Phillies

Rob Thomson, a man who would know, gives Phillies' hiring of Joe Girardi two thumbs up

Rob Thomson, a man who would know, gives Phillies' hiring of Joe Girardi two thumbs up

No one in baseball knows Joe Girardi better than Rob Thomson.

No one.

Thomson was on the coaching staff, as either third base coach or bench coach, all 10 years that Girardi managed the New York Yankees.

When Girardi was let go by the Yankees after the 2017 season, Thomson moved down the road and became Phillies bench coach under Gabe Kapler.

Now Kapler is gone and Girardi is in as Phillies manager.

Thomson remains.

So, just what are the Phillies getting in their new skipper?

"A very intelligent person," Thomson said in a telephone interview. "Joe prepares as well as anybody, he has a great work ethic and a passion for the game. He's really good.

"He cares about his staff and his players, cares about the organization and the city he works for.

"He's been a winner his entire life."

It's difficult to recall a Phillies managerial hire that has been more widely applauded by fans than Girardi. The guy brings a brilliant resume to town — three World Series rings as a player and another as a manager. The new schoolers like him because he knows his way around the numbers game. (He has an engineering degree from Northwestern, for gosh sakes.) The old schoolers like him because he'll go off the menu and use his gut when he needs to. He's got a brush cut and a square jaw. He'll go at it with an umpire and slam his cap to the ground.

"We're getting a very good man," Thomson said.

Having already spent two years on the Phillies staff, Thomson will be a tremendous resource to his new/old boss as he gets to know his new club. Girardi, who will be officially introduced to Philadelphia at a Monday news conference, has already begun seeking intel from Thomson.

"I don't think I've ever heard Joe as excited over the phone as I have this last week or so," Thomson said. "As he got into the process and found how great the people in the front office and ownership are and as he started learning about the players and the way they prepare and compete, his excitement has only grown. I think he wishes spring training started tomorrow."

It's best not to rush spring training. In adding Girardi, the Phillies have one big offseason item checked off their to-do list, but several big ones remain. Surely, Girardi already knows what the biggest one is, but we asked Thomson just the same what he'd tell the new skipper if he was asked about the team's biggest need.

"Every team wins and loses with pitching," Thomson said. "You can't have enough. George Steinbrenner used to say it all the time. We'd have eight starters and he'd say, 'Not enough.' So I think I'd tell Joe that's probably our biggest need.

"But I'd also tell him we have a very talented group and talented core here and we're really, really close, and I truly believe that. We have a group of guys that really wants to win and compete. We have a good thing going. I've already said that to him."

Thomson and Girardi go back more than 20 years. Not only is Thomson a brilliant baseball man — anyone lucky enough to talk the game with him for five minutes knows that — but he's a stellar planner and organizer. That's why the Yankees in the late 1990s had him coordinate both big-league and minor-league spring training camps in Tampa. Girardi was still playing for the Yankees in those days. The two former catchers gravitated toward each other and peppered each other with questions and feedback about all things baseball.

"Depending on what the situation called for, Joe could be strong with a person or he could be soft with a person. He had a touch," Thomson said. "You could see great leadership ability in him. I always figured at some point he'd manage in the big leagues. There was really no question in my mind."

All big-league managers, even the best of them, have their detractors and Girardi had his share at the end in New York. Some said he'd gotten too rigid and lost his feel for connecting with young players. There were reports that Girardi had stopped playing nice with a front office that he believed was going overboard on analytics. All of these matters have relevance in Philadelphia because the Phillies have young players and a front office and ownership group committed to using analytics.

"As far as not connecting with young players, I did not see that," Thomson said. "You hear the rumors about what's written and said. But we went to Game 7 of the ALCS (in 2017). He's connecting with somebody, right?

"As far as analytics, I can tell you this about Joe: He's going to tell you what he's thinking. He is honest, accountable and straightforward. I don't know what happened at the end in New York (as far as pushing back on analytics), but if that is what it was and he said his piece, so be it. I'd want someone like that working for me."

As the 2019 season was coming to an end in Philadelphia, a significant player on the Phillies roster offered this about the way the team was run:

"They've gone overboard on the analytics," the player said. "They're making it way too complicated. They need to simplify."

