Phillies

Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Not that it's much of a surprise, but Phillies GM Matt Klentak confirmed Monday that Gabe Kapler will be the manager for the rest of the season.

The Phillies are in a downward spiral that has seen them lose seven games in a row and 16 of 22. In less than a month, the Braves have gained 10 full games in the standings. 

But no big shakeup is imminent, at least not at the top of the coaching staff.

"Gabe Kapler is our manager. Our staff is our staff," Klentak said prior to Monday's series opener against the Mets.

"I'm very well aware of all the criticism right now of the manager, the coaching staff, of certain players. I understand why it's happening. When a team goes through a stretch like we've gone through in the last couple of weeks, people are going to ask a lot of questions. 

"My view right now is that the wrong thing to do is to point a finger at any one person and say you are the reason this is happening. I do not believe in that. We've had a tough time hitting the baseball. We've had a tough time keeping the ball in the park on the mound and we've had a really tough time with the injury bug. It's very difficult for me to say that's on any one person.  

"Let's face it: This is the same team that was in first place two weeks ago. This is the same team that looked like a juggernaut for the first two weeks of the year. This is the same team that went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the NL about a month ago. That has not radically changed. Our place in the standings has changed. We have not played good baseball. That is stating the obvious. To lose faith in our players, to lose faith in our staff is the wrong thing to do at this time. We're proud to stick with these guys and rally together."

Hitting coach John Mallee's job has come into question at a high volume over the last two weeks. This is the case any time an offense struggles. We all say hitting coaches in the majors don't really matter ... until a lineup is not hitting, in which case firing the hitting coach becomes some sort of magical solution.

It goes with the gig and every hitting coach knows it.

"I've been a part of organizations that have made in-season staff changes before," Klentak said. "You have to believe that if you're going to do that you have to believe that your alternative is better than your status quo. And I believe in our guys."

Klentak pointed out that it was just three years ago that Mallee oversaw a Cubs juggernaut that won a World Series. Of course, this doesn't mean much. It's not as if Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras were twisting in the wind before Mallee arrived or after he left. 

The Phillies' lack of offense, particularly in the power department, has been startling. This team was supposed to hit many more home runs than it has. Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins have combined for 29 home runs in 77 games. That might have been a strong number five years ago but not in 2019, when 18 players already have 20-plus homers and 63 have more than Harper's 13.

The expectation that J.T. Realmuto's power would surge as he transitioned from a bad offense and a big ballpark to a good offense and a small ballpark? Hasn't happened. Realmuto has 10 home runs and 23 extra-base hits total. Through this many games last season, he had 36 extra-base hits. 

And keep in mind, Realmuto is the only Phillie in the Top 10 in home runs at any position. (You can count Jay Bruce if you'd like, but 14 of his 20 home runs were with the Mariners and did nothing for the Phillies.)

Kapler's K.I.S.S. method

So how does this get fixed?

The Phillies have been one of baseball's worst teams against opposing fastballs. They have done damage on mistake pitches less frequently than every team in baseball except the worst offenses like the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, Giants and Marlins. To try to correct this, the Phillies are simplifying the message to their hitters. 

An organization obsessed with data and the relaying of information is telling its hitters to focus on the most basic of offensive tasks.

"One thing that we're implementing now is a very simple approach of staying on the fastball, hitting the fastball," Kapler said. "We know that hanging breaking balls, you don't have to sit on, you don't have to look for them or try to hit them, they sit up there, they spin, you can be on the fastball and blister a breaking ball. 

"This is not rocket science, it's not some revelation someone came up with today to get on the fastball and stay on the fastball. This is something that most teams preach and something we've preached in the past. But it is a really good time to simplify a message for an entire group of hitters that we have historically done damage on that pitch and we will get back on track and begin to do damage on that pitch again."

Will they? Will they do it soon enough for it to actually matter in the NL East playoff picture? We shall see. The Phillies face three hittable pitchers in this series in Steven Matz, Walker Lockett and Jason Vargas. Now would be a good time to start pounding mistakes.

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NL East departures of Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon are like a free-agent signing for Phillies

NL East departures of Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon are like a free-agent signing for Phillies

A lot happened across baseball last week, so much in fact that a $92 million contract was kind of overlooked.

Josh Donaldson signed early in the week with the Minnesota Twins. Four years, $92 million for the 34-year-old third baseman who returned to an All-Star-level in 2019 with the Braves. Donaldson went to Atlanta last offseason on a one-year, $23 million deal and proved his health, hitting .259 with a .900 OPS, 37 homers, 94 RBI and 100 walks. He's always been a plus defender and last season was no exception.

This is a big loss for the Braves, and you have to say their offseason looks worse in light of losing Donaldson. They were active early, signing Cole Hamels, lefty reliever Will Smith, righty reliever Chris Martin and catcher Travis d'Arnaud.

But the loss of Donaldson negates most, if not all of that. 

The Braves are still probably a playoff team — 88 or so wins feels right for this team. 

Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. are still MVP-caliber players. Ozzie Albies, Mike Soroka and Max Fried are good, young players. At third base, the Braves can use 23-year old Austin Riley or 26-year-old Johan Camargo. 

