Phillies

Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

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Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

It’s not always easy being the No. 1 overall pick in the major league baseball draft. Oh, the attention is great and the money ain’t bad, but the spotlight is relentlessly glaring and it can burn a hole right through you if you don’t immediately produce.

Mickey Moniak has walked in these spikes for 2½ seasons now. He’s felt the euphoria of hearing his name called above all others. He’s also felt the glare and the burn.

And the main thing he’s learned?

“You can’t panic,” he said.

The Phillies selected the wide-eyed Southern California native with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft and lured him away from a UCLA commitment with a $6.1 million signing bonus. For 2½ seasons, the young outfielder’s every move has been closely scrutinized. That’s just the way it is when you’re a No. 1 pick. Moniak has had his ups and downs and maybe a few too many downs for some. But there are a couple of big reasons to believe that Moniak is headed in the right direction on the often fickle development curve:

• He’s 20 years old for gosh sake, and won’t turn 21 until May. If he had gone the college route, his junior season would not even have begun yet.

• And he played eye-opening ball over the final two months of the 2018 season at Clearwater of the Florida State League. Over his final 52 games, he hit .302 and with 24 extra-base hits and an .829 OPS. His strikeout rate came down and his walk rate went up. That his improvement came late in the season, after months in draining Florida heat that has eaten up more than a few players, was a promising sign.

Moniak’s late-season success was fueled by something intangible. He took a deep breath, put faith in his talent, stopped putting pressure on himself and had some fun playing ball again. It all started last summer when a group of his pals from high school in the San Diego area traveled across the country and visited him in Clearwater.

“There were 10 of us in a two-bedroom apartment just hanging out,” Moniak said with a laugh.

Moniak’s buddies came to all the games that week. They heckled him (good-naturedly) from the stands and he went on a tear at the plate. It felt like he was back in high school, playing pressure-free ball.

“Their support helped me realize that it’s still baseball, have fun with it,” Moniak said.

Moniak was in Philadelphia this week to participate in the team’s prospect education seminar. He had been to Citizens Bank Park after the team drafted him in June 2016. Back then, he was 170 pounds. He has added muscle to his frame and is now 6-3, 205 pounds. His left-handed swing has produced just 10 homers in his first two full minor-league seasons, but the added strength could one day lead to more power as he continues to climb the development ladder.

It’s unclear where Moniak will open the 2019 season. It’s possible that he gets some more time in the Florida State League with the idea of playing himself to Double A Reading before the season is over. More immediately, he will be in big-league spring training camp next month, a little reward for his strong finish last summer, and a reminder that he still has huge potential for a bright future.

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J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

More than once last summer, J.T. Realmuto expressed his affection for Philadelphia and said he’d one day be up for signing a long-term contract extension with the Phillies.

The specter of his upcoming salary arbitration hearing hasn’t changed his outlook.

“Not at all,” he said before the 116th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association banquet Monday night. “Anybody who knows about the arbitration process knows it’s business. It’s not necessarily me against the Phillies right now. There’s definitely not going to be any hard feelings there. So I feel like we’re at the same place we were two or three months ago as far as with the contract extension.”

Before the two sides go to work on a long-term contract extension, Realmuto is likely to play the 2020 season on a one-year contract. Barring an unlikely settlement, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary decided by an arbitration panel next month. He is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies’ arbitration offer is $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides then pick one number or the other.

Realmuto knows the game. He went to arbitration with the Miami Marlins two years ago and lost.

“I have a good understanding of the process,” he said. “I know it’s not the Phillies trying to slight me. It’s more the system. There are no hard feelings there.”

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is coming off a season in which he solidified himself as baseball’s best catcher while making $5.9 million. He was an All-Star. He was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto’s 2019 season put him in a good position to win his arbitration case.

But he made it clear that this is about more than just himself.

"It’s not me against the Phillies,” he said. “It’s the system that we’re trying to fight right now.  I’m trying to go out and set a precedent for future catchers in the game and I feel like I had a season worthy of doing that so I’m going to fight for that.

