Phillies have work cut out vs. MLB’s most underrated ace

Phillies have work cut out vs. MLB’s most underrated ace

Last night was a cap-tipping game based on how excellent Kyle Freeland was, using his cutter to jam or freeze Phillies right-handed hitters on the inside corner and to front-door their left-handed hitters. 

Tonight, the Phillies face an even tougher opponent, a pitcher who may be the most underrated ace going right now. 

When: 8:40 p.m. — Pregame Live at 8

Where: NBC Sports Philadelphia and streaming live on the MyTeams app and

Pitching matchup: Vince Velasquez (0-0, 2.25) vs. German Marquez (2-1, 2.00) 

Soon to be a household name

Marquez has been one of the five best pitchers in baseball since last August. In his last dozen starts of 2018, Marquez had a 2.24 ERA with 110 strikeouts in 80 innings. That included seven shutout innings with 11 K’s against the Phillies last September at Coors Field. 

This season? More of the same. Marquez is coming off of a one-hit shutout of the Giants Sunday. 

Marquez’s fastball averages 96 mph but his slider and curveball are even more dangerous. Since last August, his opponents are 6 for 100 against his curveball (seriously) and 19 for 115 against his slider. That’s a combined .116 batting average. 

Both are swing-and-miss pitches that hitters have trouble lifting. 

This is why Marquez was recently paid. He signed a five-year, $43M extension the first week of April. 

Cold 3-4

The Phillies are 3-3 since Saturday but in those six games, Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins are 6 for 45 (.133) with one combined RBI. Neither has had the right timing down at the plate. 

J.T. Realmuto is hot, hitting .351 with 11 RBI in his last nine games, but the Phillies are still yet to have their 3-4-5 hitters clicking at the same time. 

Velasquez’s turn

Velasquez pitched well in his first two starts against the Nationals and Marlins but tonight is a different sort of test. 

In three career starts at Coors Field, Velasquez has a 6.14 ERA with 19 hits allowed and 10 walks in 14 2/3 innings. He’s nibbled when pitching in Colorado because of the harm that can be done when you miss over the plate there. Nibbling is when Velasquez is most frustrating and least effective. He has the arsenal to overpower the Rockies’ lineup once or twice through the order, but the leash probably won’t be long unless he’s dealing. 

Zach Eflin last night did what a pitcher needs to do at Coors Field: keep the ball low. He induced a season-high 11 groundballs and was victimized only on pitches at the belt or above. The four times the Rockies made contact in that location, they had three hits off Eflin, including the Ryan McMahon three-run homer.

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MLB trade rumors: Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, Mike Minor all realistic Phillies trade targets

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MLB trade rumors: Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, Mike Minor all realistic Phillies trade targets

Outwardly, the Phillies feel they have a good amount of starting pitching depth with Jerad Eickhoff, Cole Irvin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta all potential options as the Nos. 4 and 5 starters.

But how confident can they really be in any of the four of them on a start-by-start basis?

Eickhoff, who faces a tough Brewers team tonight, has experienced predictable regression in his last two starts, allowing five homers and nine runs in nine innings after pitching to a 1.50 ERA and not allowing a home run in his first 30 innings.

Irvin was optioned to Triple A after allowing seven runs in 4⅔ innings on Wednesday night. The degree of difficulty in that start was high — good Cubs team, on the road, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field. Irvin's demotion seems less about the Phils closing the book on him and more about them looking to utilize an extra reliever until that turn in the rotation comes up again. Regular rest would have had Irvin start on Monday, but the Phillies are off, meaning they could go with a four-man rotation until June 1.

The Phillies have designs of playing well into October, and it's just hard to believe they have enough starting pitching, even if you have a rosy outlook for guys like Pivetta and Velasquez upon their returns. 

Fortunately for the Phils, their top need aligns with what this summer's trade market offers — in both quality and quantity. 

