Phillies

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Let the record show that on a snowy Friday afternoon 10 days before Christmas 2017, the Phillies ramped up their rebuild.

Dramatically.

What other conclusion can be drawn after the club went out and signed Carlos Santana, one of the best offensive players on the free-agent market? With the signing, confirmed by multiple baseball sources, general manager Matt Klentak has attached a new level of importance to the 2018 season.

Just a couple of days ago at the winter meetings in Orlando, Klentak spoke of how 2018 was going to be a time to "find out" more about the team's young core of players. Who would continue to take a step forward? Who would fall by the wayside?

But now that Santana is here, 2018 doesn't feel like it's just a find-out season. It feels like a season in which the Phillies can continue to find out about players — separate the studs from the duds — and also start nibbling around that second National League wild-card spot.

Sure, a lot has to go right for that to happen.

And one of the things that has to go right is Klentak has to land a starting pitcher to slot in around Aaron Nola and the rest of the staff, which has the look of a bunch of No. 4 and No. 5 starters — until someone steps forward.

Santana's deal is for three years and $60 million, according to sources. Three years is a nice get — i.e., it's not cripplingly long — for a 32-year-old (in April) who hits for power, produces runs and does what Klentak likes best: controls the strike zone. (You could say that Klentak added two players who control the strike zone to his lineup Friday as the trade of Freddy Galvis to San Diego for strike-throwing pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos cleared the way for J.P. Crawford to be the regular shortstop.)

The Phillies need to do everything within reason to make sure that the first of Santana's three seasons with the club isn't about simply inching the rebuild forward. The Nationals are the class of the NL East, but the rest of the division ranges from ordinary to awful. The Phils, with an improved offense and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), can play with the Braves and Mets and clean up on the Marlins, the jewelry store that became a pawnshop, in agent Scott Boras' words.

It's just up to Klentak to get more starting pitching, and he's on the case. He admitted that at the winter meetings. He is particularly fond of young starters with years of control remaining on their contracts. Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer fit this description. It takes talent to get pitchers like that. The Phillies have enough depth of prospects to get one of these guys and their reserves of expendable talent just grew with the Santana signing.

Santana, a switch-hitter who has averaged 25 homers, 85 RBIs and a .810 OPS in eight seasons, is going to be the team's primary first baseman. Rhys Hoskins is going to be the primary leftfielder. That means the Phillies suddenly have a young outfielder that they could deal. Maybe they try to capitalize on Nick Williams' strong half-season in the majors and package him for an arm. Or maybe it's Odubel Herrera or Aaron Altherr.

However it plays out, you can be sure that Klentak will be creative. You can rule nothing out with this guy. The other day, we poo-pooed the Phillies signing Jake Arrieta, who is looking for a long-term deal approaching $200 million. But if Arrieta lingers out there until February and is looking for a two-year landing spot, hey, maybe.

We wouldn't even put it past Klentak to entertain the idea of using Santana at third base a little bit — he did play 26 games there in 2014 — and trading Maikel Franco. The Giants were sniffing around, gathering intel on Franco at the winter meetings. There has to be a reason for that. Also at the meetings, an official from a rival club said the Phillies weren't as aggressive as he expected in trying to move Cesar Hernandez. Could it be that Hernandez would get some time at third if Franco were to be moved? Hernandez is still a trade chip, but he doesn't need to be cashed in until July and by that time Scott Kingery should be here.

There are a lot of ways this thing can go. And with the signing of Carlos Santana — which won't become official until he passes a physical next week — the Phillies have guaranteed that the remainder of this offseason will be a busy one.

It has to be.

The stakes have changed for 2018. The rebuild is still in place, but it has been ramped up. Matt Klentak has improved the bullpen and the offense. Now he has to attack that starting pitching and he has the trade weapons to do it.

Phillies play a different brand of baseball to beat Noah Syndergaard

Phillies play a different brand of baseball to beat Noah Syndergaard

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The Phillies' offense, for the vast majority of the season, has relied on walks and home runs to score.

Its calling card has been plate selection. Make the starting pitcher work, get him out early.

