Phillies

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

SAN DEIGO — On Day 1 of the winter meetings, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak reiterated his team’s need to add a starting infielder.

“That's been the focus,” Klentak said Monday afternoon. “Today is Day 1, but technically we've been here for almost two full days. It feels like that is what we have mostly been working on since we've been here. We're just trying to explore all different avenues. Single-year and multi-year fits. Trade and free-agent fits. In the way that the pitching market has really come together quickly, this one doesn't seem to be coming together quite as quickly. But not because there aren't options.”

The free-agent pitching market is indeed moving quickly. Stephen Strasburg returned to the Washington Nationals on a staggering seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday and Gerrit Cole is expected to blow past that deal in the coming days. The Phillies made some (sort of) news Monday when their signing of Zack Wheeler became official after the right-hander passed his physical exam.

“We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top and give us a chance to win any series against the best pitchers in baseball,” Klentak said. “I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league.”

New manager Joe Girardi concurred.

“We have 1 and 1-A,” he said.

Now, the question is: Who will play second base, third base and shortstop behind Wheeler and Nola?

Scott Kingery and Jean Segura are likely to hold down two of the spots. We say “likely” because there’s always the chance that Kingery could play center field (right now it looks like Adam Haseley will be the guy there) and Segura could be traded if the Phils could find someone to take on the three years and $45 million that remain on his contract. That won’t be easy, even if the Phils eat some salary.

Ideally, the Phillies would land a shortstop like free-agent Didi Gregorius on a one-year or manageable multi-year deal and move Segura from shortstop to second base and play Kingery at third. The Phillies have had serious talks with Gregorius, but have to be ready to pivot if they can’t lock him up. As Klentak said, there are options in the infield. Most of them, however, are not shortstops. A free-agent second baseman like Jonathan Schoop could be a good fallback if the Phils can’t sign Gregorius. He had 23 doubles and 23 homers in 433 at-bats for the Twins last season. Signing Schoop would mean that Segura would have to stay at shortstop or move to third with Kingery playing shortstop.

There are plenty of options at third base, from veteran Todd Frazier to top-of-the-market superstars Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. There are also versatile veterans like Starlin Castro and even Brock Holt who could be used in mix-and-match, platoon scenarios.

“There’s a bunch of different ways we can go,” Klentak said. “We can go a shorter-term variety, we can look at a longer-term solution, we can look at the trade market, we can look at the free-agent market and we can look into piecing it together with multiple players potentially, which not only would help the starting infield, but would improve the bench. That’s where a lot of our focus this week is being turned.”

All right, let’s address those top-of-the-market names: The Phils have had contact with the representatives for Rendon and Donaldson and they have not tapped out of those markets, but signing one of those big-money players remains a longshot. The Phils signed Bryce Harper for $330 million last winter, Wheeler for $118 million this winter and still have to budget for a potential $100 million contract extension for J.T. Realmuto. Rendon is expected to command well over $200 million and Donaldson should get more than $25 million per season when he lands. The Phils are creeping up on the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in total payroll. Managing partner John Middleton would go over the tax for the right opportunity. There’s a lot of never-say-never here, but …

“Ownership has always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything,” Klentak said. “If there's an opportunity to bring something to them we will. I think the most notable example was signing Jake Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the tax threshold. Our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not.”

With Wheeler on board, an infielder on the way, the return to good health of some key players and the projected improvement of others, Klentak is confident of this:

“We are definitely building a team that we expect will contend in 2020,” he said.

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A candid J.T. Realmuto offers takes on Phillies pitchers, why team has chip on its shoulder

A candid J.T. Realmuto offers takes on Phillies pitchers, why team has chip on its shoulder

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When it comes to J.T. Realmuto, much of the focus on him this spring has surrounded his high-profile salary-arbitration case and the possibility of him signing a contract extension later this spring.

So, it was nice to change speeds a little and talk baseball with the All-Star catcher after his workout on Thursday morning. 

Realmuto, one of the leaders of the Phillies and probably the team's most indispensable player, offered some candid takes on the team's pitching staff, the changes that are being implemented under new pitching coach Bryan Price and how the team is dealing with being picked by many to finish fourth in the National League East season.

Without further ado, our conversation with Realmuto:

A year after the trade, how's life as a Phillie?

"Philly wasn't really a place we expected to end up. There was a lot of Dodger talk. Some Houston. Some other teams. Philly wasn't really even on my radar until about two days before the trade. Honestly, it turned out to be such a blessing for us because of how well the organization has treated me and my family, how welcoming the city has been to me. At first, I wasn't sure what to expect because I'm from the Midwest and I was going to a big city in the Northeast. I've never been a big city person, so I wasn't sure I was going to love that aspect of it. But we've settled in and love everything about it."

