Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

SAN FRANCISCO — John Middleton must have wanted to throw a brick through his television screen watching this one.

Think about it. The Phillies owner spent over $400 million and gave up a top pitching prospect to add talent over the winter. The idea was for the Phillies to make a big surge in the standings and go out and get that one finishing piece at the trade deadline. You know, someone like Madison Bumgarner.

But by the time the deadline came around, the underperforming Phillies had so many holes that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to cripple the farm system to add one pitcher when they really needed three of them. And besides, Bumgarner stayed put as the San Francisco Giants made a July charge into playoff contention.

So there they were Thursday night, the underachieving Phillies squaring off against Bumgarner in the first game of an important four-game series. The Phillies needed a win to stop a blood letting that started with consecutive losses in Arizona the previous two nights. What they got was another in a series of embarrassing defeats. The Phils were held to one hit — one stinking hit — and had just three base runners in a hang-your-head, 5-0 loss to the Giants (see observations).

The loss was the Phillies’ third in a row and sixth in the last nine games. They had entered the day tied for the second NL wild-card spot, but are now off the pace by a half-game. At 59-56, they have the same record as the New York Mets, who once appeared to be dead and buried in the standings but have rallied into contention with 13 wins in the last 14 games. The Phils, 26-33 since ending the month of May up by three games in the NL East, are going in the opposite direction and could be alone in fourth place in the division by the end of play Friday night.

How do you stop this spiral?

“By believing in our players, but keeping the mood light but focused, by never panicking and by trusting that the talent is in this room — and we believe it is,” manager Gabe Kapler said after his team’s latest defeat. “These guys know how good they are and we know that their true talent is going to rise to the top.”

The only thing that rose Thursday night was Mr. Middleton's ire.

The Giants came into the game having just been swept in three games by the Washington Nationals. Bumgarner needed to be a stopper and he was. He featured mostly fastballs and cutters. The fastball topped out at just 92 mph but that and good location on the pitch was enough to hold the Phils to one hit over seven innings. He walked one and struck out three. Cesar Heranandez had the Phillies’ only hit, a pinch-hit single with one out in the sixth inning.

“Bumgarner had a fastball, it wasn’t a high velocity fastball, but it certainly was heavy and he was able to put the ball where he wanted to put it in keeping our hitters off balance,” Kapler said. “On the flip side, we didn’t make him work hard enough. It’s as simple as that. We have to make good pitchers work hard and fight for every inch and we weren’t able to run his pitch count up at all and he stayed efficient and attacked the strike zone and we weren’t able to make the adjustment.”

Bumgarner got 21 called strikes.

“He was locating,” Kapler said. “Our guys were prepared to attack the fastball and the cutter and Bumgarner was putting it where he wanted to put it.

“At the same time, we have to find ways to scratch and claw to reach base and we weren’t able to do that. It’s not acceptable.”

The Phils have had huge problems hitting with runners in scoring position the last two weeks. They’ve scored one run the last two games and that came on a ninth-inning solo homer by Bryce Harper when the club was already down 6-0 to Arizona on Wednesday night.

The offense has been inconsistent all season, but its recent struggles are reason to wonder if hitting coach John Mallee is connecting with the hitters and if his message is getting through.

Kapler was asked if it was.

“Yes,” he said, offering nothing else on the topic.

Offense wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Phillies. The usually dependable Aaron Nola had a difficult start. He gave up three runs in the third inning and there was no coming back from that, not with this offense.

“He had a hard time commanding the fastball in the third inning, a hard time putting hitters away,” Kapler said. “It wasn’t his best outing.”

He wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that regard.

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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