Analytics, however, are not going away in the game and they're not going away in Philadelphia. Ownership pushed for and has funded the building of an analytics department. Nonetheless, the team has acknowledged that there needs to be a blend between baseball's old and new ways.

The baseball man who knows Joe Girardi better than most says that's right in his guy's wheelhouse.

"Balance is Joe's strength," Thomson said. "He looks at numbers as part of his process in making a decision, but he also relies on his senses, what he sees and feels.

"In the wild card game in '17 in Minnesota, he took (Luis) Severino out in the first inning because he just didn't see good results. He didn't think the ball was coming out good and he pieced it together with (pitching coach) Larry Rothschild and won us a game. Typically, you wouldn't do that, definitely not in the regular season. But he sensed, 'This is something I've got to do right now.' There were no analytics involved."

Thomson spent 28 years in the Yankees organization before coming to Philadelphia. He has loved his time here and thanks Kapler for that.

"I loved my time with him, I really did," Thomson said. "He treated me like gold. He treats everyone like gold. He's a wonderful person. He has a great managerial career ahead of him. I believe that. I just love the guy."

Maybe Thomson will be right. Maybe Kapler will grow from his two years in Philadelphia and go on to win World Series somewhere else, just like Terry Francona did after he was fired from his first manager's job/learning experience in Philadelphia. Ownership cited two September collapses in firing Kapler, but there was more to it. Owner John Middleton confirmed as much when he said he began thinking about letting Kapler go in July. Kapler ran a loose ship with little structure. The September collapses may have been a symptom of that.

Thomson was asked about structure and all that stuff.

"The biggest problem we ran into was the injuries," he said of the 2019 Phillies. "That and we just didn't play well. Why didn't we play well? I don't know. Gabe had structure and Joe has structure, it's just a little different. Joe's will be a little tighter, but it won't be over the top. He'll hold himself accountable and he'll hold others accountable, just like Kap did. Joe has a winning pedigree. When he walks into a room, people straighten up.

"He's a good one and he's excited about getting going."

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Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

The Phillies are about to sign a player with a resume chock-full of impressive — and important — accomplishments.

According to sources, Matt Szczur, the 30-year-old outfielder from South Jersey, has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phils. The deal will include an invite to major-league spring training camp.

Szczur — pronounced SEE-zur — has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. He is a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School and Villanova University. He was a two-sport star at Villanova.

On the football field, Szczur was a dynamic receiver and return specialist for Villanova’s 2009 NCAA FCS national championship team. He racked up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game win over Montana and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

On the baseball field, Szczur was an all-Big East player and a fifth-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2010. He played in 107 games for the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016.

Szczur’s accomplishments extend beyond the playing field.

Off the field, he did something extraordinary when he took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova in 2010 to donate bone marrow that ultimately helped save the life of a young girl from Ukraine who had battled leukemia. Szczur’s life-saving gift started with his involvement in the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. Talley was Szczur’s football coach at Villanova. Szczur has subsequently started his own charitable enterprise, the Szcz The Day Foundation.

Szczur hit .259 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 185 at-bats for the World Series champion Cubs in 2016. He was traded to San Diego in 2017. He spent parts of that season and the 2018 season in the majors with that club. He signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last season and hit .322 with eight homers, 28 RBIs and a .967 OPS in 44 games at Triple A Reno. His season was shortened by a quad injury.

The Phillies are set at the corner outfield spots with Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and Adam Haseley is going to get a chance to hold down the center field spot with Roman Quinn in the picture as well. Szczur will give the Phillies some outfield depth and his ability to play center field is a plus. He is an excellent defender at all three outfield positions and could push for a spot on the big club as active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 men in 2020.

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Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Phillies officials left the winter meetings with much of their offseason work still in front of them.
 
Manny Machado was still a front-burner free-agent item. Bryce Harper was still in the background and J.T. Realmuto was headed to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York … anywhere but Philadelphia.
 
You know the rest of the story.
 
Spring training had already begun by the time the Phillies settled their offseason last year. A year later, Phillies officials departed the winter meetings on Thursday with their heavy offseason lifting complete.