You've spent your entire career in the NL East. The Nationals and Mets have firepower in their rotations, the Braves have some impressive youth. Does the Phillies' pitching stack up?

"Absolutely. But I think, obviously, we have to improve. In my opinion, we had a down year across the board, pitching-wise, last year. Really, nobody performed to expectations. I feel like all of our starters, with the exception of (Zack) Wheeler, who wasn't here last year, can take a step forward and I fully expect them to. And for us to compete, they're going to have to do that, kind of carry the load for us because we have a little bit of a younger bullpen and guys still trying to find their roles out there, so our starting staff is going to have to step up and one through five is going to have to carry us. They're going to have to throw six, seven, eight innings a night. We're not going to be able to rely on guys who only throw three or four innings every outing, so in that regard, I feel like we stack up well. We haven't had the past success that those staffs have had, but I feel like it's in these guys. We just have to pull it out of them and we have to get better."

As a catcher, you're essentially part of the pitching staff. Have you bonded with new pitching coach Bryan Price?

"I talked to him more this offseason than any coach, five or six times. He would ask about every pitcher, what I thought their strengths and weaknesses were, and then he would give me his insights from watching video and we'd go over how we thought we could help those guys improve. He had something on everybody, a way that he thought they could get better.

"He has such a good feel for pitching and building relationships with pitchers. I feel like he's a sneaky, really good signing for us which nobody is going to talk about because he's a coach. He's going to help our guys a lot just by having that feel, giving guys confidence in pitching to their strengths more so than even a scouting report or we're trying to do something that our guys aren't comfortable with. He's going to really have them buy into their strengths and work that way."

The pitchers have spoken frequently about him stressing the fastball down …

"We have to do both. Last year, we were so caught up into getting guys to pitch at the top of zone. That's all we were doing. As a hitter, it's tough to catch up to fastballs up in the zone — until somebody is only throwing fastballs up in the zone. Then you make an adjustment and you're going to get to that pitch. But what we're preaching this year and what Bryan has really helped us with is being able to execute both. You have to be able to pitch down in the zone, get outs there, be able to get ahead there. When you need swing-and-miss and when you need chase, obviously up in the zone is still going to be there for most of our guys. But you can't live in one spot in the zone. You have to be able to execute both. That's what we weren't able to do last year."

Did you speak up about that last year?

"Too many times. I don't want to get into that too much, but it was tough on me just because I know as a hitter the numbers say fastballs up with this guy are really good, but if you see a number of fastballs up it's going to become easier and easier to hit. We didn't do a good enough job last year — and part of it is on me — of pitching more, not just throwing to numbers or throwing to zones that we think are successful. You have to pitch, move the hitters' eyesight up and down. You can't live in one spot.

"We were asking guys to execute early-count fastballs up in the zone and that's just really — you can count on one hand how many guys in baseball can do that. (Justin) Verlander, (Gerrit) Cole, guys who can execute upper-third fastballs 0-0, 1-0, you know, be able to throw it for a strike and not get damage on it. We were asking guys to do that last year and it just wasn't their strength and it's really, really hard to do that. So, I feel like this year, not having to do that and being able to work both sides of the zone is really going to help."

What does knowing these pitchers for a year now do for you?

"It helps a lot not having to go through those growing pains of not knowing them because you can catch guys as much as you want in spring training, but everything changes once the season starts."

Which pitchers do you feel are primed to take a step forward?

"I think Jake (Arrieta) is going to be a lot better this year. I think the injury slowed him down a lot last year. I know he was pitching hurt for a lot longer than most people know, so I think if we can keep him healthy, he's going to be a guy that can take the ball for us and pitch seven, eight innings per start.

"(Zach) Eflin's confidence is rising and rising and he's getting better and better. His two-seam/changeup combination, which when he was really good last year that's what we were using, and when he wasn't as good we were using four-seamer up and slider down and that just didn't work for him as well. But now he knows who he is as a pitcher. Nobody here is going to try to change that this year." 

How about Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta?

"Those were two of our main guys last year that we tried to make one-dimensional pitchers and it's hard to be successful that way so this year they're both working on different pitches. They're both trying to throw more changeups and get that fourth pitch, which as a starter, unless you have two or three absolutely dominant pitches, you need four. I feel like both of them are developing that changeup and both are developing the ability to pitch down in the zone and up in the zone and not having to do just one or the other."

How will the addition of Zack Wheeler help?

"I never liked facing him. I had some success off him hits-wise, but, honestly, a lot of it was weak contact, lucky hits. He's so tough on righties with the way he can throw four-seamers in and two-seamers in that miss the barrel, and once he's throwing 97, 98 (mph) on your hands, every breaking ball that he throws, it's tough to stay on. I was ecstatic not having to face him three or four times a year and getting him on our side for 30-plus starts. He's going to be big for us."