On Friday night against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets, the Phillies played a different brand of baseball. They "went against their norm," as Gabe Kapler put it.

Rather than make Syndergaard throw a lot of pitches in the first inning, the Phillies attacked early in the count. The Phils swing at the first pitch less than 22 other clubs, but at one point in the first inning, three consecutive hitters put the first pitch in play.

And 11 pitches into Syndergaard's night, he was down 3-0.

Kapler's rationale was that against a pitcher like Syndergaard, you're playing a dangerous game if you fall behind in the count. But the strategy also made sense based on how Syndergaard has pitched of late. Coming into Friday's game, he had averaged nearly two fewer pitches per inning over his last five starts than he did in his first 11. Syndergaard's strikeout numbers have been down and his groundball rate has jumped. He's been trying to be more efficient, to get outs earlier in counts, and on Friday, the Phillies took advantage of those early fastballs.

They also ran all over him. It's well known across baseball that Syndergaard is slow to home plate and doesn't concern himself much with holding runners. And so Friday night, everyone on the basepaths had the green light. 

Jorge Alfaro stole two bases. Carlos Santana stole one and could have had two if a pitch earlier in the game wasn't fouled off. Maikel Franco stole his third career base. Cesar Hernandez swiped a bag for the second straight game.

For the Phillies against Syndergaard, pretty much every single or walk was worth two bases.

“It’s definitely an Achilles heel of mine,” Syndergaard told reporters, “something that’s been disappointing the last three years and was somewhat embarrassing tonight.”

"Jose Flores, our first-base coach, was especially prepared tonight, as was Rob Thomson, our bench coach. They did an amazing job understanding that not only was Syndergaard going to be slow to the plate — which we knew, it's no secret — but also, there were some things we were able to pick up on that gave us some advantages," Kapler said after the Phillies' 4-2 win (see first take)

"That's a testament to our staff and how hard they work."

But if you thought the Phillies' success on the bases Friday meant they'll continue to be this aggressive, think again.

"We'll go away from our norm when we have to," Kapler said. "We're not going to do it very often, we're not a team that's going to give away outs on the bases. We're going to be careful about when we steal them, but when we know we need to and when we have some information that helps us do so, we're gonna jump on that opportunity."

Ironically, one player who didn't steal a base Friday was Roman Quinn, who went 1 for 4 with his first big-league triple. The way he was flying around the bases after Austin Jackson couldn't snag the ball in deep left-center field, it looked for a moment like Quinn might have an inside-the-park home run. But he scored in the inning anyway, when Alfaro was able to make contact on a 1-2 pitch to break his bat with a bloop RBI single to center.

Whether it's the coaching staff speaking or his teammates, the word that always comes up with Quinn is "energy." Against the Mets, Quinn fed off the energy of watching so many of his teammates swipe bags.

"We wanted to run as much as possible," Quinn said. "Flores pulled us aside and was like, 'Yo, we need to steal more bases.' And we did so. Santana, Cesar, we did a good job on the basepaths."

On Saturday, the Phillies will face an even better pitcher: Jacob deGrom. He has a 1.81 ERA, a .205 opponents' batting average and 195 strikeouts in 159 innings. deGrom has a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and he can spot it on every corner. He also has a breaking ball that freezes hitters. He's a lot like Aaron Nola, just with a little more velocity.

deGrom is also the kind of pitcher you need to score unconventionally against. He's another guy you can't fall behind. Everyone in the Phillies' clubhouse knows it, including the Phillies' own Cy Young candidate.

"There's been a lot of Cy Young award chatter leading up to today [with Nola] and you saw why," Kapler said. "He rises to the occasion, he's ready for the biggest moment, he likes the brightest spotlight. We saw it at Fenway Park. I think he knew Syndergaard was on the mound on the other side and I think he knows that deGrom is pitching tomorrow's game. It's like no spot is too big, too bright. He just elevates his game."

Nola, the recipient of those early runs Friday, struck out 11 Mets over seven innings even without his typical pinpoint control. In 25 starts, he's 14-3 with a 2.24 ERA — the exact same ERA Roy Halladay had through 25 starts in 2010.

