Saturday, June 30, 2018

No June swoon, but Phillies cracks beginning to show

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June proved difficult for first-year skipper Gabe Kapler

Turned out that the Major League baseball schedule makers were not kind to this improved Philadelphia Phillies ball club.

The Phillies ended May with a 31-23 record. Those eight games above .500 marked the first time since the 2012 season that the team ended May above the break-even point.

But a glance ahead at that June schedule revealed that this young bunch had a big challenge ahead of them. It would begin with a difficult road trip. Three games in San Francisco against an improved Giants squad. Three at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, one of the NL's top teams.

It didn't begin well. The Phillies dropped five of those six games. It didn't get much better on their return home. The Milwaukee Brewers, leading the NL Central, came in to Citizens Bank Park and blew their doors off in the first two games, scoring a dozen runs in each.

At that point, the Phillies were 1-7 on the month, and appeared to be fading fast. The Colorado Rockies, who always seem to play the Phils tough, were coming to town for three. That would be followed by a trip out to Milwaukee for three more with the Brew Crew.

Just as it seemed like their season might slip away, manager Gabe Kapler got his club to respond. They edged Milwaukee in the series finale here, then took two of three from the Rockies. Perhaps most impressively, they traveled to Miller Park and won two of three over a mid-month weekend.

Having now won five of seven, the Phillies welcomed another tough team to South Philly in the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Phils again captured two of three, and then won two of three in Washington as well. The only two defeats in those series came when the bullpen blew what should have been comfortable victories.

When the dust cleared last weekend in D.C., the Phillies were once again eight games over the .500 mark. And now perhaps the toughest test of all would come. The Bronx Bombers were coming to Philly.

The New York Yankees arrived in town with baseball's best record. They also brought their fans with them, as fired up Yankees fans swarmed Citizens Bank Park.

When the Yanks took the first two games, it appeared that the Phillies were getting a lesson in true contention. However, Zach Eflin road in on his white horse and blanked the Bombers in the series finale, once again salvaging Phillies fans hopes.

Now the Phillies are in the midst of a four-game weekend series with the Nationals, the first three of which will close out the calendar month. Despite a crushing 17-7 defeat on Friday night in which Nick Pivetta was driven out early by Washington, they remain six games over the .500 mark.

The Phillies have survived an extremely brutal schedule in June. A win over the Nationals on Saturday night would leave them with a 13-15 record for the month.

However, they will indeed have a losing month, their first such month this season. Cracks were revealed in every area of the roster.

In the rotation and bullpen, the lineup and bench, if these cracks are not filled by management and ownership soon, they could become gaping holes that could still sink this promising ship.

The Phillies appear to have an emerging young ace in Aaron Nola, and the suspicion is that veteran Jake Arrieta will be just fine as the #2 starter. But there still have to be questions about the ability of Eflin, Pivetta, and Vincent Velasquez. A more proven veteran addition to the rotation could prove invaluable in the second half.

Aside from youngsters Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano, every bullpen option has proven inconsistent at best to Kapler. The expected return of Pat Neshek should help. Aside from that, the club probably needs to hope for improvement from Tommy Hunter. But a veteran lefty would make a nice addition.

The bench right now has no true, veteran pinch-hitting options to strike fear into the opposition. When either Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams aren't starting in the outfield, they are easily the best such options. After that, it's either Pedro Florimon, Jesmuel Valentin, or Dylan Cozens.

And the regular everyday lineup is very inconsistent. The Phillies are 18th among MLB's 30 clubs in Runs scored. They are 15th in Home Runs, and 19th in both Steals and OPS. Defensively, the club ranks just 27th in Fielding Percentage.

To me, one part of the Phillies problems defensively has been the juggling of some position players, as well as the playing of a couple out of their accustomed positions. I don't see them changing their philosophy in this regard in the short term, so inconsistent defense could remain a problem for now.

General Manager Matt Klentak and owner John Middleton are squarely under the spotlight beginning in July and moving through the coming off-season. The foundation appears to be here for the next contending Phillies team. But these cracks are very real, and they need to be filled with serious ball players.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Should Phillies bring home Cole Hamels?

