League play as the Phils try to entice a trade partner from the American League, where Joseph might fit better as a designated hitter/first baseman.

Outfield
Barring a trade, there is already depth in the outfield as Kapler essentially has four regulars for three spots. Rhys Hoskins is set in left field and Odubel Herrera in center. Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr could platoon in right, a strategy that would strengthen the bench, though Altherr is gifted enough defensively to play anywhere in the outfield and that will give Kapler other lineup options. Still, the Phillies will look to carry a fifth outfielder. That could come from the cast of utility infield candidates who also carry outfielder’s gloves in their equipment bags.

It could be nonroster invite Collin Cowgill. Or it could be longtime prospect Roman Quinn. Injuries have robbed Quinn of playing time most of his minor-league career. But the speedy switch-hitter will turn 25 in May. It might be time to see what he can do in a complementary role in the majors, and his skills on both sides of the ball could be a weapon. Quinn will get a good look in Clearwater.

Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

LAKELAND, Fla. — Nick Pivetta says it doesn’t matter what role he pitches in this season, that he just wants to have fun playing baseball — that’s something that was missing last season — and help the Phillies win games.
 
But deep down inside, Pivetta desires another chance to pitch in the starting rotation. That’s why he spent his off-season working on his changeup.
 
“Every day,” he said. 
 
“I need a fourth pitch to make this starting rotation,” he added. “For me to take my next step, that's the pitch I'm going to have to have.”
 
Pivetta made his spring debut in the Phillies’ exhibition opener Saturday against the Detroit Tigers. In two innings of work, he threw 35 pitches. Seven of them were changeups. He will continue to work on the pitch all spring as he competes for the fifth starter’s job against Vince Velasquez and dark horse candidate Ranger Suarez.
 
Pivetta is 18-28 with a 5.42 ERA in 71 starts for the Phillies over the last three seasons. The clock is ticking on the 27-year-old right-hander. It’s time for him to turn some of his huge potential into consistent performance. The Phillies thought they were going to get that from Pivetta last year. They awarded him with the second start of the season, but he was sent to the minors just a few weeks later. He eventually made it back to the majors and bounced between the rotation and the bullpen. Along the way, he butted heads with manager Gabe Kapler and struggled to adapt to some of the philosophies of pitching coach Chris Young. Baseball wasn’t much fun. It never is when you have a 5.38 ERA.
 
It’s a clean slate for Pivetta now. Joe Girardi is in as manager. Bryan Price is in as pitching coach. Pivetta is upbeat.
 
“I just want to have fun playing baseball,” he said after his outing Saturday. The Phillies and Tigers played to an 8-8 tie on a chilly Florida day.
 
Using a more compact delivery and shorter arm action — he said he’s simply trying to be “more efficient” — Pivetta enjoyed a 1-2-3 first inning with his fastball reaching 96 mph. He allowed two doubles, two singles and two runs in the second inning. Two of the hits were soft.
 
Girardi has said the competition for the fifth job won’t begin in earnest until the pitchers have made a couple of starts and broken in their spikes. But Girardi liked what he saw of Pivetta his first time out.
 
“His velocity was good,” Girardi said. “He used his fastball down in the zone and up in the zone well. I thought his curveball had bite to it. His slider was pretty consistent. He threw some changeups. I thought his tempo was great. To me, you can really build off that. I don’t necessarily look at the early numbers, right? He didn’t walk people. He was ahead in the count. You start doing that and your location gets better as you get more innings under your belt and you’ve got something.”
 
Girardi had watched a lot of video of Pivetta. He liked the more compact delivery.
 
“I think his fastball is going to get on people, especially as he starts to use his off-speed more," Girardi said.
 
Girardi also liked what he saw of Pivetta’s spring project, the changeup.
 
“I think it’s a weapon for him that he needs to learn how to use to right-handers and left-handers,” the manager said. “I think he’ll continue to develop it. We’ve got time to develop it down here and we’ll see how it goes.”
 
Pivetta lost confidence in his changeup last season and threw it just 1.2 percent of the time. When he landed in the bullpen, he threw mostly just fastballs and curveballs.
 
So far in camp, pitchers have raved about their dealings with Price, whose style is to have pitchers work to their strengths. 
 
Pivetta recalled his first conversation with Price this winter. The two spoke about the importance of improving the pitcher’s changeup.
 
“With Price, when I first talked to him on the phone, something that really clicked with me was just making sure the pitch is down in the zone,” Pivetta said. “Just make sure it's down. Let the pitch do its work.
 
“Bryan is really, really good. I've really enjoyed Bryan. He has a lot of really good knowledge. I look forward to continuing to get to know him more on a personal level and really dive into the knowledge he has. He has such a vast and long history in major league baseball.”
 
The Phils host Pittsburgh in Clearwater on Sunday. Aaron Nola will start. Velasquez will get the ball Monday against Baltimore.

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Phillies, J.T. Realmuto move on to Act 2 of contract drama

Phillies, J.T. Realmuto move on to Act 2 of contract drama

CLEARWATER, Fla. — All along, J.T. Realmuto's salary arbitration hearing was just going to be the first act in one of the biggest storylines of the spring in Phillies camp.

Regardless of whether the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Realmuto or against him, he was going to be well paid in 2020.

Realmuto ended up losing the case but will make $10 million this season, a 69 percent raise from last season and a record amount for a catcher eligible for salary arbitration. 

Realmuto, who had sought to make $12.4 million, said he was not disappointed with the amount of money he will make, but in the arbitration system that views catchers through a different prism than other position players.

"It's so outdated," he said. "There's a separate catchers' market. That's what the team's main case was on, that you can't go outside of the catchers' market. But if you line my numbers up with position players, that's where our figure comes into play. It's never happened before where catchers go out of the catchers' market, but it's not in the rules that says you can't. The team knows that they had a pretty strong case just for that and they took advantage of it.

"I wanted to do something for future catchers and that didn't work out for us. In that aspect, I'm disappointed, but I'm not disappointed in my salary."

Now that the hearing has come and gone, the Phillies and Realmuto will turn their attention to negotiating a long-term contract extension.

Realmuto said the hearing left him with no ill will toward the club and he's still open to a deal.

"What we went through in arbitration, what we went through in the hearing doesn't change anything from my outlook," the All-Star catcher said.

The stakes will be a lot higher in Act 2 of this contract drama because Realmuto can become a free agent after this season.

The Phillies have said they'd like to get a deal done by opening day so that gives them about five weeks.

With the ability to walk at the end of the season, Realmuto has more leverage in extension talks than he did in arbitration. But playing out the season would come with risks such as health and poor performance. Are they risks Realmuto would be willing to take?

"I haven't really thought about that yet, to be honest," he said. "Me and my agent have been focused on arbitration for the last couple of months. We haven't had those conversations. We'll have those conversations and relay them to (general manager Matt Klentak)."

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is expected to seek a deal that could approach or beat $23 million per season — that would match Joe Mauer's record average annual value for a catcher — over five or six years.

He was asked if a record AAV was a goal.

"Again, I haven't even spoken with my agent about that," he said. "I have no idea what's going to happen. I can't predict the future. I don't know where we're going to go with it. Obviously, we'll have those discussions. Whether it matches up or not, that's to be determined."

Realmuto went through a full workout Friday. After taking batting practice at Spectrum Field, he stopped and chatted with John Middleton, the team's managing partner, who had been watching quietly off to the side. The two men talked for about 10 minutes and walked off the field together. Maybe they were talking about who has the best grouper on Clearwater Beach. Maybe they weren't.

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