The Phils signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract last week and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal at the meetings this week. The signings left the Phils about $5 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the coming season and the club will be mindful of that. It’s likely — though not certain — that any further moves the Phillies make will qualify as tweaks.
 
Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the remainder of the offseason.

The starting rotation

Aaron Nola and Wheeler give the Phillies a “1 and a 1-A,” as manager Joe Girardi said.

Jake Arrieta is healthy and will be ready to go Day 1 of camp and Zach Eflin will hold down a job. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are slated to battle for the fifth job, though it would not be surprising to see the Phils bring back Drew Smyly on a minor-league deal to join the fight. The Phils were keeping an eye on Rick Porcello to see where his market was headed, but he signed for one year and $10 million with the Mets. Lefty Wade Miley could be someone to keep an eye on, depending where his market goes. The Phils are committed to having top prospect Spencer Howard start the season in Triple A, but he could have a major impact as the season goes on. The Phils will watch Howard’s workload — because of injury, he pitched under 100 innings last year — so adding bargain depth is a must.

The bullpen

At the moment, it looks like a fairly unchanged unit. The Phils are banking on Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez being healthy again and Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Ranger Suarez carrying a heavy load again. Pivetta, Velasquez or both could be used in the ‘pen, depending on the depth that is added in the rotation. If the Phils want to push the tax, they could make a play for former Yankee Dellin Betances. Someone from the system like Garrett Cleavinger or Connor Brogdon could surprise in spring training. How about Tommy Hunter? The Phils put a lot of time into his rehab after elbow surgery last year. Could he be a fit on a bargain deal? Ditto for Jared Hughes and Mike Morin.

The bench

Former All-Star and .300 hitter Josh Harrison has been signed on a minor-league deal. He can play anywhere and figures to have a good chance to make the club. Phil Gosselin, another jack of all trades, is coming back on a minor-league deal and the team has shown some interest in free agent Matt Szczur. Brad Miller remains a free agent and a potentially good fit. Jay Bruce will add power off the bench. Andrew Knapp returns as backup catcher but it would not be surprising to see the Phils sign one or two more veteran catchers to push for work and add depth. Remember, Girardi has said he’d like to keep Realmuto to between 120 and 130 games so he is fresh in October. “That’s where the prize is,” Girardi said. Austin Romine would have been a nice fit, but he signed with Detroit. 

Trades

While it appears as if most of the team’s major moves are done, general manager Matt Klentak and his group will continue to stay engaged on the trade front and you never know if one could materialize. Nick Williams could be dealt. Miami has long liked him. Velasquez could be dealt for some salary relief, particularly if the Phils are able to add starting pitching depth. The Phils would surely listen on Jean Segura, but he has three years and $45 million left on his deal so that would not be easy.
 
Could the Phils make a major trade?
 
After seeing the Realmuto deal come together so quickly last February, it can’t be ruled out. Even something crazy is possible. By crazy we mean Kris Bryant. Yes, he’d be a nice fit as the Phils make a quick push at a title before he becomes a free agent. But it’s a real long shot and it would probably cost top prospect Alec Bohm, and it would definitely push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, though managing partner John Middleton has said he would go over it for the right championship-caliber opportunity. Maybe that’s Bryant. There will continue to be buzz about him and the Phillies will continue to be connected to him as long as there is.
 
J.A. Happ could be another guy to watch on the trade front. The Phils made him an offer last winter and he signed with the Yankees. The Yanks are now eager to move his $17 million salary and might attach a good prospect to the package to help make the deal. Happ would put the Phillies over the tax, but, given the Phils’ need for more pitching, it might it be worth rolling the dice on the left-hander having a bounce-back year if and only if the Yanks attach a good prospect or two to the deal. 

What about Herrera?

The end of the winter meetings begins to put spring training in focus and the Phillies have a big decision to make before then: Do they bring Odubel Herrera to camp? Do they release him? The Phils would eat most of his salary to trade him, but there has been no interest.
 
We dealt with the Herrera situation more deeply in this story.

Realmuto's extension

Sometime before spring training, the Phils are expected to pursue a contract extension with Realmuto.

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