Phillies

Phillies should only make a bullpen trade if they're getting an elite reliever

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Phillies should only make a bullpen trade if they're getting an elite reliever

With the left side of the infield the clearest area for the Phillies to upgrade, you've heard all about Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Mike Moustakas. The trade market matches up nicely with the Phils' most pressing need. 

But they could also use some bullpen help. Every July, relievers are the most commonly traded commodity because typically, even the bad teams have a few valuable relievers.

Here's a look at which bullpen pieces the Phillies could pursue this month, split up into two tiers.

The elite tier

In my opinion, this is the only type of bullpen trade the Phillies should aim to make. Forget about the available setup men having decent seasons and go after actual difference-making, game-shortening bullpen pieces.

In this regard, three relievers on selling teams stick out: Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, Padres closer Brad Hand and Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez (formerly Felipe Rivero).

Acquiring any of these three closers would give the Phillies the ability to move Seranthony Dominguez into an all-purpose role, the way he was used when he first came up. The way the Brewers use Josh Hader, the way the Indians have used Andrew Miller in recent years.

While some teams are going away from the traditional closer, Phils GM Matt Klentak did say last month that the Phillies would love to have one. It's just that the elite closers are few and far between.

Iglesias is the best of this bunch. Right-handed closer with a big fastball, a wipeout slider and the ability to get more than three outs. Iglesias doesn't have trouble going three days in a row or coming in with one out in the eighth inning if needed. 

Since 2016, he has a 2.53 ERA with 217 strikeouts in 192 innings. Best of all, he's under contract through the end of the 2020 season. He'll make $14.5 million total over the next three seasons.

You may recognize Hand's name from his ineffective stint as a starter with the Marlins from 2011 through 2015.

Since getting to San Diego, Hand has been great — 2.66 ERA, 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings the last three years. Getting a late-inning lefty would give the Phils the ability to mix and match in the eighth and ninth innings, using Hand in whichever inning the most dangerous lefties are due up. Lefties have hit just .137 against Hand this season with four walks.

Vazquez broke out last season after claiming the closer's job, saving 21 games with a 1.67 ERA in 75 innings. He, too, is a lefty, and he's held left-handed hitters to 5 for 30 (.167) this season with one walk and 16 K's.

The fading Pirates would ask for plenty in return for Vazquez, a 27-year-old fireballer under team control through the end of 2021. He's one of the few relievers who'd be worth the high price tag in a trade.

The lesser tier

The reason I'm going for the elite tier of relievers if I'm the Phillies is that most of the available setup men are coin-flips — who is to say any of them would perform better in the final two months than who the Phils currently have?

Is a setup man you're bringing in really going to be a marked improvement over Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek or even Tommy Hunter, who's struggled a bit more than the Phils would have liked through the first week of July?

Reliever performance is incredibly volatile. A reliever who excels one year (or even one month) can easily the struggle the next because the sample sizes are so small and one bad outing skews the ERA.

This non-elite tier includes the following available relievers:

• Craig Stammen and Kirby Yates (SD)

• Ryan Tepera, Tyler Clippard and Seunghawn Oh (Tor)

• Zach Britton (not the same guy in 2018) and Brad Brach (Bal)

• Sergio Romo (TB)

• Joakim Soria (CHW)

• Jake Diekman (Tex)

• Brad Ziegler (Mia)

• Jared Hughes (Cin)

Acquiring one of these relievers, especially the older ones like Romo, Soria or Ziegler, would be less expensive for the Phils in a trade. But it also wouldn't be much of a meaningful boost to the bullpen. The hierarchy of the 'pen wouldn't really change, it would just add one more decent arm to a bullpen that has been mediocre much of the season but better of late.

If you're trading for a reliever, you might as well trade for an actual difference-maker who can help beyond just this season.

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What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

ATLANTA – Taking two of three from the Atlanta Braves on the road usually leaves a team with a spring in its step as it heads to the airport to get out of town.

But there was a palpable disappointment in the visiting clubhouse at SunTrust Park late Thursday afternoon. Time is running out for these Phillies. Winning series is no longer good enough. They need sweeps and they failed to get one with ace Aaron Nola on the mound Thursday. A damaging 5-4 loss to the Braves left the Phillies 3 ½ games back in the NL wild-card race with just 11 games remaining.

Bryce Harper said all the right things after the loss. He mentioned how the Phillies scratched and clawed during the three games in Atlanta, mentioned how they need to do that again over the weekend in Cleveland, mentioned how they still have a chance.

But a few lockers down, J.T. Realmuto’s silence was telling. He politely declined to speak to reporters.

Manager Gabe Kapler does not have the luxury of declining interviews. He found himself under the microscope for a fifth-inning decision in which he let Nola pitch to Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman in a tie game with two men on base and first base open. There was one out. A walk would have set up a potential double play.

Prior to the at-bat, Freeman was 0 for 6 with five walks in the series. This situation seemed to call for another walk, intentional or unintentional, but Nola went right at Freeman with a first-pitch fastball and the National League’s co-leader in RBIs drove in his 118th and 119th runs of the season with a hit to right to give the Braves a lead that they never relinquished.

Earlier in the game, Nola gave up a two-run homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. He also allowed a solo homer to rookie Austin Riley in the sixth as the Braves built a 5-3 lead.

The Phils pecked away at the lead with a run in the eighth, but the comeback fell short.