"This is not because the Phillies didn’t give us a chance to come to an agreement. We’re fighting for a cause, fighting for the rest of the catchers. Historically, catchers have not been treated well in the arbitration process and we feel like this is an opportunity to advance that for the catchers. Just being able to fight for those guys is something I take pride in. I believe in fighting for future generations and I’m excited to do it."

Once Realmuto’s 2020 salary is established in mid-February, the Phillies are expected to initiate talks on an extension that would begin at the start of the 2021 season. Those talks should commence during spring training. A contract extension is expected to cover up to five seasons with an average annual value of over $20 million.

Realmuto, who was honored as the PSWA’s Athlete of the Year for 2019, was joined by new Phillies manager Joe Girardi at the banquet.

“I’m really excited to play for him,” Realmuto said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of feel. He knows exactly what he wants to do as a manager and has a lot of confidence and he’ll be able to instill that confidence in us.”

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Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 2015. His manager was A.J. Hinch. Jeff Luhnow was the general manager.

You know where this is going.

“I never saw anything,” Velasquez said Monday. “A lot of people have asked me, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

“It was shocking to hear about. And a little bit disappointing.”

The Astros were found to have used an illicit sign stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series championship season. Major League Baseball last week suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season and Houston ownership followed up by firing both men. The explosive issue also cost Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran their jobs as managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach, and a mastermind of the scheme, in 2017, and Beltran was a player on the team.

Velasquez pitched in just 19 games for the Astros in 2015. He was traded to the Phillies in December of that year.

Pitchers and catchers have always been cognizant of changing their signs and varying their sequences in running through signs, especially when there is a runner on second base, to combat sign stealing. Velasquez predicted that pitchers and catchers will be even more diligent in light of the Astros' scandal.

“Now, we have to be more observant of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be part of the discussion [in spring training.] You have to learn to protect yourself.”

Velasquez is spending the week in Philadelphia helping the team with some promotional work. (He even plans to throw a couple of bullpen sessions in the cages at Citizens Bank Park.) On Monday, Velasquez and teammate Roman Quinn joined former Phillies Milt Thompson and Mickey Morandini at a youth instructional clinic at the Ryan Howard Training Center in South Philadelphia. Forty-five young players affiliated with the Phillies/MLB Urban Youth Academy and RBI program showed up a cold January day to get a head start on the season and some tips from the Phillies players past and present.

Quinn missed significant time last season with a torn groin muscle, the latest in a series of injuries that has robbed the exciting outfielder of playing time in his career. He has made changes to his offseason conditioning program and believes he can stay healthy in 2020 and make a run at the Phillies’ starting centerfield job. As it stands right now, he will battle Adam Haseley for the job in camp.

“I trust my abilities and I know if I’m healthy then it’s hard to keep me out of the lineup,” Quinn said.

Like Quinn, Velasquez will be in a spring-training battle.

The top four spots in the Phillies’ rotation are set with Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta. Velasquez will compete with Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser of the competition will not necessarily be out of a job as the Phillies need bullpen help and one of the two could end up there.

Velasquez knows where he wants to be.

“I can play any role, but I want to start,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “I want to be in the rotation. I want to be in that playoff run and I want to be that guy for that game.

“I know I have a job to earn. That’s my main focus. Battling.”

Velasquez, as Phillies fans know by now, is blessed with a tremendous arm. However, he has struggled to put his talents together and arrive at that place known as consistency. He runs high pitch counts and fails to get through the middle of games. He averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 23 starts last season.

Velasquez knows it’s time for him to pitch deeper into games and he says, “I want that bad.” He has already established a telephone/text/video relationship with new pitching coach Bryan Price in hopes of picking up some keys to doing that.

“We’re in communication,” Velasquez said. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times and sent him videos of some of my bullpens.”

Velasquez avoided salary arbitration and will make $3.6 million this season. As his price tag goes up, so do expectations and the impatience of team officials. He might not be around at this time next season if he doesn’t produce in 2020.

“I’m very optimistic this is the year it clicks,” Velasquez said. “I know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m starting to figure a lot of things out. A lot of people tend to figure things out after two or three years in the major leagues and I think this is that time for me to put all the pieces together.

“My time is due. It’s really come down to that point where I need to plug in all the pieces.”

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