What a crazy year it's been for new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain

What a crazy year it's been for new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain

A year ago at this time, new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain was driving for Uber in Arizona as he awaited Mariners spring training.

So much has changed since then for him, and in Clearwater with the Phils, he will have an opportunity to make a big-league team out of camp for the first time. 

McClain knew going into 2019 that it would be a make-or-break year. If he didn't progress through the Seattle Mariners' system and prove his value, the likelihood was that he'd be out of baseball.

"My back was against the wall," he recalled this weekend as he made the two-day drive from Phoenix to Atlanta.

You don't find many 26-year-olds at High A, but that's where McClain's 2019 season began. He had spent the previous three years almost exclusively as a starting pitcher for the Modesto Nuts and the results were what they were — a 4.81 ERA in 64 appearances, 57 of which were starts.

Feeling that pressure, McClain had what he described as a strong offseason, and a switch to the bullpen in 2019 unlocked some abilities that resulted in his rise all the way from Single A to the majors in the span of just four months.

McClain dominated the same California League that had previously been a challenge, allowing one run in 16 innings with 18 strikeouts and just one walk. He was promoted to Double A and his success continued. At those two levels, he had a combined 0.85 ERA in 31⅔ innings when he was called up to Triple A to pitch in the Pacific Coast League.

The PCL is a notoriously difficult league for pitchers because of the high altitudes of stadiums and the hot conditions during the summer. Last season, the PCL was even more of a joke because it used the same juiced baseball as MLB. There were 3,312 home runs in the PCL in 2019 compared to 2,097 in 2018.

Yet McClain was still effective, posting a 3.29 ERA in 41 innings and allowing just three home runs. Still, he noticed the difference in the baseballs, particularly from Double A to Triple A. At Double A, he recalled, he could throw a hard fastball down the middle and live to tell about it. That wasn't the case in the PCL.

Last season was a good opportunity in Seattle for McClain, who was claimed off waivers by the Phillies on Friday. The Mariners used 42 different pitchers in 2019 and he was one of them, debuting on Aug. 2 in Houston.

In the days since the Phillies claimed McClain, much has been made on the internet of his performances in Houston compared to elsewhere. The Astros, who used a multi-layered system of espionage to steal signs from opponents and relay them to their players in real-time, do not have the benefit of the doubt, and there is increased focus on pitchers who experienced discrepancies in performance in Houston vs. everywhere else. 

McClain made 14 appearances for the Mariners last season. In the three games in Houston, he allowed 11 runs in three innings. In the other 11 appearances, he allowed three runs in 18 innings.

Speaking with him this weekend, McClain did not want to go down that road, though he did acknowledge that it was a lesson about the importance of protecting signs. 

We'll never know just how much the Astros' methods affected individual games or how many careers were ended as a result, but the players hurt most by it were pitchers like McClain clinging to their big-league dream. 

Earlier this offseason, superstar Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said this about former teammate Kris Medlen:

"The biggest thing for me is, some of those guys that went into Houston — I think everyone knows Kris Medlen around here, one of my favorite teammates of all time. He worked hard to get back to the big leagues. Took him two years to get back in 2018 (with the Arizona Diamondbacks), and he had one start, and it was in Houston, and he gave up seven runs.

“Do I know, was it happening that game? You just don’t know. He retired about a week after that. So, that’s the hard stuff for me.”

Last week, an Astros fan revisited the 2017 season and went game by game, recording the number of trashcan bangs per night. The game that featured the most bangs took place on Aug. 4 and Mike Bolsinger, a right-hander, allowed four runs in one-third of an inning and never again pitched in the majors.

Those are the stories that are really sticking right now with baseball fans outside of Houston.

McClain overcame it. His final five innings last season were scoreless, but more importantly, the stuff was there. 

"When I went to the bullpen, that's when the velocity picked up but without my pitches flattening out," he said. 

In the majors, McClain's fastball and sinker averaged 94 mph and maxed out at 97. The Phillies noticed and late last week added him to the 40-man roster in place of Trevor Kelley, another reliever they had claimed from Boston earlier in the offseason.

The Phillies did not sign a single reliever to a guaranteed contract this offseason, instead bringing in guys like Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Drew Storen on minor-league deals, making waiver claims on McClain and Robert Stock and trading for Rays flamethrower Cristopher Sanchez.

The expensive route with relievers has not worked for the Phillies over the last three years. Perhaps this low-risk approach with potential breakout or bounce-back candidates will bear more fruit.

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J.T. Realmuto offers grim view of contract talks with Phillies

J.T. Realmuto offers grim view of contract talks with Phillies

J.T. Realmuto began his first chat with reporters since baseball’s re-start with a request on Thursday.

He asked that questions about his contract situation with the Phillies be kept to a minimum. 

But in explaining why, Realmuto said plenty.

“We were in the really preliminary stages (of negotiations) early on in spring training before the pandemic and we haven't really gone anywhere since then, so if we could focus on the team here and speak a little bit less about myself that would be greatly appreciated,” the All-Star catcher said.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two separate comments from two different people involved in this drama that would suggest negotiations aren’t going particularly well

Ten days ago, general manager Matt Klentak, who rarely even entertains a question about ongoing contract negotiations, offered this on the state of talks with Realmuto’s camp:

"The landscape that we left in March is different from the one we return to now. We just have to see how that manifests itself in our discussions. We still love the player. We'd still love to have him in red pinstripes for the long haul. But there’s a lot of uncertainty in the game right now on a variety of levels. We just need to play that out."

