Phillies

As trade deadline approaches, Phillies GM Matt Klentak to get firsthand look at much-coveted Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd

As trade deadline approaches, Phillies GM Matt Klentak to get firsthand look at much-coveted Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd

The Phillies began an important week in the schedule with a 2-1 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Despite scoring just three runs in the final two games, the Phillies took two of three from the Pirates to remain entrenched in the National League wild-card race as next week's trade deadline (and big decisions for the front office) steams toward us.

And, this year, it's a real trade deadline. There are no more August waiver deals, the kind that once brought the Phillies Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs and the Houston Astros Justin Verlander in 2017, two months before they won the World Series.

The Detroit Tigers traded Verlander to the Astros in August 2017. Two years later, the Tigers, who entered Monday tied with Baltimore for the worst record in the majors, remain in a rebuild and they have several trade candidates that intrigue contending teams.

The Phillies will get a good look at one of them — maybe more — over the next couple of days when they travel to Detroit for a quick, two-game interleague series on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak will join the team in Detroit for the series and will no doubt have his eyes trained on Tuesday night's Detroit starter, lefty Matthew Boyd.

Though Klentak would surely prefer otherwise, it's possible he could also get a look at Shane Greene, the Tigers' All-Star closer. Outfielder Nicholas Castellanos and lefty starter Daniel Norris are also on Detroit's trading block.

The Phillies have big needs in the starting rotation and at the back end of the bullpen. Sources say the Phils have had conversations with the Tigers about all of their available players, particularly Boyd and Greene. Both are the type of pitcher the Phillies would like to acquire in that they are talented and under contractual control beyond this season. In other words, they are not rentals. Boyd has three years of control after this season and Greene is under control through next season.

Now, here's the rub: That type of control raises the price tag on these pitchers and by all accounts, the Tigers are looking for a huge score — as they should.

One baseball executive familiar with the Tigers' thinking said the club was looking for four young players for Boyd — "two with star potential and two more with a chance."

The Tigers are in position to seek a huge score not only because Boyd has so many years of control remaining but also because the market for starting pitchers heavily favors sellers. Toronto's Marcus Stroman (the Phillies have scouted him recently) and Boyd are the top two controllable pitchers on the market. It remains unclear if Arizona will deal lefty Robbie Ray, who is under control for another season, or Zack Greinke because the Diamondbacks are still in the wild-card chase. The D-backs could hold on to both and look to deal them in the offseason if they desire. The market for Greinke will be limited, now and in the offseason, because he is owed over $80 million through 2021 and he has a no-trade clause. The Phillies have plenty of money and would prefer to use that over prospect capital, but even they would have reservations about taking on that amount of money for a guy who will pitch at 36 and 37 the next two seasons and has Philadelphia on his no-trade list.

Madison Bumgarner is another pitcher that the Phils have long liked, but his availability is now complicated by the fact the Giants have gotten hot and are now in the wild-card race. (Surely, teams with available starters like Toronto and Detroit love that.)

In the end, Bumgarner might not be quite as attractive for a team that is more than one piece away from a title because he will be a free agent at season's end. The Phillies, just four games over .500 and with multiple holes, have to consider the prospect cost of a rental player because they just don't appear to be good enough to make a significant October run.

Can we beat the Dodgers by adding just one player, or are we better off hanging onto our prospects? That's a question teams like the Phillies have to ask themselves. It is a question they have already asked themselves.

For someone like Boyd, the Tigers would probably ask the Phillies for a package that would include position players such as Alec Bohm, Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley, or pitchers Adonis Medina, Spencer Howard and Francisco Morales. The Phils might part with a couple of these guys — hey, they're going to need pitching next season, too — but their current place in the standings would suggest that they will also be very protective of this group, especially Bohm and Howard.

Nonetheless, it should be interesting to watch Boyd pitch against Aaron Nola on Tuesday night in Detroit. Boyd is 6-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 20 starts for the lowly Tigers. He walks under 2.0 batters per nine innings and strikes out an even 12.0. He pitches a little like J.A. Happ, unafraid to go after hitters up in the zone with a sneaky fastball and complement it with a good changeup. He'd be a nice pickup for the Phillies, for now and beyond, and Matt Klentak will be watching. Is he willing to pay the price? Tick, tick, tick. The trade deadline is nine days away.

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Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.

The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.

Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.

He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.

“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”

Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.

After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.

“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”

Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.

It’s time to cash in on that potential.

A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.

Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”

There is a difference.

“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We're not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We're going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He's always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”

We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.

While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter's innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.

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Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

About nine months after free agency opened, Yasiel Puig has finally found a home. He agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Braves, which means the Phillies could see him 10 times in 2020.

The Braves are still a contender but were reeling and needed to make some sort of move to add more talent to their roster. Over the last two weeks, they've seen superstar Freddie Freeman and top reliever Will Smith test positive for COVID-19, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez have opted out of the season.

Puig, 29, will likely play right field and bat in the spot Markakis would have occupied. The Braves still have a strong outfield with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center and Puig in right. To optimize for defense, they could play Ender Inciarte in the outfield and have either Ozuna or Puig DH.

There was so much fanfare over Puig when he debuted with the Dodgers seven years ago, but he hasn't been able to replicate the production from his first two seasons. He's settled in as a .260-ish hitter with mid-20s home-run power and an on-base percentage right around the league average. In fact, in back to back seasons, he has hit exactly .267 with exactly a .327 OBP.

In 141 career plate appearances against the Phillies, Puig is a .301 hitter with eight doubles, three triples, three homers and 18 RBI.

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