Phillies

Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Trades, a pennant race and maybe a big award await Phillies in 2nd half

Are you ready for a pennant race, Phillies fans?

Of course, you are.

It has been too long.

The Phillies get back to work Friday night and for the first time since 2011 find themselves in legitimate position to make a run at a postseason berth. They lead the National League East by a half-game over the Atlanta Braves and 5½ over the Washington Nationals.

As the players return to town for a weekend series against the San Diego Padres, let’s look ahead at a few of the important storylines that will unfold as the pennant race begins.

The Manny hangover

Fans are disappointed that the team did not land slugging infielder Manny Machado in a trade. The front office has to be disappointed. But the disappointment cannot seep into the clubhouse. This mostly young Phillies team has displayed resilience and toughness all season and that must continue as the intensity of the games increases.

Machado is still a great long-term fit for this team at shortstop for a while, then over to third base and ultimately at first base as he finishes a long contract. The Phillies had two windows to get him. One has closed. But one remains open as Machado will test the free-agent market in the offseason. The Phils were reluctant to empty their prospect vault for him, but you know they will write a big check this winter.

Machado might end up loving Los Angeles and look to stay there. But, for now, he looks like just a short-term fit with the Dodgers, who lost shortstop Corey Seager to injury and are desperate to win a World Series with a ripe core. Machado is from Miami. He has told friends that he wants to play on the East Coast with a team that has spring training in Florida. He has “a thing” for the Yankees so they will be a team to watch. But the Phillies fill a lot of his criteria, too, and winning the division, or at least making the postseason, will help make Philadelphia attractive to Machado. The money will be huge wherever the guy goes. He wants to win and though he’s focused on winning with the Dodgers, he’s watching what happens the rest of season in other potential destinations.

What's plan B?

In pursuing Machado, the Phillies were trying to upgrade their offense. Yes, the team sees pitches, grinds out at-bats and walks, but the overall offense is below average. The team batting average is just .236 and the slugging percentage .390, both in the bottom third in the majors. The lack of offense hurt the Phils on their recent 11-game road trip. They surely could have finished better than 6-5 if they hadn’t averaged under three runs over the final 10 games and been shut out twice.

Improving the offense is a must. Shortstop might be the spot to do it as the pursuit of Machado confirmed. Minnesota’s Eduardo Escobar has been mentioned as a trade target and that would make sense. Landing a shortstop could improve the bench as Scott Kingery could be used in the super-utility role that was envisioned for him at the start of the season.

Message to Maikel

Maikel Franco sat. He was dropped to eighth in the batting order and that can be humiliating for a player no matter how much importance is placed on the spot in a carefully constructed lineup.

Whether the message was intentional or not, Franco seems to have gotten it. He is in the midst of his most productive stretch of the season, hitting .352 with a 1.106 OPS in 22 games since sitting out on June 22 in favor of utility man Jesmuel Valentin. Now, the possibility exists that Franco has, at least for now, played himself out of trade-bait status. If he continues to produce, he could be better than any of the third basemen on the trade market that are viewed as upgrades.

It’s still difficult to see Franco being part of this front office’s long-term plan, but in the short term he might be the best option.

Other ways to improve

Unable to improve the offense with the addition of Machado, the Phils could look for an overall upgrade by improving their run prevention. Bullpen is clearly an area the team would like to address with the addition of a top arm. The team pursued Zach Britton, the Orioles’ lefty closer, in a Machado package and will stay on him. Brad Hand was on the Phils’ radar before he was dealt to Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez, another lefty, and Mets closer Jeurys Familia could also help shorten games.

Yet another way to help the bullpen would be to acquire Toronto’s J.A. Happ in a trade. That could conceivably turn Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta into a power-armed bullpen piece.

The importance of Jake

With an average age of 26 years and 7 months, the Phillies are the youngest team in the majors. They have arrived in a pennant race a year before most expected, but that does not mitigate the need to capitalize on that unexpected position. All of this makes it imperative that Jake Arrieta continue to produce quality starts. He has allowed just four earned runs over 19 innings in his last three starts and the Phils have won all three.

Arrieta is 32. He has pitched in pennant races and won a World Series and a Cy Young Award. Aaron Nola has emerged as the ace of the Phillies’ staff, but Arrieta’s experience and presence will be vital in the second half. Pennant races have a different intensity that much of this team has never felt. Arrieta’s been-there-done-that experience will be valuable. Carlos Santana’s, too.

From the day he arrived, Arrieta has said he wants to lead and is comfortable doing that. Fittingly, he gets the ball Friday night and the game will be a tone-setter.

Awards race

The Phillies will give Nola a few extra days of rest coming out of the All-Star break — he won’t face the Padres this weekend — and that is smart given his importance to the team’s postseason chances. When he was drafted No. 7 overall out of LSU in 2014, Nola was projected to be a quick-riser who could eventually be a quality mid-rotation starter. He has become so much more and has a legitimate chance to become the Phillies’ first Cy Young Award winner since Roy Halladay in 2010. With 2½ months to go, Nola is right there in the conversation with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, who has won the last two NL Cy Young Awards.

Nola is tied for the NL lead with 12 wins and is second in ERA (2.30), innings (129), quality starts (16) and pitchers WAR (5.9). He has allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings (0.42). He is third in opponent batting average (.199) and WHIP (0.98) and fourth in strikeouts (131).

Seranthony Dominguez, Gabe Kapler’s favorite bullpen kill shot, is on his way to garnering a serious look for NL Rookie of the Year, and Kapler himself is in position to get votes for NL Manager of the Year. The Phils won just 66 games last season. They are on pace for 90 under the first-year manager.

