Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pete Mackanin Has "Interim" Removed From His Job Title

The announcement came down this afternoon with a bolt-out-of-the-blue suddenness: the Phillies have decided to remove the "interim" tag from Pete Mackanin
The club announced that he will return with a contract for the 2016 season, one that includes a club option for 2017 as well.
Ironically, it was exactly two years ago today that the Phillies removed that same "interim" tag from Ryne Sandberg, hiring him as the full-time skipper.
Prior to this announcement, most reasonable speculation seemed to be that Mackanin would finish out the 2015 season. Then at some point, probably in October, the club would name a new general manager.
That new GM would then sit down with club president Andy MacPhail and make a decision on the managerial position, possibly after a series of candidate interviews.
To some, the Phillies appear to have jumped the gun a bit, putting the cart of a manager before the horse of a general manager. Not necessarily so. 
With MacPhail in the driver's seat of the presidency, it has become fairly obvious each time he speaks or releases a public statement that he will be active in making most decisions.
Whomever the Phillies ultimately decide to hire as their GM is going to understand when he or she takes the position that they are working with MacPhail in that role, not just for him. The difference is subtle, but distinct.
So bringing back Mackanin comes down simply to MacPhail being comfortable with what he has seen over the last 76 games. 
That not only involves the on-field results, where the team has gone 30-46 under Mackanin, but also in the dugout and the clubhouse.
“Since assuming the interim manager position in June, Pete has developed an excellent rapport with our players and has also connected well with the media and our fans,” MacPhail said, per CSN Philly's John Finger.
From my perspective, there are three main considerations for fans who might be questioning this move to ponder over: First, what are your realistic expectations for 2016, no matter who is the manager? Second, how much have the Phillies really committed to here? Third, what other options are available?
The answer to the first question for any reasonable fan has to be that 2016 is going to be yet another losing season. Sure, we can expect some amount of progress, but what does progress mean in this situation?
The club surely cannot finish worse next year under Mackanin. They are the worst team in baseball now. You cannot get worse than the worst.
"We will not pout. We will not feel sorry for ourselves. If you want to, then you don't belong here." ~ Mackanin
Secondly, the committment is almost nothing. Mackanin gets to pilot the ship during what is sure to be another losing season where the primary focus will be on evaluating and developing young players.
At the end of next season, and unless he resigns or commits some serious transgression he surely will complete the full season, he can be evaluated on a more longterm basis at that point.
The question of other possible managerial options is almost a moot point. If you thought that this team was perhaps a year or two away, that the current skipper was mediocre, and that bringing in the "right guy" to help push them over the top was all that was needed, then perhaps you wait and interview the top available candidates.
However, the Phillies are still at least two, and possibly three to four years away from serious contention. If Mackanin shows something special in the next year or so, perhaps he is the longtime guy to stay as they begin to contend. 
If not, then a year, two years from now, there will be good candidates available to help take that next step at that time.
The bottom line here is that, while it might not be the sexiest move, keeping Mackanin around for the 2016 season as a "caretaker" manager of sorts is not a bad idea at all. 
He seems to be a loyal organizational soldier. He seems to have made a connection with the players that Sandberg was never personable enough to make.
As a concrete example of the change in the locker room, Mackanin pulled outfielder Odubel Herrera from a game in Atlanta on Sunday in the 4th inning when Herrera slammed his bat to the ground in anger and frustration, and then failed to run out a fly out to left field.
As quoted by Jake Kaplan at Philly.com, Mackanin's post-game statement regarding his reasoning for pulling Herrera was typically no-nonsense:
"Boys play Little League. Men play Major League Baseball. We will not pout. We will not feel sorry for ourselves. If you want to, then you don't belong here. He had to learn a lesson. To me, he's been pouting for a few days, and I just wanted to make sure that he gets the message...You cannot afford to pout or feel sorry for yourself at this level. You've got to play like a man."
In response, Herrera is reported to have gone into his manager's office today and apologized, stating that it won't happen again. 
The 23-year old has been a revelation of sorts on the field and at the plate for the Phillies during his rookie season. But there have been similar immature outbursts previously. 
Mackanin laid down the law, and now perhaps the young many can learn a lesson and grow into an even better player and person.
Mackanin will take the Phillies to spring training in Clearwater in February of 2016. There will be no expectations for his team, other than the interest and excitement around watching young players such as Herrera and Maikel Franco, and pitchers such as Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, continue their development.
There will also be increased interest in the possible arrival of more strong young pitching, possibly including the talented trio of Jake ThompsonBen Lively, and Zach Eflin. And, of course, perhaps most interesting of all, the countdown to the arrival of top prospect J.P. Crawford.
Whichever young players step up in the spring and during the 2016 season, Mackanin will be their manager. When 2016 is over, well, we'll see. 
Will Mackanin turn out to be just a caretaker, helping shepherd the Phillies through another difficult season or two before being replaced by the guy who will help make them a winner again?
For the first time in his career, Mackanin is a big league manager without the word "interim" as part of his job title. 
However, he only has that job guaranteed for one year. If he wants more, he needs to continue demonstrating the traits that are getting him this longer look to begin with.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Maikel Franco May Return to Phillies This Season