Opening day for the shortened 2020 season is just two weeks away. Given the tone of the remarks offered by both sides, it’s difficult to see the Phillies and Realmuto coming to terms on a deal before then. Once the season starts, Realmuto will be just a few months away from free agency, a place that elite players fantasize about.

Realmuto was pressed on the topic of what appear to be stagnant negotiations with the Phillies.

“There's no frustration,” he said. “I understand the business of baseball. I'm here to play baseball and focus on this team winning and getting to the playoffs.”

The business of baseball in the pandemic year of 2020 means revenues are down all over the game. Phillies managing partner John Middleton, in an email to club employees back on June 1, said the team was braced to lose “significantly more than 100 million” this season.

Realmuto, 29, has long made it known that he’s looking to significantly raise the salary bar for all catchers in his next contract – be it with the Phillies or out on the open market. Something rivaling Joe Mauer’s average salary of $23 million – a record for a catcher – in the form of a multiyear deal seemed to be the starting point for Realmuto and it really didn’t seem that unreasonable over the winter.

Then the pandemic hit. The game shut down. Even when the games come back in two weeks, there will be no fans in the stands. The “gate” accounts for about 40 percent of the revenues that most teams bring in. Teams will reap some television revenues when the shortened, 60-game season begins in two weeks, but who knows if the season will be completed with COVID-19 spiking in a number of baseball states, and who knows if there will even be fans in the stands next season. The world begs for a vaccine. Baseball’s next free-agent class begs for a vaccine.

Realmuto has concerns about how "the new landscape" will affect the overall free-agent market this winter, but, personally, he’s undaunted about the prospect of hitting the market.

“It definitely concerns me,” he said. “Necessarily not for myself, but it does concern me for the free-agency class as a whole. I mentioned a few months back that the top guys usually find a way to get their dollars. Teams are going to want them, you know. Maybe if it's not 20 teams that are in on you, now there'll be five to 10. I just think that a lot of teams will be able to look at this as a time to take advantage and actually go for it instead of backing off. As half the league will probably be trying to cut revenue and save some money and the other ones will look at it as an advantage to maybe go forward and press forward. I think that it could affect free agency as a whole, but for myself, I'm not really too worried about it.”

Even with negotiations not progressing, Realmuto expressed affection for the Phillies organization.

“My opinion of the organization has not changed one bit,” he said. “I love this organization. They've been great to me and my family since I showed up. From top to bottom, they're just good people and they care about baseball, and that's really important to me.”

It’s still quite possible that Realmuto and the Phillies find a way to strike a long-term marriage. Baseball negotiations can endure painful moments and still end up with everyone happy. But no baseball negotiation has ever had to play out against a pandemic that has caused the game to hemorrhage revenues. Had this pandemic hit 18 months ago, Relamuto’s teammate, Bryce Harper, probably would not have landed a $330 million contract.

Harper wants Realmuto to remain with the Phillies. He wants him to get paid. He made that clear when he shouted, “Sign him!” during an intersquad game at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday. 

“I hope he owns a team one day, honestly,” Realmuto said. “I might be able to catch until I'm 60 if he owns a team.

“Honestly, it’s all in good fun. I appreciate the support and the respect is mutual there. He has a little fun with it so I don't mind it too much.

“From a public standpoint, it doesn't bother me how much it's being talked about. For me I'm going to focus on this season and focus on helping this team win and that's really all I can do.”

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Phillies’ 2021 schedule includes a bucket list trip for baseball fans

Phillies’ 2021 schedule includes a bucket list trip for baseball fans

Three days after MLB’s 2020 schedule came out, the league released the 2021 schedule.

There’s so much uncertainty around baseball right now, with COVID-19 cases around the league, issues with testing, players opting out and many others wary of the virus. There will be no fans in the stands in 2020, but this look at the 2021 schedule provides some early excitement for if/when the coronavirus pandemic slows enough to allow fans back into stadiums.

The Phillies will open the 2021 season at home against the Braves on April 1. The first four series alternate between Braves and Mets, the first two at home and next two on the road.

The Phils’ earliest 2021 non-division road trip is to Colorado and St. Louis from April 23-29.

The month of May includes two long road trips — a nine-gamer through Atlanta, Washington and Toronto, and another nine-game trip to Miami, Tampa and Cincy the week of Memorial Day. The Phillies also have a home weekend series against the Red Sox.

The Phillies face a daunting slate in June, with 11 consecutive games against the Nationals, Braves, Yankees and Dodgers. That Dodgers series is the Phils’ first West Coast swing, with a series in San Francisco to follow.

The Phillies are home for July 4 (a Sunday) against the Padres and then close out the first half of 2021 on the road at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in back-to-back series. That is a bucket list trip for many baseball fans.

From July 22 through Aug. 15, the Phils play 17 of 24 games at home, before their final West Coast trip to Arizona and San Diego.

September/October 2021 is not as heavy a dose of division matchups as usual for the final month. Only 13 of the Phillies’ 30 regular-season games after Sept. 1 are against NL East teams. Their final week is a trip to Atlanta and Miami.

The Phillies’ interleague schedule is entirely against the AL East, so these two divisions will become quite familiar over the next 15 months. The Phillies play the Rays, Blue Jays, Yankees and Red Sox on the road. They host the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Orioles.

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