Could the Phillies bring back former hero Cole Hamels?
As the month of June draws to a close, this weekend also marks the exact halfway point to the 2018 Major League Baseball regular season.

One month from this weekend, the MLB non-waiver trade deadline will arrive. The Philadelphia Phillies, emerging from a half-decade of irrelevance, are once again emerging as playoff contenders.

The Phillies have a number of holes which need to be filled in order to remain legitimate contenders in the current season. As that trade deadline draws closer and rumors begin to heat up, Phillies fans find their team has been frequently involved in the gossip.

The most glaring need may be at least one proven run producer for the middle of their batting order. That hitter would preferably play on the left side of the infield, or at a corner outfield spot. Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles, who could slot in at either shortstop or third base, is the biggest name being tossed around.

The club also could use help in the bullpen. A pair of 23-year old right-handers, Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano, are the only currently healthy members of the bullpen who have been consistently reliable.

I also believe that the Phillies are going to need one more strong, proven veteran starting pitcher for their rotation. Behind Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, and possibly Zach Eflin if he remains healthy and effective, one more veteran would really solidify them for the second half.

I've written previously that a good option moving forward would be an immediate move of Vincent Velasquez to the bullpen. Adding that veteran starting pitcher could allow this switch to happen. I believe it would strengthen the back of the relief corps as well, taking care of two needs.

One option who has frequently been linked to the Phillies, especially among the fan base, is former World Series hero Cole Hamels. The Texas Rangers, to whom the Phils traded the lefty three years ago, are actively shopping the now 34-year old.

Hamels is 4-6 this season with a 3.61 ERA and 1.274 WHIP. He has surrendered 87 hits over 97.1 innings pitched across 16 starts with a 97/37 K:BB ratio. Those are all solid numbers, and would certainly upgrade the current Phillies rotation.

However, there are some red flags with Hamels. His current FIP mark of 5.22 is well above the 4.09 MLB average. That mark ranks him just 87th of 91 pitchers who have recorded at least 80 innings pitched and a dozen starts.

His biggest problem this season has been the long ball. Hamels has already surrendered 20 home runs, two more than he allowed all of last season. He has never given up more than 28 in any full season previously.

Corey Seidman for NBC Sports Philadelphia addressed the possible reasons for those troubles in a recent article regarding a possible reunion between Hamels and the Phillies:
"Some of that is because he's around the plate often with a fastball that averages 91 mph; some of it is because the Rangers' home park is among the most homer-friendly venues in baseball."
Citizens Bank Park is no picnic for fly ball pitchers either. Globe Life Park in Texas ranks as the second-toughest for pitchers as far as surrendering home runs. Citizens Bank Park is 10th among the 30 ball parks in Major League Baseball.

However, Hamels won 114 games here over a full decade between 2006-15. He certainly is comfortable here, and knows how to make adjustments at the South Philly park.

The Phillies are already paying $2.5 million of his $23.5 million contract for this year. With the season halfway over, they would be on the hook for the rest of that money, roughly $11 million. There is also a $20 million team option for next season, which they would presumably pick up.

That money wouldn't hurt the Phillies in any way. The club has plenty to spend both this season and next. But bringing back Hamels would not only cost some cash, it would also cost the Phillies something from their minor league system.

That is where the answer can be found as to whether or not the Phillies should consider bringing Cole Hamels back to bolster their rotation for a couple of years. What would that prospect package look like?

You also have to factor the possibility of the Phillies going after a big bat such as Machado. That deal would certainly involve more, and more valuable, prospects than would be needed in a Hamels trade.

The Phillies do have the minor league talent to get a Hamels or Machado deal done. In fact, they have enough to get both deals done. But should they pay the price? That is the big question for GM Matt Klentak and owner John Middleton to decide in the coming days and weeks.

I believe that the return of Hamels would not only be a great story, it would also help the Phillies. The money is not an object. And I also believe that the price in prospects would be reasonable.

Should the Phillies bring home Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series and NLCS Most Valuable Player? As long as that prospect package is indeed reasonable, you have to vote 'Yes' on this proposition.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

And then there were four

Jayson Werth raises 2008 World Series trophy
On Wednesday night, October 29, 2008 at Citizens Bank Park, the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays took to the field to resume Game Five of the World Series.