When last we saw Maikel Franco in an official game, the Phillies rookie had been laid out on the ground at Chase Field in Arizona, writhing in pain after being hit on the wrist by a pitch from Diamondbacks righthander Jeremy Hellickson.
The injury happened in the first inning of a game on August 11th, one that the Phils would lose by a 13-1 score. The loss came just a day after being drubbed 13-3 by the host DBacks.
"The plan is to try to get him back into games at some point before the end of the season." ~ interim Phillies GM Scott Proefrock
It would turn out that his wrist was fractured, and he was finally placed on the Disabled List a week after being hit. Most fans thought that with the combination of a fracture diagnosis and a lost season, that was the end of Franco's rookie campaign.
To that point, Franco was enjoying a solid first full season in red pinstripes. He was hitting for a .277/.340/.490 slash line, with 13 homers, 48 RBI, and 43 runs scored in 326 plate appearances across 77 games.
As for the team, the two blowout losses in the Arizona desert would put the brakes on a Phillies hot streak that had seen the club win 16 of its previous 21 games following the MLB All-Star break.
The Phillies have gone 11-22 since losing their 3rd baseman, just a .333 winning percentage, well below the already poor .398 mark they had when Franco went down.
Having him out of the lineup has certainly contributed to the two games difference between the Phillies, who sit at the bottom of the overall MLB standings, and the Atlanta Braves, who they are facing this weekend.
But now comes word that Franco may, in fact, be able to return to the team before this 2015 season comes to an end. 
As reported by MLB.com's Ryan Lawrence, Phillies interim GM Scott Proefrock stated: "The plan is to try to get him back into games at some point before the end of the season."
Franco himself is working hard towards just that goal, now down in Florida for workouts that he hopes will lead to an activation by possibly next weekend, certainly by the final 6-game homestand at the beginning of October.
Of course, there are hurdles to any potential return. First is the injury itself. The Phillies would certainly take no unnecessary chances with such a big part of their future. 
So doctors would certainly have to clear him for a return to baseball activity. However, he may still then have to put up with a little discomfort in the early stages of his workouts.
With the return to actually facing pitchers comes the next hurdle, getting his timing back. Franco has been out of action for over a month already, and his targeted return would mean that he had missed a full six weeks of play at the MLB level.
Still, assuming that he is fully healed and can do no further damage by returning, and assuming he can regain some measure of timing, there is no reason to deny him that opportunity.
Even if he only gets to play the final half-dozen games in front of the home fans at Citizens Bank Park, both he and the organization will feel much better knowing that he is fully ready for 2016.
It is certainly far from a sure thing that we will see Maikel Franco back in a Phillies uniform and in the lineup again this season. But it is also no longer a sure thing that his season is over. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Phillies Are Just Passing Time With Darin Ruf

With a likely season-ending injury to Ryan Howard, the Phillies regular 1st baseman for more than a decade, the club has apparently decided to give an increased opportunity for playing time to Darin Ruf, who has spent much of this season and his career shuffling between 1st base, left field, and the bench.
In this 2015 season, the Phillies have given 602 plate appearances to those two, Howard (466) and Ruf (136), at the 1st base position. The two have combined for 27 home runs and 91 RBI. 
Those are not bad numbers for the power and run-production totals that teams expect out of that position in the lineup.
There is a good chance that fans of the Fightins are going to be watching that very same combination for one more season in 2016. 
The facts remain that Howard still has one final guaranteed year on his contract at $25 million, and that there is no obvious candidate ready in the minors system to challenge for a starting big league job.
It has been frequently suggested that a straight platoon, with the lefty-swinging Howard facing mostly righthanders and the righty Ruf facing southpaws, is not a bad solution for the team for the time being. 
That very idea was again posited in the postgame show last night by Ricky Bottalico on Comcast SportsNet.
Howard is batting .256 with an .802 OPS against righties, with 20 homers and 67 RBI. Ruf is hitting .369 with a 1.022 OPS against lefties, with 5 homers and 16 RBI. Those are certainly nice production figures from the two hitters.