If the Phillies can muster three or four runs off deGrom, they can help boost Nola's Cy Young chances. It won't be easy, though, considering deGrom's allowed more than three runs one time all season.

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Phillies run all over Noah Syndergaard; Aaron Nola earns 14th win

Phillies run all over Noah Syndergaard; Aaron Nola earns 14th win

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After being blown out in Game 1 and holding on to win Game 2 of Thursday's doubleheader, the Phillies won Friday night's game against the Mets in the first inning.

They ambushed Noah Syndergaard for three runs in the first, which was all Aaron Nola needed in a 4-2 win.

Nola has been literally unbeatable this season when given a bit of run support — he's 13-0 with a 2.20 ERA when the Phillies score at least three runs.

The Phils had little trouble with Syndergaard's high-90s fastball in the opening frame, swinging and missing just once in his 21 pitches. The three first-inning runs were more than Syndergaard had allowed in his last nine first-innings combined.

For the Phillies, this was a quality win against a top-tier pitcher and a good sign for their upcoming games against fellow stingy right-handers Jacob deGrom (Saturday), Stephen Strasburg (Tuesday) and Max Scherzer (Thursday).

With the win, the Phillies are 68-54 with 40 games left. They're on pace to go 90-72.

Running at will

The Phillies' game plan was to run early and often against Syndergaard, who takes forever to deliver the ball with men on base. The Phillies stole five bases off Syndergaard — Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco, Jorge Alfaro twice and Carlos Santana — and started the runner from first on two other occasions.

It's the right thing to do against Syndergaard, who has allowed 89 steals on 103 attempts in his MLB career.

They were the first two steals of Alfaro's career and Franco's third. It was Santana's second as a Phillie.

Syndergaard had averaged about 14 pitches per inning over his last five starts. In this one, he threw 115 pitches in 5⅔ innings, an average of more than 20 per frame. 

Inside Nola's start

Prior to Friday's game, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler downplayed a New York reporter's question about whether it upsets him that Nola doesn't get as much national Cy Young attention as Scherzer or deGrom. A few hours later, Nola went out and pitched yet again like a Cy Young winner.

The crazy thing was that this was far from Nola's best night, especially from a control standpoint in the middle innings. And yet, the line still read: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 11 K.

Nola is 14-3 with a 2.24 ERA in 25 starts. It is the exact same ERA Roy Halladay had through 25 starts in his Cy Young season of 2010.

He has allowed just four home runs in 12 home starts this season. Since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the only pitcher to allow fewer than five home runs in double-digit starts at CBP was Halladay in 2011.

Pat Neshek worked a scoreless ninth for his third save. The Phillies are trying to limit the number of times Seranthony Dominguez pitches on consecutive nights.

Quinn starts again

Roman Quinn started in center field for the second straight game. While Kapler won't indicate whether to expect more starts moving forward for Quinn over the slumping Odubel Herrera, it seems like a safe bet that if Quinn continues to produce in all three phases, he'll continue to play.

Friday night, he hit his first career big-league triple on a deep fly ball to left-center that Austin Jackson couldn't snare. The ball caromed off the wall and if it wasn't played perfectly by leftfielder Jack Reinheimer, Quinn could have had an inside-the-park home run.

More on the Quinn-Herrera situation here (see story).

Cesar coming around

Hernandez's on-base percentage has been below .360 one day all season. In that regard, he's done his job as a leadoff hitter.

But entering Friday's game, he was hitting just .258, 36 points lower than his batting average the last two seasons. 

After a prolonged period without driving the ball, Hernandez has looked good the last two nights, going 4 for 8 with a double, a walk, two steals and four runs scored.

He has a stolen base in back-to-back games after stealing just one in his previous 38 games.

Up next

Another big-time pitching matchup is on tap for Saturday. It's Jake Arrieta (9-7, 3.33) vs. deGrom (7-7, 1.81).

On Sunday, Nick Pivetta (7-9, 4.37) faces veteran lefty Jason Vargas (2-8, 8.10).

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