Humbled by demotion to minors, Nick Pivetta gives Phillies (and himself) something to feel good about in return to majors

Humbled by demotion to minors, Nick Pivetta gives Phillies (and himself) something to feel good about in return to majors

It’s a 64-mile drive from Philadelphia to Allentown. Nick Pivetta knows that because he spent the last five weeks making the drive. He had come out of spring training in Clearwater as the Phillies’ No. 2 starter and everybody’s pick to click as baseball’s breakout pitcher of the year only to be demoted to Triple A after four poor starts to open the season.

“I think anybody grows from something like that,” Pivetta said of his demotion. “We saw what happened with (Hector) Neris last year and with me, I had some time down there, time to collect my thoughts, a lot of driving, a lot of different stuff.

“It was my goal to come back here and just compete and give this team a chance to win and that's what I focused on instead of putting pressure on myself.”

Pivetta, 26, returned to the Phillies’ rotation on Tuesday night and played a big role in the team’s 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in rainy conditions at Citizens Bank Park (see observations). After an inauspicious beginning in which he allowed three runs on two homers and a hit batsman within the first four batters of the game, the big right-hander proceeded to retire 10 straight on his way to giving his club five innings of three-run ball. Pivetta chipped in with an important hit at the plate as the Phils scored twice in the third and twice in the fourth to come back from a 3-0 deficit and take the lead. The bullpen locked it down and the Phils improve to 32-22 overall and 19-10 at home.

Bryce Harper and Cesar Hernandez had the big hits for the Phillies and the Dominican trio of Edgar Garcia, Seranthony Dominguez and Hector Neris pitched four scoreless innings to protect the lead.

But the game might have been out of reach if Pivetta hadn't saved himself after that poor first inning.

“Nick is the story of the game,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “That was a real gutsy performance in sup-optimal conditions. We always say, ‘Who can be toughest in those kind of conditions?’ I thought Nick was pretty gutsy in those conditions. It wasn't perfect. There was some falling behind (in counts) at times, but he really showed up when he needed to in the most important moments.”

Did Pivetta’s ability to stop the damage after the first inning and rebound over the next four innings earn him another start this weekend in Dodger Stadium?

One would think yes.

But Kapler would not commit.

“That's something that we're going to discuss,” he said. “We're not quite there yet.”

Pivetta expects to start for the Phillies in five days.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “I want to start again in five days and I want to be here for the rest of the year.”

There was something a little different about Pivetta as he spoke with reporters after the game.

He seemed to speak a little more softly than in the past. Frankly, he seemed a little humbled by his trip to the minors.

“It was just nice being back in here, being with the guys,” he said. “It felt normal again, felt good. Being able to do that and go out and do what I did tonight, there were a lot of positive things to end off of and take into my next start.

“I think everybody puts pressure on themselves. I might have put a little more than I probably should have (early in the season), but that's just growing as a player and proving that you can get through those moments. I feel like I did it tonight.”

The biggest thing he learned in Triple A?

“I think it kind of showed in a way tonight,” Pivetta said. “When I got in some trouble, bouncing back, competing, making pitches when I really needed to because I knew I could get out of it based on my stuff.”

So maybe this was a double win for the Phillies. A win on the scoreboard and win for Pivetta’s confidence, one that could keep paying dividends. Time will tell. 

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Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

SAN DEIGO — On Day 1 of the winter meetings, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak reiterated his team’s need to add a starting infielder.

“That's been the focus,” Klentak said Monday afternoon. “Today is Day 1, but technically we've been here for almost two full days. It feels like that is what we have mostly been working on since we've been here. We're just trying to explore all different avenues. Single-year and multi-year fits. Trade and free-agent fits. In the way that the pitching market has really come together quickly, this one doesn't seem to be coming together quite as quickly. But not because there aren't options.”

The free-agent pitching market is indeed moving quickly. Stephen Strasburg returned to the Washington Nationals on a staggering seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday and Gerrit Cole is expected to blow past that deal in the coming days. The Phillies made some (sort of) news Monday when their signing of Zack Wheeler became official after the right-hander passed his physical exam.

“We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top and give us a chance to win any series against the best pitchers in baseball,” Klentak said. “I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league.”

New manager Joe Girardi concurred.

“We have 1 and 1-A,” he said.

Now, the question is: Who will play second base, third base and shortstop behind Wheeler and Nola?

Scott Kingery and Jean Segura are likely to hold down two of the spots. We say “likely” because there’s always the chance that Kingery could play center field (right now it looks like Adam Haseley will be the guy there) and Segura could be traded if the Phils could find someone to take on the three years and $45 million that remain on his contract. That won’t be easy, even if the Phils eat some salary.

Ideally, the Phillies would land a shortstop like free-agent Didi Gregorius on a one-year or manageable multi-year deal and move Segura from shortstop to second base and play Kingery at third. The Phillies have had serious talks with Gregorius, but have to be ready to pivot if they can’t lock him up. As Klentak said, there are options in the infield. Most of them, however, are not shortstops. A free-agent second baseman like Jonathan Schoop could be a good fallback if the Phils can’t sign Gregorius. He had 23 doubles and 23 homers in 433 at-bats for the Twins last season. Signing Schoop would mean that Segura would have to stay at shortstop or move to third with Kingery playing shortstop.

There are plenty of options at third base, from veteran Todd Frazier to top-of-the-market superstars Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. There are also versatile veterans like Starlin Castro and even Brock Holt who could be used in mix-and-match, platoon scenarios.

“There’s a bunch of different ways we can go,” Klentak said. “We can go a shorter-term variety, we can look at a longer-term solution, we can look at the trade market, we can look at the free-agent market and we can look into piecing it together with multiple players potentially, which not only would help the starting infield, but would improve the bench. That’s where a lot of our focus this week is being turned.”

All right, let’s address those top-of-the-market names: The Phils have had contact with the representatives for Rendon and Donaldson and they have not tapped out of those markets, but signing one of those big-money players remains a longshot. The Phils signed Bryce Harper for $330 million last winter, Wheeler for $118 million this winter and still have to budget for a potential $100 million contract extension for J.T. Realmuto. Rendon is expected to command well over $200 million and Donaldson should get more than $25 million per season when he lands. The Phils are creeping up on the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in total payroll. Managing partner John Middleton would go over the tax for the right opportunity. There’s a lot of never-say-never here, but …

“Ownership has always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything,” Klentak said. “If there's an opportunity to bring something to them we will. I think the most notable example was signing Jake Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the tax threshold. Our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not.”

With Wheeler on board, an infielder on the way, the return to good health of some key players and the projected improvement of others, Klentak is confident of this:

“We are definitely building a team that we expect will contend in 2020,” he said.

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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