If the Phillies want to go after a top-of-the-rotation rental, that pitcher will be available. 

If they want a cheaper solution, that exists too.

If the preference is a pitcher who would cost you more in money than in prospects, one of those could be had as well. 

Zack Greinke

Greinke fits that last description. He has about $20 million remaining in salary this year and $64 million total the next two seasons. However, $32M of that $64M is deferred, scheduled to be paid in 2022-26.

Greinke has been awesome this season, going 6-2 with a 2.89 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 11 starts. He has made 10 quality starts in a row. He offers reliability, durability, upside, efficiency and he can certainly help with his bat. Having Greinke is almost like having another hitter. He's 8 for 25 (.320) with two homers, a triple and two doubles this season and has been among the best hitting pitchers every year since 2013.

Because Greinke is 35 and owed so much money, any team after him would have to give up less in prospects than it would for another pitcher in his tier. The Diamondbacks are retooling, and even though they've exceeded expectations by playing .500 baseball in their first 50 games, they would welcome an opportunity to get out from under that contract, which had the highest per-year value in MLB history at the time Greinke signed it.

According to a radio report from USA Today's Bob Nightengale, who is based in Phoenix, the Phillies had a scout at one of Greinke's recent starts specifically to look at him. Teams have scouts everywhere this time of year but that does at least signal interest on the Phillies' part.

Madison Bumgarner

We've mentioned Bumgarner here quite a bit over the last six months because everyone knew the 2019 Giants would be a disaster and that Bumgarner's free agency was approaching.

Bumgarner, unlike Greinke, would be a half-season rental. He can block a trade to the Phillies and several other contending teams, a strategic component of his contract designed to increase his leverage. When a player has one of these clauses, he can use it to add urgency to contract extension talks with the pursuing team or some sort of trade bonus from his current team.

Bumgarner had shown signs of decline the last two seasons with lower strikeout rates, higher ERAs and far fewer innings pitched. This season, he's off to a promising start, striking out 9.3 batters per nine innings compared to 7.6 last season, along with one of the lower walk rates of his career. His fastball velocity is also about a full mile per hour higher than it was last season.

Bumgarner is not as efficient as Greinke. Bumgarner deals with a lot of foul balls these days and is typically at 100 pitches through six innings. He's gone deeper than six just twice this season.

Like Greinke, Bumgarner also helps with his bat, and he has one of the strongest postseason track records of any pitcher ever.

Though he'd be a potential rental, Bumgarner will still cost the Phillies or any team a young player they aren't enthused about trading.

When weighing Greinke vs. Bumgarner, another consideration is that Greinke has pitched better the last two years in one of the five most hitter-friendly parks in the game, while Bumgarner has been performing in the best park for pitchers.

Mike Minor

Minor is a left-hander the Phillies have shown interest in during recent trade seasons and offseasons. Once upon a time, he was a big pitching prospect for the Braves, but things didn't go as planned in Atlanta and it took him until close to his 30th birthday to find stability and consistency. 

After a dominant season in the Royals' bullpen in 2017, the Rangers took a chance on Minor as a starter and it has paid off. In 38 starts for Texas since the beginning of 2018, Minor is 17-11 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.12 WHIP while pitching for a bad team in a haven for hitters.

Minor is owed about $6.4 million more this season and $9.5 million next season. Those are affordable and attractive salaries for a mid-rotation starter. Because of that affordability, the Rangers will rightfully look for a solid trade package for him. 

It's too early to speculate what any of these trade packages would look like specifically, but from least to most, it seems like it would go Greinke, Bumgarner, Minor, with Minor commanding more than Bumgarner only because he's under contract longer.

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After a heart-attack special in Wrigley, Phillies head to Milwaukee for another test against Brewers

After a heart-attack special in Wrigley, Phillies head to Milwaukee for another test against Brewers

CHICAGO — Sometimes words aren’t needed.