The problem for the Phillies begins to come into play when they start to believe, as the powers-that-be with the team seem to lapse into from time to time, that any other matchup will work.
The fact is that Howard simply cannot hit lefthanders, and Ruf is clueless and completely overmatched against righthanders. 
Howard hit just .130 with a .178 on-base percentage and a .418 OPS in 107 plate appearances against lefties. Why is he even being given most of those chances?
I know that you cannot completely eliminate these matchups, but there have been a number of times that managers Ryne Sandberg and Pete Mackanin simply put or left Howard in against a lefty when there were better options.
Ruf was hitting just .150 with a .180 on-base percentage and a .425 OPS against righties. 
That was prior to a 1-5 performance last night against Braves' righty starter Williams Perez and a pair of right-handed relievers. He slung a single into left field against Perez in the 6th inning for his only hit of the game, and lined out softly with the bases loaded.
In his career, Ruf has 606 plate appearances with the Phillies in parts of four seasons. He is hitting .215 with a .662 OPS in 406 of those appearances when he has stepped into the batter's box against a righty pitcher. He has struck out in more than one out of every four of those appearances.
Despite his repeated, consistent failures against right-handed pitchers, there remain some Phillies fans who believe that Ruf has simply not been given enough of a full shot at regular playing time in his career. I vehemently disagree.
Phillies
Jul 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Phillies' Howard (6) and Ruf (18) celebrate after scoring two runs during the fifth inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. (Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)
Even in the minor leagues, where Ruf has received more than 2,300 plate appearances over parts of 7 seasons, he has slugged just 75 home runs. 
Most fans focus only on the one big season that he had as a 25-year old at AA Reading in 2012, when Ruf banged 38 homers and drove in 104 runs while fashioning a .317/.408/.620 slash line.
The key there for me is actually not the power or performance numbers, but the age. Ruf was an older player at that level, and should have been expected to produce strong numbers. 
Yes, he did so to an extreme, and that was to his credit. But time has shown that this season was to Ruf what a hot couple of months was to Dominic Brown in May and June of 2013, an aberration.
That the 2012 performance by Ruf got hopes up among some in the fan base at the same time that the big league club needed a power shot in the arm is understandable. But at some point you have to face the facts of the totality of his career performances.
Ruf is not a big part of the Phillies future. He will turn 30 years old next summer. His record is what it is, and it is time for everyone to realize that what is happening with Ruf, and with the fading Howard, is that the Phillies are just passing time, waiting for a better solution to come along.
That better solution is not likely to happen in 2016. Howard has that guaranteed contract for one more year. Ruf is cheap, likely to not make much more than the $515,000 salary that he was paid this season. 
They can be effective as a platoon. It is the most likely scenario for next year's Phillies team at the 1st base position.
However, the picture completely changes after 2016. If he isn't dumped or moved along before then, Howard's contract will be up with a $10 million buyout at the end of the year.
Ruf will be arbitration eligible for 2017, and it seems unlikely the club would have any reason to offer him a contract, heading into a season in which he would be turning 32 years of age.
There is no clear answer in the minor league system. The club's top-ranked prospect at the 1st base position is probably Rhys Hoskins. The 22-year old righthander hit for an outstanding .319/.395/.518 slash line with 17 homers and 90 RBI this season between Lakewood and Clearwater.
Hoskins, who was ranked as the Phillies #18 prospect by those who closely follow the organization in the recently released Reading Eagle Phillies Top 20 Prospects list, should be playing most or all of next year at AA Reading. 
He will need to continue and even improve on that production in order to be seriously considered as a possible longterm answer at the position himself.
None of this is to speak badly of Ruf. No one should take it in that way at all. This is simply a reality check for those who believe that Ruf can be anything more than the limited player he is in reality. 
There is nothing wrong with being a strong right-handed option against left-handed pitchers. There is a role on a Major League roster for that type of hitter.
If you are a fan of Darin Ruf, my advice to you would be to enjoy watching him as this season ends, and probably through the 2016 season. 
In the end, as with his lefty-swinging outfield counterpart in Brown, he is likely to be viewed as nothing more than another disappointing part of a failed era in Phillies baseball.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Reading Eagle: Phillies Top Prospects Survey Results

Back in August, I was contacted by Mike Drago (Twitter: @mldrago) of the Reading Eagle to participate in the publication's annual survey regarding the Phillies' top prospects.
The task was to provide my own personal Top 20 prospects list from the team's minor league system. 
Those were then pooled with the results of lists provided by twenty or so others who also closely monitor the team, and a Top 10 Phillies Prospects feature was released on August 30th.
One thing that became apparent from this effort was the obvious improvement in the number of serious prospects among the top players in the Phils' system. Another was the growing depth of that system. A third was that the team has a stud at the top who should be a future MLB All-Star in shortstop J.P. Crawford.