The Phillies had fought their way to a 3-1 lead in the Fall Classic, and needed just one more victory to secure only the second world championship in franchise history.

Game Five had originally begun two nights earlier, on Monday, October 27. However, rain began to fall early on that night, and grew to torrential proportions by the middle innings.

After the Rays tied the game up at 2-2 in the top of the 6th inning, Major League Baseball finally stepped in, and the game was suspended.

After two days of rains, the two clubs finally re-took the field in South Philadelphia. Geoff Jenkins got the home crowd stoked immediately, bombing a double to center field off of Rays reliever Grant Balfour. Jimmy Rollins then bunted him over to third base.

With the go-ahead run just 90 feet away from home plate, Jayson Werth stepped into the box. On a 2-2 pitch, the Phillies right fielder looped a base hit into center field, scoring Jenkins to put the Phils back on top 3-2.

The two clubs would trade runs in the final frames, and the Phillies would memorably mob closer Brad Lidge on the mound after the final out.

Just yesterday, while playing in the minor leagues of the Washington Nationals organization, Werth revealed that he was retiring from professional baseball.

This brings to the end a career that saw him appear with the Toronto Blue Jays (2002-03), Los Angeles Dodgers (2004-05), Phillies (2007-10) and the Nationals (2011-17) over parts of 15 seasons.

During his four seasons with the Phillies, Werth produced a strong .282/.380/.506 slash line. He slammed 95 homers, drove in 300 runs, scored 320 times, and stole 60 bases.

Compare those numbers to those produced by Jim Thome in his four seasons here in Philadelphia, and you will find that Werth is certainly worthy of consideration to be enshrined on the Phillies Wall of Fame at some point in the future.

However, he is going to have to wait a bit. Most of those 2008 World Series champions are now gone from the game. A number of them are going to be honored before Werth can be considered.

Left fielder Pat Burrell is already on the Wall of Fame. 'Pat the Bat' played his final season with the San Francisco Giants in 2011.

Third baseman Pedro Feliz last appeared in the big leagues with the Saint Louis Cardinals in 2010. He bounced around the minors, winter leagues, and independent leagues for a couple of years, and has not played at all since 2014.

The center fielder, Shane Victorino, won another World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2013. 'The Flyin' Hawaiian' last played for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 2015.

It was a mid-season 2016 career finale with the Chicago White Sox for Jimmy Rollins. The heart and soul of the Phillies for a decade and a half and the franchise' all-time Hits leader, 'JRoll' could make an intriguing candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame one day.

Ryan Howard never wore another uniform in a regular season MLB game other than that of the Philadelphia Phillies, finishing up his career here with the 2016 season.

He tried a comeback last year with both the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies, but 'The Big Piece' couldn't get out of either minor league system. While not officially retired, he is not getting back to the big leagues.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

What do the Phillies have at the back of the rotation?

Zach Eflin hopes to be long term member of Phils rotation
The Philadelphia Phillies have been experiencing a number of problems over the past two months. Since April 25, the team has struggled along with a 20-24 record.

Fingers have mostly been pointed at an offense that is now 12th of the 15 National League clubs in both OPS and Runs scored.

There have also been numerous critics of the constant lineup and positional juggling by rookie manager Gabe Kapler, including from yours truly.

One area where the Phillies have generally received solid performances on a consistent basis has been the front of their starting pitching rotation.

Aaron Nola has broken out to legitimate ace status. He is currently 8-2 with a 2.27 ERA, a minuscule 0.934 WHIP, and a fantastic 90/22 K:BB ratio. He has yielded just 63 hits over 91 innings across 14 starts.

Having turned just 25 years old earlier this month and not eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, Nola should be counted on as a key cog moving forward.

Veteran free agent signee Jake Arrieta has been less consistent than Nola, but has still been generally effective. Even after a poor outing last night, the 32-year old is 5-5 with a 3.33 ERA, and has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. He'll be fine.

It is the back end of that Phillies starting rotation the brings the most open questions. Is Vince Velasquez actually a starting pitcher long term, and not better utilized out of the bullpen?

Are either or both of Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin starting pitchers who can be counted on for the long term as the Phillies build toward true contention?