Hector Neris emerged from a back room in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field early Thursday evening. He stopped near his locker, took a big swig of cold water, smiled and gently patted his chest a few times.

If Neris’ ticker was still racing 20 minutes after he grinded through the final three outs of the Phillies’ three-hour, 55-minute, 9-7 win over the Chicago Cubs (see observations), it was completely understandable. Those final three outs were agonizing. The final two came with runners at second and third and the winning run at the plate after the Cubs had already pushed across one.

“Got the save,” the relieved reliever said. “My team got the win.”

It was a Wrigley Field special, a wild one, and the victory gave the Phils a split in the four-game series. They could have had three wins but they blew a one-run lead in the ninth on Tuesday.

The Phillies tried hard to blow a seven-run lead in this one and manager Gabe Kapler went deep into his bullpen and used five relievers after yanking Aaron Nola at 93 pitches with a five-run lead with one out in the sixth.

“I thought I was staying in,” Nola said. “I didn't know Gabe had already called to the bullpen. 

“I felt like I could've stayed in. I felt good. I kind of expected to face (Jason) Heyward right there. I felt like I just needed to execute a pitch and get a double play right there.”

On a day when Nola’s command was not sharp, Kapler decided to make a change.

“I don’t think Nola had his best command,” Kapler said. “He walked four batters. There was some hard contact in that inning and a near miss. It just felt like the right time to get (Adam) Morgan in there. 

"Sure, Noles being who he is could have gotten through that inning, but we don’t have the ability to have the alternate universe and see what could have happened if we left Nola out there. These are the debates, the natural debates that happen after a game like this.”

The parade of relievers that followed Nola mostly struggled. Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez survived walks in the sixth and Pat Neshek was tagged for three runs on a pair of homers in the seventh. Jose Alvarez got out of the seventh and Neris got out of the eighth before surviving a single, a walk and an RBI double in the ninth.

Kapler’s management of the bullpen has come under fire lately, even in his own clubhouse. It’s not ideal to use five relievers on a day you have a big lead with a big series against powerful Milwaukee looming, but Kapler defended himself.

“You always want it to be a piece of cake,” he said. “But that would be a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It doesn't work like that. Players are too good. You have to be prepared for things to go sideways. Sure, in a perfect world, things would have been smoother. They weren’t smooth. But we stayed tough in the dugout all the way through that game.”

Neris got a tough out when he retired Javier Baez to end the eighth with two runners on. As Baez’s fly ball was landing in Andrew McCutchen’s glove, he passed Neris on the infield grass.

“Hey, you’re good, man,” Baez told Neris.

“Hey, you scare me,” Neris responded.

Neris did a good job managing his emotions in the ninth when, after allowing the first two men to reach base, he came back from a 3-0 count to strike out Heyward. Heyward was so ticked off he snapped his bat over his knee.

“I’m happy for Hector,” Kapler said. “He had the gutsiest performance possible out there. That lineup is never ending and every guy can hit the ball out of the ballpark. The way it went today, you always thought there could be more home runs. My initial thought when that ball landed in McCutchen’s glove (for the final out) was ‘Good for Hector.’ Good for such a dependable, rock-solid human being and a stud. So awesome to see that happen for him.”

The Phils’ offense was good. It got big hits and drove Jon Lester from the game early. The defense also came up big, particularly third baseman Sean Rodriguez, who stopped a potential Cubs’ rally with a huge play in the sixth.

“I know it's an old saying, probably used more in basketball than it is in baseball, but offense gets the glory but defense wins the game,” Rodriguez said.

The NL East-leading Phillies head for Milwaukee at 29-21. The Brewers (29-22) are just 1½ games behind the first-place Cubs in the NL Central. The Brewers beat the Phils up last week in Philadelphia, but the Phils believe they built some confidence against the Cubs in Chicago.

“We’ve got enough talent here in this room to beat anyone in the league,” shortstop Jean Segura said.

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