Phillies

It shouldn't take the Yankees for Citizens Bank Park to fill up like this

It shouldn't take the Yankees for Citizens Bank Park to fill up like this

The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park Monday night against the Yankees was reminiscent of the Phils' Golden Era from 2007-11 when the ballpark was alive every night providing extra juice for the players.

Unfortunately, not all of the 44,136 fans at CBP for the series opener were providing that juice for the Phillies. It was more like half of them.

Citizens Bank Park was about as filled with Yankees fans as Nationals Park used to be with Phillies fans when the Phils were atop the NL East and the Nats were cellar-dwellers. Just walking through the concourse, there were as many Aaron Judge jerseys as there were Aaron Nolas. 

Exiting the stadium in the second inning after Phillies Pregame Live, there was a loud, raucous cheer. I figured it was either a great defensive play by the Phils or their first run. It wasn't. It was the reaction to Gleyber Torres' RBI double.

This was the biggest crowd the Phillies have had in a non-home-opener since September 2013. It was the first time they've drawn 40,000 fans in a non-home-opener since July 2, 2016 against the Royals — a Saturday night on July 4 weekend with a fireworks show.

The Phillies, despite entering Monday night with MLB's 10th-best record, rank 19th in attendance this season with an average of 24,713 per home game. They've filled just 56.6 percent of seats.

Interestingly, the number isn't all that much higher than it was last season, when at this point the Phillies were 27 games under .500. They averaged just 600 fewer fans per game last season.

It may come down to the majority of the city just not yet buying into this team. The Phillies are 41-35 but they've had some horrible, demoralizing losses at key times. Opening day after Gabe Kapler pulled Nola. May 6 in D.C. when Hector Neris' meltdown cost the Phils a series win. Sunday night on national TV, when the Phils couldn't hold onto a 6-2 lead. Those kinds of games count as only one loss each in the standings but from a fan's perspective, they can be signals of a team being a pretender.

It also could be that the majority of casual fans aren't being drawn to the ballpark by any particular player. Nola has been great for a calendar year, but do his 7-inning, 2-run outings bring out the fans? Odubel Herrera's approval rating isn't as high as it probably should be given his skill set. Rhys Hoskins is a difference-making offensive player, but until the team starts winning consistently he's not going to connect with the fan base the way that 2008 core did.

It will be interesting to see how this develops as the summer progresses. The "kids are in school" argument can no longer be used. 

If the Phillies hover in the wild-card race over the next three weeks and make an addition or two at the trade deadline, that could be the tipping point that gets some more fans to the park.

But even if they don't, this is a team that could sure use some additional fan support. Phillies fans claimed for years during the down period that they'd come back once the team was on the rise with young players and a legitimate plan was in place. Well, all of that is true now and the numbers haven't changed much.

J.T. Realmuto’s arbitration hearing headlines big week for Phillies

J.T. Realmuto’s arbitration hearing headlines big week for Phillies

CLEARWATER, Fla. — This is going to be a busy week for the Phillies.

The first full-squad workout of the spring takes place Monday. New manager Joe Girardi, general manager Matt Klentak and managing partner John Middleton will all speak to the full squad before it takes the field.

On Wednesday, J.T. Realmuto's salary arbitration case will be heard in Phoenix.

Closer Hector Neris' salary arbitration case will be heard Friday in Phoenix.

And Saturday marks the start of the Grapefruit League schedule. The Phillies travel to Lakeland that day to play the Detroit Tigers.

Realmuto's arbitration hearing is the most fascinating matter on tap for the week. The All-Star catcher, who made $5.9 million last season, is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies have come in at $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides and pick one figure or the other. There is no middle ground.

Management came out on top in six of the first seven arbitration cases heard around baseball this month, but Realmuto would seem to have a good shot at winning one for the players based on his strong 2019 season. In addition to making his second All-Star team, he was named catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto is in his third and final year of arbitration and is scheduled to become a free agent after this season. To date, the highest-paid catcher in that class was Matt Wieters, who avoided a hearing with Baltimore and made $8.275 million 2015. Catcher Mike Napoli actually made more — $9.4 million — in a negotiated settlement with the Texas Rangers in 2012, but he was in his fourth year of arbitration because of his Super-Two status with the Anaheim Angels in 2009.

So, no matter how the arbitration panel rules, Realmuto's 2020 salary will be a record for an arbitration-eligible catcher.

Realmuto will be present for the hearing, as will Phillies officials. A ruling is generally made within 24 hours.

Hearings can sometimes create bad blood between a player and a team, but Realmuto has a pretty good handle on the situation. He knows it's just business and he's willing to go down this path to help boost the salary structure for his catching brethren.

Realmuto will remain a focal point of Phillies camp even after his hearing. The Phillies are hoping to preempt his free agency with a long-term contract extension that could come before or around opening day.

"Once we have a resolution to the one-year number, we'll come to the table and see if we can find common ground on a long-term deal," general manager Matt Klentak said. "I hope that we can. It would be nice to have some resolution prior to opening day just so it's not a distraction to mostly the player but even to us during the season. If we can't (negotiate an extension by opening day), we could always continue those talks during the season or even into free agency if we can."

Realmuto is expected to seek a contract extension of at least five years with an average value that could approach or top Joe Mauer's record $23 million AAV for a catcher.

The highest-paid Phillie ever is watching the Realmuto situation closely.

"I know there's a guy in (the clubhouse) that we need to sign to an extension," Bryce Harper said Sunday. "I think having a guy like J.T. for the next six years would help us.