Nola is winless in his last six starts and has been roughed up in three of his last four. He was accountable for his struggles and said he’s simply given up too many runs. He disputed the notion that Freeman’s hit — and the decision to pitch to him — was the turning point in the game.

“It didn’t really cross my mind, honestly,” the right-hander said of pitching around Freeman and going after Adam Duvall. “I feel like I’ve had pretty good success against Freddy. Fastball kind of caught a little too much of the plate.”

Nola is a competitive beast on the mound and those types of pitchers usually don’t like to walk batters. So, did Kapler consider taking the decision out of Nola’s hands and ordering an intentional walk of Freeman?

“Given how early it was in the game and given the fact that he's 9 for 41 off Aaron and Aaron has had a lot of success against Freeman in the past, you trust your horse there,” Kapler said. “You trust your ace. And I trust him immensely to make a big pitch in that situation.

“I think Aaron wants to go after every hitter. It's something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to let him go after Freddie.”

Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.

“I haven’t been the best this month, obviously,” Nola said. “I’ve given up a good bit of runs and home runs. I haven’t really shut the other team down in a few games. Had a couple bad games where I’ve given up four or five runs. It’s hard to win those games for sure when you’re giving up those kind of runs.”

Harper did not realize that the Phils were winless in Nola’s last six starts.

“I’m kind of shocked, actually,” he said. “I had no idea. Definitely, that’s tough. He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy.”

The unfortunate irony in all this is that the Phils arranged their rotation so that Nola can start every fifth day in a playoff chase. As Harper said, he’s their guy, and they wanted him on the mound as much as possible. The strategy has not paid off, however.

“Yeah, I'd really like to be able to score some more runs for Aaron,” Kapler said. “Maybe get him an early lead and put a little confidence in him. I can understand. It's certainly disappointing.”

Nola said he’s not fatigued.

“I feel fine,” he said. “My body is healthy.”

He lines up to pitch one of the games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.

What will the Phillies’ playoff chances look like then?

Will they even still be in the race?

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Freddie Freeman and the Braves make Phillies and Nola pay in costly loss

Freddie Freeman and the Braves make Phillies and Nola pay in costly loss

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA – The Phillies failed to complete a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves on Thursday afternoon. Aaron Nola was roughed up for the third time in his last four outings and the Phillies suffered a 5-4 loss.

The Phillies are winless in Nola’s last six starts, a stretch coinciding with the team’s decision to pitch him every fifth day regardless of the schedule.

Freddie Freeman had a game-changing two-run single against Nola after the Phils passed on walking him to set up a potential double play in the fifth inning. An inning later, Nola gave up a homer to rookie Austin Riley as the Braves built a 5-3 lead. The Phils pushed home a run in the eighth to make it a one run game, but Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman, made a play on Haseley’s line drive to stop the damage as the Phils left two men on base. 

The loss was a blow to the Phillies’ already faint postseason hopes. They immediately fell 3 ½ games back in the wild-card race with a chance to be four back by the end of the day.

There are just 11 games left.

The Phillies are 78-73. They need four wins to have their first winning season since 2011.

Atlanta’s magic number for winning the NL East is one.

Nola’s day

He was not sharp. He gave up nine hits, including two homers, in just five innings of work. He walked two and struck out four.

Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend, but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.

If the Phillies stay on turn in their rotation, Nola would start one of the two games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.

Defensive issues

On Wednesday, general manager Matt Klentak praised the team’s defensive improvement this season. Then the club went out and made three errors, two by second baseman Cesar Hernandez.

Hernandez did not make an error in this one but he did have a costly misplay that led to a Braves’ run in the fifth inning. Hernandez could not immediately get the handle on a ground ball by Ozzie Albies and that prevented him from getting the lead runner at second and possibly starting a double play. He had to settle for the out at first base.

The misplay put runners at second and third with one out in a tie game and Freeman quickly untied it with a two-run single.

Hernandez has one more year of salary arbitration before free agency. He is making $7.75 million this season and could be in line to make about $10 million in 2020. Scott Kingery is projected to be the full-time second baseman at some point. Will the Phillies deal Hernandez this winter to open the spot for Kingery? It’s complicated. Hernandez could be difficult to move at that salary, especially when teams know he could become a free agent if the Phillies don’t offer him a contract.

This is one of the many questions the Phils must deal with in the offseason.

Freeman makes ‘em pay

After Hernandez’ misplay in the fifth, Nola had to face Freeman with one out and runners on second and third in a tie game. The situation seemed ripe for walking Freeman to set up a double play with Adam Duvall coming to the plate. The Phils had, in fact, walked Freeman five times previously in the series. But Nola pitched to Freeman and the Braves slugger, previously 0 for 6 in the series, lined a two-run single to right field to score two runs as the Braves took a 4-2 lead that they never relinquished. 

Up next 

The Phillies move on to Cleveland for a three-game interleague series. The Indians are right in the thick of the American League wild-card race and need the series as badly as the Phillies do.

Pitching matchups: 

Friday night – LHP Drew Smyly (4-6, 6.22) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (14-7, 3.26) 

Saturday night – LHP Jason Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. RHP Zach Plesac (8-6, 3.64) 

Sunday night – RHP Vince Velasquez (7-7, 4.89) vs. RHP Adam Plutko (7-4, 4.34)

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