Jerad Eickhoff's rehab takes next step, but will he reclaim his spot?

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Jerad Eickhoff's rehab takes next step, but will he reclaim his spot?

BALTIMORE — Jerad Eickhoff, out all season with a lat injury suffered early in spring training, has taken the next step toward returning to the Phillies.

Making a rehab start in the first game of Double A Reading's doubleheader Tuesday morning, Eickhoff threw 53 pitches and allowed three runs (two earned) over 3⅓ innings. He struck out three, walked one and allowed a solo home run just before being pulled.

Eickhoff will likely make a couple more rehab starts to build up his pitch count to the 85-90 range.

Keep in mind, too, that with Zach Eflin pitching well, there's no rush on the Phillies' part to get Eickhoff back in the rotation. As long as all five starters are healthy, it makes the most sense to ease Eickhoff back in and start him once he's fully up to speed and confident. 

About 14 months ago, many were high on Eickhoff. In 41 starts in 2015 and '16, he had a 3.44 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.0 walks.

Then he struggled through pretty much all of 2017, going 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. His walk rate nearly doubled, and his opponents hit .281 after hitting .243 the prior two seasons.

Eickhoff's curveball last season just didn't have the same bite, and hitters teed off on his fastball to the tune of a .341 batting average.

The hope is that the 27-year-old is over the back injuries and will revert to form. His swinging strike rate has decreased each season and that's something this Phils regime — from the front office to the dugout — values heavily.

"We're going to set our sights on him joining the rotation," GM Matt Klentak said Tuesday. "Jerad, based on his track record, I think that's what we need to be focused on. He's earned that. When that day comes, we still have a few weeks until that day comes, but when that time comes we'll make the best decision we can based on the information that we have at that moment. A lot can change between now and his activation date."

Bullpen move
The Phillies activated Mark Leiter Jr. off the 10-day DL and he is available out of the bullpen tonight.

Leiter missed two months with a flexor strain in his right elbow. 

Leiter's return gives the Phillies another useful, versatile bullpen arm. He had several very impressive outings in 2017, both out of the rotation and 'pen.

While Gabe Kapler did not rule out Leiter one day returning to spot-start duty, he said Tuesday that it simply comes down to the Phillies needing a reliever more than they need another starter right now.

"He did a great job starting for us in spring training and he looked like a guy who could get outs and go through a lineup two or three times," Kapler said of Leiter. "So I think there's some profile there as a starter. He's got four usable pitches and command.

"That said, we have some starters who are performing so we kind of go based on need and fit for our roster. That's not to say he won't ever end up as a starter. It's a possibility, but right now on our team, we need a reliever more than we need a starter."

Gabe Kapler still leaning toward Cesar Hernandez as his leadoff man

Gabe Kapler still leaning toward Cesar Hernandez as his leadoff man

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When we last saw Cesar Hernandez, he was heading out the door of Citizens Bank Park after the 2018 season and looking at an uncertain winter.

The second baseman survived another offseason of trade speculation and is back with the Phillies — probably in a familiar spot in the batting order.

The Phils have upgraded their lineup with several new additions — Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto — but Hernandez appears to still be the favorite to hit in the leadoff spot.

“With Cesar and his performance in the first half last year, he is an ideal leadoff hitter,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “He sees a lot of pitches, he fouls balls off, has a great eye at the plate, spits on balls in the dirt, can drive the ball out of the ballpark. Those are all things that we value in the top spot of the lineup.

“On the flipside, McCutchen has all the same characteristics. Both of those guys could be options for the leadoff spot. I think we’re going to give Cesar a long look and from my perspective, he has all the characteristics and all of the talent to take down that leadoff spot.”

Hernandez’ batting average dropped from .294 to .253 and his OPS from .793 to .718 last season. He struck out a career-high 155 times. Much of Hernandez’ decline came after he cracked a bone in his foot in early July and played through it.

Despite his struggles, Hernandez walked a career-high 95 times and maintained a solid .356 on-base percentage.

If Hernandez bats leadoff, McCutchen could hit somewhere in the middle of the order. He is a consistent 30-double, 20-homer guy.

Kapler places a lot of value in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Newcomer Segura, who has carried a .308 batting average the last three seasons, would seem to be a good fit there.