For the first time in a long time, there has been clear improvement in the Phillies farm system. That now shows in both the quality and quantity of the club's better prospects, but also in the on-field success of the minor league clubs. 
As Drago said in his piece: "After a wild series of trades, and back-to-back  strong drafts, the once-lagging Phillies minor league system now ranks among the strongest in baseball."
The AA Reading Fightin' Phils finished in 1st place in the Eastern Division of the Eastern League with a record of 80-61, and are now playing in the Eastern League Championship Series. 
The High-A Clearwater Threshers finished on top of the overall standings in the Florida State League's North Division with a 79-58 mark.
At the A-ball level, the Lakewood BlueClaws finished in 3rd place in the Northern Division of the South Atlantic League with a 73-65 record. 
The Williamsport Crosscutters finished in 1st place in the short season New York-Penn League's Pinckney Division at 46-30 overall.
Even the team's Rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate finished strong, with a 36-24 record, good for 2nd place in the Northwest Division. 
Only at AAA Lehigh Valley, where the IronPigs lost 10 of their final 14 to finish at 63-81 did the minors system experience a losing record.
Overall, the Phillies minor league affiliates compiled a 377-319 record. In their mid-season update, MLB Pipeline ranked five Phillies' prospects among the top 89 in the game. Those are the best results the system has produced in a long time.
Here is the Reading Eagle Top 20 Phillies Prospects. In parentheses, I show where I placed that player on my own submitted list. 
Following that are the players who I submitted on my own personal list who did not make the overall Top 20 final ranking.
1. J.P. Crawford, SS (1)
2. Jake Thompson, P (3)
3. Nick Williams, OF (2)
4. Cornelius Randolph, OF (4)
5. Jorge Alfaro, C (6)
6. Roman Quinn, OF (7)
7. Franklyn Kilome, P (5)
8. Zach Eflin, P (8)
9. Ricardo Pinto, P (NR)
10. Carlos Tocci, OF (17)
11. Aaron Altherr, OF (NR)
12. Andrew Knapp, C (19)
13. Jerad Eickhoff, P (14)
14. Scott Kingery, 2B (10)
15. Nick Pivetta, P (15)
16. Ben Lively, P (9)
17. Darnell Sweeney, 2B (NR)
18. Rhys Hoskins, 1B (NR)
19. Alberto Tirado, P (16)
20. Malquin Canelo, SS (20)
My listees who didn't make the combined Reading Eagle poll Top 20: Tom Windle (11), Matt Imhof (12), Alec Asher (13), Jesse Biddle (18).
 I really like Windle to develop as a lefty arm who can help out of the Phillies pen as soon as next season. 
Also, my list was submitted before Asher's big league performances, which have been a major turnoff.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Phillies Likely Shutting Down Ryan Howard for 2015

Phillies fans may have seen the last of Ryan Howard. Well, at least for the balance of the 2015 season, that is.
Howard was injured during Monday's series opener with the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park when a throw in the 7th inning from shortstop Freddy Galvis took a short-hop on him, slamming directly into the same left knee which he had operated on just two years ago.
Per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, the team's media relations department said that the veteran 1st baseman was not scheduled to have either an MRI or any x-rays in relation to the injury. However, Howard did have to make a trip to the emergency room on his own, which resulted in the knee having to be drained.
"The thing with Howie that's admirable is this guy wants to play...So we'll wait and see." ~ Mackanin
As with Aaron Nola, who we speculated on here at TBOH earlier today as a likely early shutdown candidate, Howard is now likely to be shutdown for the rest of the 2015 season.
In the penultimate season of his 5-year, $115 million contract that began with the 2012 campaign, Howard has again been extremely inconsistent. 
However, he has also been the Phillies leading power threat, as he has been for most of the last decade.
Howard homered in each of his last two games, in Sunday's series finale vs the Cubs, and again on Monday vs the Nats. That lifted him to 23 long balls on the 2015 season, equaling the mark that he put up a year ago. 
Howard also has 29 doubles, and was on pace to put up his best total in that category since 2009 before this injury.
There is still an outside chance that he could return this year, but that would seem to be pointless. Why risk further injury to him when the team has nothing to play for now, and there are less than three weeks remaining on the schedule? Still, Mackanin left open that possibility.
"The thing with Howie that's admirable is this guy wants to play," said Mackanin per Zolecki. "You've seem him over the years, he posts up every day, he's ready to play every day. That's a nice trait to have. So we'll wait and see."
Next year will be the final guaranteed season of that big contract. Howard will earn $25 million, and for that reason alone there is no way that any team is going to want him in a trade.
The Phillies could release him this winter, which would allow them to completely free up playing time at the 1st base position in 2016, which would give opportunities to a number of players to make an impression for the future. 
The team would then be paying Howard $25 million for nothing. Still, it is a possibility.
No later than the end of next year, Howard's days in red pinstripes will be over. The team will buy out his contract for $10 million, as stipulated, rather than commit to another 2017 season. 
If it hasn't happened sooner, that will probably be the end of the road in the career of the man who was once "The Big Piece" of a championship team.