"He's the best catcher in baseball. It all starts up the middle. You look at all the best teams in baseball. They usually have a pretty good staff and a really good catcher. So, I think having a guy like J.T. would be huge for us."

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Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve

Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Even Bryce Harper’s wife wonders if the Phillies did enough to improve this winter.

Harper reported to Phillies spring training Sunday with much less fanfare than he did a year ago. There was no top-of-the-dugout, televised news conference heralding his 13-year, $330-million contract. Instead, he stepped into the hallway outside the clubhouse and took questions from reporters on subjects ranging from his connection with Phillies fans to his personal goals for the coming season.

He also weighed in on his old team, the Washington Nationals, winning the World Series, the cheating Houston Astros and his homie, the very available Kris Bryant.

The topic inquiring minds most wanted to discuss was the off-season work done by Phillies management.

A year ago, as he vetted potential free-agent destinations, Harper sought assurances from Phillies managing partner John Middleton that the club would continually bring in the talent needed to win a championship.

This winter, the Phillies made two significant free-agent additions in pitcher Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Both were on board by mid-December and the Phillies, despite holes in the pitching staff, made only minor roster tweaks the rest of the off-season.

So, the natural question for Harper as he reported to his second Phillies camp Sunday morning was: Did the team do enough this off-season to win?

“My wife actually asked me that question the other night,” Harper said. “She’s super into it and everything like that.

“You know,” he added. “I believe we did.”

Harper mentioned the addition of Wheeler and the potential upside of having a healthy Jake Arrieta in the rotation and a healthy Seranthony Dominguez in the bullpen. He mentioned the possibility of prospects Spencer Howard, Alec Bohm and Damon Jones having an impact in the rotation — clearly, Harper has done his homework — and of non-roster relievers Drew Storen and Bud Norris helping. He mentioned how good Aaron Nola and Hector Neris have been.

“We’re going to score runs, we were able to do that last year, and if our bullpen can hold and our starters can, as well, I think we’ll be OK,” Harper said.

The Phillies could have done more this winter had they been willing to exceed the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in payroll. They still might end up over the tax later this season, especially if they are in contention, but for now are in a wait-and-see mode.

One player who would surely help the Phillies now is Bryant, the slugging third baseman from the Chicago Cubs and Harper’s longtime pal from their days growing up together in Las Vegas. Bryant, who will be a free agent after the 2021 season, is on the trading block. Both he and Harper are represented by agent Scott Boras.

Bryant, who will make $18.6 million this season, might be a player that the Phillies would be willing to go over the tax line for, but the Phils and Cubs haven’t been able to line up as trade partners. The Cubs are looking for young pitching and the Phillies, with one of the lowest-rated farm systems in baseball, don’t have much beyond Howard, who is pretty much untouchable.

A year ago, Harper banged the drum for a possible Phillies-Mike Trout union. Alas, Trout signed a contract extension with the Angels that will prevent him from becoming a free agent.

Given the opportunity to bang the drum for the Phillies to go get Bryant, Harper exercised restraint and some long-term vision.

“You have to have certain guys on your team that make less money to also have guys that make more money, as well,” Harper said. “Kris, of course, you want an All-Star-caliber player, but we have (third base prospect) Bohm. We have a big-time third baseman we were able to get in the draft.

"Of course, any time you're able to add an All-Star player, you're going to want to add an All-Star player. But you have to be able to know that you developed a player in the minor leagues that can also help you at third base, and Bohm could be that guy for us. He could come up and be one of the best third basemen in the second half or whatever it is.

"As a team, you have to have guys like that, that are only making the minimum so you can go and spend at the deadline. If the Cubs aren't where they are, you never know at the half what they're going to be doing. He could be cheaper at [that] point. But I can't give up Spencer Howard and Bohm, and possibly give up our whole future, for a year and a half of KB if we don't sign him to an extension. And I know there's a guy in there that we need to sign to an extension.”

That guy is catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies will look to sign him to a contract extension in the coming weeks so he does not become a free agent after the season. Realmuto could look to top Joe Mauer’s annual salary of $23 million, a record for a catcher.

“I think having a guy like J.T. for the next six years would help us,” Harper said.

As for other matters that Harper touched on:

Personal goals

“Just hitting for average. What did I hit, .260 last year? I think get my average back up and get my on-base back up, get to 100 walks. It really bugged me last year when I was at 99 and I didn’t get it. I really pride myself on my on-base and slugging percentage and things like that, so individually at the plate I just want to get better and doing everything I can to help this team win. I want to keep hitting with guys on base because that’s always fun.”

The Nationals winning the World Series

“I watched through the whole series and I never have before. I’m so happy for those guys over there. I played there for eight years and enjoyed my time with the players, but I’m happy to turn the page and be here in Philly.”

On the cheating Astros

“It’s very tough to see that. But, I think, for me, it’s more the guys that come up for the first time and they’re at the back end of the bullpen and they know it and they get hit or shelled and they’re never coming to the big leagues again because a team had their signs. It’s those guys that I feel bad for.”

On his first year with Philadelphia fans

“It’s funny, in the offseason, all my buddies were like, ‘How’d you like Philly?’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I loved it. Like, it was unbelievable.’ So I think people might look at me and go, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy.’ But no, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fans. I enjoyed the people. That blue-collar feel, that blue-collar mentality. They want you to work hard, they hold you accountable and that made me a better player. I can’t thank the fans enough for last year, for really welcoming me and my family. I’m really looking forward to what we have this year and what we can do.”

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