According to Fangraphs' BsR stat, you were the 14th best baserunner in the majors last season and tops among catchers. You ranked one spot below Mookie Betts. Why are you so committed to this part of the game?

"Baserunning, in my opinion, is a mindset. You don't have to be the fastest guy in the world to be a good baserunner. You have to be on your toes and be an unselfish teammate in the fact that when you're on the base paths you're trying to get that guy at the plate an RBI. When I'm standing on first base, I'm begging for him to hit a ball in the gap so I can get the best jump I can and score for him from first base. On second base, you're trying to get the biggest lead you can, the best secondary lead you can and try to score from second. Everything you're doing is trying to take advantage of that next base and for me it's all a mindset. I'm not one of top 10 or 20 fastest in the league. It's about jumps, anticipating and actually caring about baserunning. That's something I take pride it."

Does it irk you that some people see the Phillies as a fourth-place team?

"Yes. Absolutely. But the year we had last year, you can't really blame them. So, with that being said, it will allow us to play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, which isn't always a bad thing, especially with the group we have because in this locker room, nobody thinks we're a fourth-place team. We play in a tough division so I can see why people would say that. But this isn't a fourth-place team. We expect to be right there in the hunt to win the division at the end of the season."

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Which Phillies pitchers would benefit most from the ball being normal again?

Which Phillies pitchers would benefit most from the ball being normal again?

If what Zach Eflin said earlier this week about the baseballs is true, it could be the biggest non-cheating-related story in baseball early this season. 

The season we just experienced was unlike any in MLB history. The major-league ball was rock hard and flew farther in the air than anyone anticipated. It would be like if the NBA increased the size of the hoop. Or if the NFL wiped offensive pass interference from the rule book. It only benefited offenses and it watered down the meaning of 30 home runs.

In 2019, there were 6,776 home runs in the majors, beating the previous record by 671. The league-wide home run record for any month was set in May 2019, broken in June 2019 and broken again in August 2019. Half the league — 15 teams — set their franchise record for homers in a season. 

Nobody knows yet what to expect in the 2020 regular season. However, earlier this week Eflin expressed optimism and confidence about the feel of the ball, saying it felt more like it did in 2018. 

“I think it’s awesome,” Eflin told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “To me, they feel a little softer and you can definitely notice the seams a little more. Last year, it was like throwing a cue ball.”

The Phillies in 2019 allowed the most home runs in franchise history but were far from alone with that dubious record — 13 other clubs did it as well. 

Which Phillies pitchers were most affected? Interestingly, Eflin was among those least affected. 

Aaron Nola

Nola’s rate of home runs allowed per nine innings increased by 33% from 0.9 to 1.2. 

In practical terms, that’s a difference of six home runs over the 202 innings Nola pitched. 

Jake Arrieta

Arrieta’s inability to throw his cutter or curveball for most of last season because of the bone spurs in his right elbow also played a large role in his poor 2019 season. It wasn’t just the baseball. 

But Arrieta also allowed home runs at a far higher rate than ever before. Even including his unsuccessful four-year run with the Orioles at the beginning of his 10-year career, Arrieta had allowed 0.9 home runs per nine innings through 2019. Last season, his rate increased by 56% to 1.4. 

That’s a difference of 8 home runs in Arrieta’s 136 innings. 

Vince Velasquez

Velasquez has always been extremely homer-prone. He throws a ton of four-seam fastballs and, particularly last season, his command of that pitch up in the zone was shaky. If you throw a mid-90s fastball high but not high enough, look out. 

That said, even Velasquez, who entered 2019 with the highest home run rate of any Phillies pitcher ever, experienced a huge increase. His HR/9 rose from 1.3 to an obscenely high 2.0. For a lot of pitchers, allowing two homers per nine innings is a first-class ticket to DFA-land. 

The Phils are giving Vinny Velo yet another chance, though. His home run increase last season was by 54% — a difference of 9 home runs in his 117 innings.

Velasquez will likely claim a bullpen spot with the 2020 Phillies if he doesn’t win the fifth starter’s battle. His career-long home run problem would be just as worrisome in that role.

• • •

Between just Nola, Arrieta and Velasquez, that’s already 23 more home runs allowed last season than those pitchers’ previous track records would have suggested. 

Add in the 27% increase for Nick Pivetta and we’re at 27 additional homers from just four pitchers. Obviously, their own lackluster command at times played a role too. 

One pitcher who did not have this problem in 2019 was Zack Wheeler, who allowed just 22 home runs in nearly 200 innings, barely an increase over his career rate. 

Think that factored into the $118 million price tag? Wheeler makes his Phillies spring training debut on Saturday.

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