Andrew Knapp

Phillies' bench was putrid early last year but should be better in 2020

Phillies' bench was putrid early last year but should be better in 2020

The Phillies' bench was a clear weakness early last season, the worst in the National League from opening day through the end of May. Phillies pinch-hitters went 13 for 90 in the season's first two months, hitting .144 with one home run in 95 plate appearances.

The early-June acquisition of Jay Bruce from Seattle was designed to improve the bench. But Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL just after the trade and Bruce was thrust into everyday duty.

Bruce figures to be the key member of the Phillies' bench in 2020, his last year under contract. If he can hit for power in key pinch-hit opportunities, he could turn a few losses into wins. If he can also just do what he's always done when asked to spot start — hit .230-.240 with power — that would be enough from that role. He is unquestionably a positive clubhouse presence. He became a leader here last summer quickly and organically.

Bruce was great last June. In his first three weeks as a Phillie, he had the decisive, multi-run hit in six wins. Then he was absent for most of the second half. An oblique strain led to an IL-stint out of the All-Star break, and then a flexor strain cost him three weeks in August. He was relegated to strictly pinch-hit appearances as the season wound down.

Beyond Bruce, the Phillies have three other likely bench candidates in centerfielder Roman Quinn, catcher Andrew Knapp and Josh Harrison, who can play second base, third base and both outfield corners. 

Joe Girardi, set to enter his first season as Phillies manager, spoke positively of Quinn in one of his first radio interviews. The H-word with Quinn is so obvious that it's barely even worth mentioning anymore. We all know what has prevented him from producing. He's still worth his spot on the 40-man roster because of the tools, upside and inexpensive contract.

Knapp is back as a backup. The Phillies could carry three catchers in 2020, though, as MLB expands to 26-man rosters from March-through-September. That could mean a spot for Deivy Grullon or non-roster invitee Christian Bethancourt.

What about Odubel Herrera? He's a big wild-card heading into spring training. It feels like a significant long shot that he is back with the team, but there's always a chance he could convince the organization he deserves a second chance.

Spring training invitees Phil Gosselin and Matt Szczur, both local guys, will battle for roles as extra men in the infield and outfield, respectively. Gosselin was, statistically, the Phillies' best pinch-hitter in 2019. Szczur is a former Villanova football and baseball standout who was on the Cubs' 2016 World Series team. 

Nick Williams is still on the 40-man roster but seems like a big-time change of scenery candidate if/when the Phils need to clear space.

Mikie Mahtook was invited to spring training as well. He's a 30-year-old outfielder who spent the last three seasons with the Tigers. He showed some flashes in 2017 when he hit .276 with a .787 OPS in 379 plate appearances. He spent a good portion of that second half hitting at the top or in the middle of Detroit's order. He's barely hit in the two seasons since.

The Phillies are also likely to add a few more bench candidates between now and mid-February. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 11 and the first full team workout is set for Feb. 17. We're only six weeks away, people.

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Phillies sign backup catcher Andrew Knapp to one-year contract

Phillies sign backup catcher Andrew Knapp to one-year contract

The Phillies list of arbitration-eligible players has shrunk from nine to eight.

Andrew Knapp and the club have agreed on a one-year deal worth $710,000.

Knapp had been eligible for arbitration for the first time.

Pitchers Hector Neris, Adam Morgan, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Jose Alvarez remain eligible for salary arbitration. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is also eligible for arbitration. All are expected to be tendered 2020 contracts by Monday night’s 8 p.m. deadline. Players not tendered contract by the deadline become free agents.  

Infielders Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco are also eligible for salary arbitration. It’s possible that the Phillies will cut ties with both players.

Knapp has been the Phillies’ primary backup catcher the last three seasons. It’s somewhat surprising that he signed before the tender deadline, but there have been rumblings that the Phils are looking to add catching depth and he might not have wanted to risk being non-tendered. The Website www.mlbtraderumors.com had projected Knapp to make $800,000 in 2020.

Knapp, 28, played behind the workhorse Realmuto last season. He had just 160 plate appearances and hit .213.

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How many of Phillies' 9 arbitration-eligible players are worth keeping?

How many of Phillies' 9 arbitration-eligible players are worth keeping?

The Phillies, after Monday's flurry of roster moves, have nine players left who are eligible for salary arbitration this winter and while some of the decisions are no-brainers (J.T. Realmuto, Zach Eflin, probably Jose Alvarez), others are iffier and some are pretty clear non-tender candidates.

Realmuto made $5.9 million last season and should see that increase to $10.5-11 million in 2020 if the Phillies don't first lock him up with a long-term extension.

Eflin and Alvarez will see their salaries rise to about $3 million each. That is a fair price for a No. 3/4 starter and a decent lefty specialist.

Adam Morgan, who has one fewer year of big-league service time than Alvarez, is likely looking at a 2020 salary between $1.5 to $2 million. New manager Joe Girardi referenced Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez as key relievers who dealt with injuries in 2019, which made it sound like Morgan will indeed still be in the picture.

Hector Neris' salary will rise to the $5 million range. Worth it, even if he's in more of a setup role next season. 

The maybes

Vince Velasquez at around $4 million? It really depends on what else the Phillies think they can accomplish this winter. It would be illogical to expect Velasquez to turn into a different pitcher in Year 6 than he's been the first five. He has a 4.93 ERA the last three seasons with an untenable home run rate and a fastball that gets hit hard when not well-located.

If he's back with the Phillies in 2020, it will likely be as a reliever. They simply cannot afford to give him 15-20 more starts. Maybe a team with an awesome rotation like the 2019 Nationals or Astros could get away with having a low-efficiency, boom-bust option in the No. 5 spot but not the Phillies.

Andrew Knapp's situation is a bit more complicated. His 2020 salary through arbitration would likely fall a bit under $1 million, but the Phillies need to improve the backup catcher position. They can't run Realmuto in the ground and they need a viable backup who can either provide offense once every few starts or play above-average defense. Knapp knows a lot of these pitchers and is well-liked but there hasn't been enough on-field value and that's what matters, right?

The thing is, Knapp is worth keeping around as depth for $800,000 or so. If the Phillies do end up with a better backup, they could option Knapp. The Phils don't appear too confident Deivy Grullon can be Realmuto's backup in 2020.

Probably not

Cesar Hernandez keeps getting more expensive. He will be due upwards of $10 million through arbitration. He is not an eight-figure player, even if it's for only one year.

The Phillies will likely have to non-tender Hernandez. Is another team trading for him for the right to pay a league-average second baseman $10 million or more? Nope. At half the price, Hernandez would have much more value.

The Phillies were unable for years to trade Hernandez. It's hard to call it a missed opportunity without knowing the best possible offer they received for him. The front office never felt it was being offered fair value for Hernandez.

Maikel Franco, meanwhile, would be due between $5-7 million through arbitration and that's just too much for a flawed player who has lost his job two years in a row. The Phillies need to move on and improve at third base.

If it is decided that Alec Bohm isn't ready out of spring training (a strong possibility), the Phillies could go the stopgap route. Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas will be free agents. Anthony Rendon, too, though he'll be in the very highest price tier.

*Matt Swartz' arbitration projections factored into these estimates.