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For pitching staff's sake, Phillies must improve MLB's worst defense

For pitching staff's sake, Phillies must improve MLB's worst defense

ATLANTA — Over the last couple of seasons, there have been frequent cries to move Vince Velasquez to the bullpen. Velasquez’s big fastball and difficulty navigating the middle innings have fueled these cries.

But the Phillies are committed to developing a starting pitcher.

And manager Gabe Kapler thinks the best is yet to come from the 26-year-old right-hander, who is 8-11 with a 4.63 ERA in 29 starts this season.

Kapler uses the Fielding Independent Pitching metric (FIP) to support his opinion. FIP measures everything a pitcher can control — in simple terms, it eliminates defense. Among big-league starters with more than 140 innings pitched this season, Velasquez ranks 23rd with a FIP of 3.65. Nick Pivetta is a few notches down at 3.72. Jacob deGrom leads the majors at 2.02 and Aaron Nola is sixth at 2.77.

“FIP is more predictive of what will happen next year than ERA is and that’s why we look at FIP more than ERA,” Kapler said. “ERA tells the story of what happened including defense. FIP tells us what might happen going forward.”

Kapler pointed out that Velasquez’s FIP is in the neighborhood of Charlie Morton (3.65), Kyle Freeland (3.77), Zack Greinke (3.79) and David Price (3.90).

“Most of the people in that range are really good at their jobs,” Kapler said. “This is something that I have to explain to Vince — you’re OK. If a team doesn’t value a guy with a low FIP and a high ERA, they’re not paying attention. Those guys get snatched up and asked for in trades. They’re in high demand because the expectation is that with an improved defense and a little bit of luck, you get a much better pitcher and maybe a superstar pitcher.”

By mentioning FIP, Kapler shined light on one of the Phillies’ biggest flaws: Defense. According to FanGraphs, the Phillies rank last in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) at minus-127. By comparison, the Braves, the team the Phillies are looking up at in the NL East standings, rank third best in the majors at plus-60 DRS.

“I acknowledge our defense has not been great,” Kapler said.

“If we caught the ball as a team better this year, if we made plays better as a team, that includes everything you can think of defensively, I think our pitchers would stand out even more than they have.”

Desperate to try to stay in the NL East race, the Phillies have recently prioritized offense over defense. The idea backfired on Thursday night as two instances of substandard infield play resulted in two runs behind Velasquez in the first inning. But Kapler took a similar tack Friday night. Looking for offense, he used Rhys Hoskins in left field, Carlos Santana at third base and Justin Bour at first base.

Next year, defense must be re-prioritized. It must get better. It will help the pitching staff.

“There are a number of things that we will dive into, that we will improve, that we will focus on to help our collection of defenders to be the best version of themselves,” Kapler said. “Quickness, agility, mobility, athleticism. If we get to two more ground balls, if we have two more throws that are this much better ... this is very much a game of inches. We have plenty of guys who have an opportunity to improve.”

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An indefensible decision by Gabe Kapler in Phillies' biggest game in years

An indefensible decision by Gabe Kapler in Phillies' biggest game in years

There have been plenty of head-scratching moves made this season by Gabe Kapler, but most of the time, even if the decision was uncommon, the logic was easy to see. 

Kapler’s decision Thursday night — in a must-win game — to use Luis Garcia in the eighth inning with the Phils trailing the Braves by a run? Indefensible. 

In that situation, a one-run deficit has to be treated like a tie. With how shaky Atlanta’s bullpen has been lately, a one-run deficit is far from insurmountable. It’s the kind of scenario that calls for a team’s best or hottest reliever. Worry about the ninth or 10th innings if/when they arrive. 

But instead of using Seranthony Dominguez or a locked-in Hector Neris, Kapler used Garcia, who allowed three runs in his previous outing and had allowed 11 runs in his last 10 2/3 innings. 

Garcia allowed four runs in the eighth and the Phils lost handily. 

After the game, Kapler explained that the Phillies liked how Garcia profiled against the bottom of the Braves’ order, righties they believed Garcia could handle. 

But it wasn’t exactly the bottom of the order. It was the Braves’ 5-6-7 due up. And, quite frankly, it hasn’t mattered this season whether a Phillies pitcher is facing the top or bottom of Atlanta’s order. Kurt Suzuki has killed the Phillies. Ryan Flaherty has killed the Phillies. Johan Camargo has hit them. Dansby Swanson has hit them. There has been no pocket of the lineup the Phillies have handled. 

Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Tommy Hunter had already been used. Pat Neshek was unavailable after pitching the previous two nights. But still, Garcia is clearly behind Dominguez and Neris in terms of recent performance. Neris has a 2.57 ERA with more than two strikeouts per inning in 16 appearances since returning from the minors. Even if you burn one in the eighth, you still have the other. 

This decision from Kapler was equivalent to a manager saving his ace in Game 6 of a playoff series so he can pitch Game 7. Well, you have to get to Game 7 first. That’s the priority. Especially when said manager is treating every game like Game 7 of a playoff series, removing starting pitchers in the third or fourth inning and optimizing platoon matchups all night. 

Kapler managed Thursday night with his back against the wall … until the bottom of the eighth. 

The Phillies’ playoff hopes are on life support. Two more losses in this series and the division goes to the Braves. 

If and when that happens, we’ll remember two instances — opening day and Thursday night — in which Kapler’s team lost an important game with one of its lesser relievers on the mound. 

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