Riley's first 30 games as a rookie last season were so impressive — he hit .298, slugged .628, went deep 11 times and drove in 32 runs. It was a nightmarish, swing-and-miss-filled season for him after that. 

Camargo, you'll recall, was productive in 2018. It was his first full season and he hit .272/.349/.457 with 19 homers and 76 RBI. Most teams would take that at third base. The Donaldson signing by Atlanta last offseason was a surprise because of what the Braves had at the hot corner. There are worse third base situations than Riley/Camargo.

Still, Donaldson is such a difference-maker. Another difference-maker who has left the division. The exits of Donaldson and Anthony Rendon are huge plusses for the Phillies and Mets. It's tough to conceptualize it, but not having to face Donaldson and Rendon is almost as beneficial as a one more solid free-agent signing for the Phillies. The drop-off from those two third basemen to Riley/Camargo in Atlanta and Starlin Castro/Asdrubal Cabrera in Washington is massive. Like, maybe 50 fewer extra-base hits.

Donaldson and Rendon had 145 combined plate appearances last season against the Phillies. Rendon hit .353 with a 1.102 OPS in his. Donaldson hit six homers, four doubles and drove in 16 runs in his 18 games.

All told, the NL East (aside from the Phillies) lost more than it gained this offseason. Out are Donaldson, Rendon and Dallas Keuchel. In are Hamels and Smith in Atlanta; Dellin Betances, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha in New York; Will Harris, Castro and Eric Thames in Washington; Corey Dickerson in Miami.

Aaron Nola will not miss facing Donaldson and Rendon. Those two hit a combined .345/.456/.545 with four homers and three doubles in 68 plate appearances against the Phillies' top starter. 

Donaldson is also 9 for 16 lifetime against Zack Wheeler, 6 for 14 with five extra-base hits off Zach Eflin and 4 for 12 with three homers vs. Nick Pivetta.

Rendon is 11 for 21 with four homers and 10 RBI off Pivetta.

Phillies fans may be frustrated by the post-Wheeler/Didi Gregorius period of the offseason, but Phillies pitchers are cool with how it's played out.

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Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Phillies pitching prospect Zach Warren has a dirty car but a bright future

Every one of the 15 minor-league prospects that the Phillies have invited to big-league spring training camp has a story.

Zach Warren’s is unique because (in his heart) he was a Phillie before he was technically a Phillie.

Warren grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, in the “glory era,” as he correctly called it, when the Phillies were racking up National League East titles, going to two World Series and winning one of them. Young Zach rooted for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but his eye always drifted toward the work being done by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, not surprising because Warren was a left-handed pitcher on the rise in those days.

After successful runs at St. Augustine Prep in South Jersey and the University of Tennessee, Warren is still a pitcher on the rise. Three strong seasons in the Phillies’ minor-league system earned him an invite to major-league spring training camp next month in Clearwater.

At the Phillies’ prospect-education seminar last week at Citizens Bank Park, Warren recalled the pinch-me moment when he got the phone call from Josh Bonifay, the Phillies director of player development, telling him he’d been invited to big-league camp, and following up that thrilling news with a phone call to his dad, Geoff.

“I had dropped off my car to be worked on in Vineland the day before,” Zach recalled with a laugh, “and my dad was a little unhappy because it was dirty and had no gas. I told him the news and that cheered him up.”

Warren, 23, is one of a handful of left-handed relievers coming to big-league camp on non-roster invites. Most, if not all, will open the season in the minor leagues, but team officials, including new manager Joe Girardi and new pitching coach Bryan Price, clearly want to get a look at what they have for future reference. The Phillies, under general manager Matt Klentak, have been aggressive running relievers in and out from the minors so it’s likely several of these relievers will get a shot in the majors this season. And if they throw strikes and get outs – well, they’ll stick around.

Warren, 6-5 and 200 pounds, was selected in the 14th round of the 2017 draft. He features a mid-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup. He has racked up double-digit strikeouts-per-nine innings in each of his three pro seasons. He spent the last two seasons working late in the game, including closer, at Lakewood and Clearwater. In 116 2/3 innings the last two seasons, he allowed just 76 hits and 34 earned runs (2.62 ERA) while striking out 180 and walking 66.

The 2020 season will be a prove-it one for Warren. He projects to make the jump to Double A Reading and be an important part of that club’s bullpen. Double A is the level where they separate the men from the boys. Have success at the level and you can rise quickly to the majors.

“I’m not thinking too far in advance, where I’m going to be and things like that,” said Warren, showing a healthy perspective. “All I can control is working on what I need to work on to get better and becoming the best player I can be. My ideal blueprint for this season is to make strides and get better and help my team win games and get to the playoffs.”

First-timers in big-league camp are like sponges. They soak up the experience and try to learn from the players who’ve walked the miles they hope to one day walk. Warren has a healthy respect for Adam Morgan, another lefty reliever and SEC product from the University of Alabama, and is eager to speak with him.

“I want to learn from Adam Morgan,” Warren said. “He was up as a starter and had to go to the minors to learn, adapt and change, and he developed and got back. I think there’s a ton I could learn from someone like that.

“I’m just looking forward to learning from everybody. I think it’s going to be a great experience and I can’t wait to get down there and get going.”

With a clean car and a full tank of gas, of course.

 

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