“I think Segura could be a two-hole guy,” Kapler said. “But I also think he can hit three, too. And I think he can hit five or six. A lot of that is going to be dependent on how he's performing, how others are performing, and who the guy on the mound is.”

Kapler will communicate with players, especially the new guys, to find out if there are spots in the lineup where they feel most comfortable, but, ultimately, he is the one who will sign the lineup card.

“The thing that excites me most is, all of these guys — McCutchen, Segura, Hernandez, Rhys (Hoskins), Realmuto — all of those guys can hit one through five, one through six,” Kapler said. “And Odubel Herrera, when Odubel is on, he hits anywhere in the lineup, too, and you can't take him out of the lineup.”

This is the way things shape up in Kapler’s mind on Feb. 15. There is still a long way to go before opening day March 28. And it’s all subject to change if the Phillies are able to put Manny Machado or Bryce Harper in red pinstripes. Nothing has changed on that front. The Phils would still like to land one of them and they are awaiting an answer.

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Contact machine Jean Segura is ready to rumble in Philly

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Contact machine Jean Segura is ready to rumble in Philly

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Reporters didn’t need to track down a phone number for Jean Segura to get his reaction to the trade that sent him from the Seattle Mariners to the Phillies in early December.

All they had to do was look at Segura’s social media accounts.

Moments after the deal went down, a video of Segura appeared on the Internet. He was smiling and dancing.

Segura arrived in Phillies camp on Saturday morning. He was still smiling.

“I was more happy because I’m getting an opportunity to win,” he said of his initial reaction to the deal. “Seattle is over. Now I’m in Philly. I know for sure people are going to ask me what happened in Seattle. They had their problems. Every team has their problems. Now I’m with the Phillies and I’m looking forward.”

Segura spent the last two seasons as the Mariners' starting shortstop. He played well and even signed a five-year contract extension with the club in June 2017.

The Mariners were playing well at 24 games over .500 early last July but collapsed down the stretch and didn’t make the playoffs. Team chemistry suffered. The low point came in early September when Segura and teammate Dee Gordon were involved in a pre-game fistfight. After the season, the Mariners shipped a bunch of their high-priced talent out of town. The Phillies are Segura’s fourth team in five years.

“I don’t like to fight,” Segura said. “There were a lot of people coming and saying I was the one fighting, but they don’t know what was going on. It’s over. I’m here now with new guys. I don’t want people to recognize that I’m a trouble guy in the clubhouse or a trouble guy on the team.

"I never intend to fight nobody in baseball. If a fight comes to you, you know, as a grown man, you’re not going to let it by. It’s simple. I don’t like to fight. I just want to be the best person I can be. I just want to continue moving forward as a person as a good teammate. I like to help guys, too. Help my teammates, especially now that I have a little bit of time in the big leagues.”

Segura said everything is good between him and Gordon now.

“We cool,” he said. “Brothers always fight. Sometimes you need to fight with your brother to be cool. I’m cool, man. I don’t like to fight. I’m cool. I’m a great guy. Maybe social media says different or you guys maybe. But if you get comfortable and talk to me about it you’ll see a different type of guy.”

Segura turns 29 in March. He is signed through 2022 and should be able to solidify shortstop for the Phillies until top prospect Luis Garcia is ready. Garcia, 18, led the Gulf Coast League in hitting (.369) and was third in on-base percentage (.433) last season. Those who've seen him play say he has the goods.

The Phillies needed to improve their offense after finishing last in the NL in hits (1,270) and batting average (.234) in 2018. In particular, they needed more production out of the shortstop position. Last season, their shortstops hit .235 with a .651 OPS. Those marks ranked 27th and 28th, respectively, in the majors.

Segura will provide a big lift. He is a contact machine who led the majors with 203 hits in 2016. Over the last three seasons, he has hit .308 (eighth-best in the majors) with a .803 OPS. His 538 hits are the seventh most in the majors over the last three seasons. His 75 stolen bases rank 11th over that span.

“I like to put the ball in play a lot because when you put the ball in play there’s a lot of opportunity to create runs, to get a base hit and be part of the game,” Segura said. “That’s one of my biggest things: put the ball in play and make a lot of contact. With my speed, a lot of things can happen.”

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