Velasquez, who came to the Phillies as part of the Ken Giles trade with Houston, is the most interesting. He clearly has dominating stuff at times, as he demonstrated in his most recent outing on Thursday afternoon when he surrendered just one hit to the Colorado Rockies over 6.2 innings.

But the problem with Velasquez, who turned 26 years of age earlier this month, has never been pure stuff. He has shown that kind of dominance before.

The problem is that the talented right-hander never carries it forward with any consistency, usually following up a great game or two with another three or four less-than-satisfactory efforts.

Pivetta, who arrived from Washington in a trade for Jonathan Papelbon, is a 25-year old right-hander. He is just 4-6 this season with a slightly elevated 4.25 ERA.

However, Pivetta also has a strong 81/21 K:BB mark, and has surrendered just 68 hits over 72 innings across 14 starts.

Pivetta cannot be a free agent until after the 2021 season, so the Phillies theoretically have a long time to measure his results and his future role.

At 24 years of age, Eflin is the youngest of this mostly young group. He came to the Phillies as part of the Jimmy Rollins deal a few years back.

This season, Eflin is 3-2 with a 3.63 ERA and a 1.185 WHIP, both solid marks. He has a 40/10 K:BB ratio, and has allowed 37 hits over 39.2 innings pitched.

Eflin had a horrendous three-start stretch from mid-late May. Across those starts he was ripped for a dozen earned runs and 19 hits in 13.1 innings, losing two of the three. But aside from that he has performed well.

The only other pitcher to make a start for the 2018 Phillies was Ben Lively. The right-hander is currently battling back from an injury. While Lively is a nice pitcher who competes well many nights, I believe that he is a depth starter best suited to AAA and emergency fill-in status on a contender.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is wrong on use of Seranthony Dominguez

Seranthony Dominguez should be the Phillies closer
The Philadelphia Phillies have six relief pitchers who have recorded a Save at this point in the 2018 season.

But right now the Phillies don't have a closer, and their manager seems to believe that they don't need one.

None of those six relievers with a Save has more than nine, which is the total achieved by Hector Neris, the man who was once considered the team's closer.

That ranks Neris at 25th in Major League Baseball. As a team, the relief corps is in a six-way tie for 17th, or 22nd if you want to be a pessimist.

The bullpen as a whole has been, how shall we say, not good. Luis Garcia (24.2), Neris (24.1), Drew Hutchison (21.1), Tommy Hunter (17.2), and Yacksel Rios (17) have all been given significant opportunities. All have largely failed. Each carries an ERA above the 4.00 level of mediocrity, with four of them over or approaching the 5.00 mark.

A little more than a month ago the team promoted a lights-out reliever from the minor leagues to help right the ship. Seranthony Dominguez was dominant in stints at AA and AAA over the first six weeks. He had allowed just eight hits over 16.2 innings with a 21/3 K:BB ratio.

Dominguez quickly proved to be the Phillies best reliever. Opponents were unable to score on the 23-year old right-hander over his first dozen appearances.

To this point over his first 15 appearances, Dominguez has produced a 1.42 ERA and a 0.421 WHIP. He has surrendered just seven hits over 19 innings with a 22/1 K:BB ratio in the big leagues.

Dominguez is clearly the Phillies best option to close. But manager Gabe Kapler, a big "new age" baseball thinker, doesn't see it that way. Kapler revealed his thought process during an interview on Sportsradio WIP on Wednesday morning.

The problem with Kapler's line of thinking is simple when you think about it. Sure, there are going to be times when a critical point is reached in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings. No arguing there.

However, you can say the exact same thing about the 3rd or 4th inning. The game is a high-scoring 6-6 affair in the 4th and your starter is getting knocked around. The opposition has the bases loaded and one out. Do you bring in your best reliever then to get out of the jam?

The fact is that you need your very best reliever available as the "closer", that hammer to nail the door shut on a game once the rest of your team has battled through eight tough innings to earn a lead.

Once you burn a Seranthony Dominguez in the earlier innings, now what do you do when the 9th rolls around and you need someone to close it out? Ahh, I know, you trust another one of your "lesser" relief pitchers who you weren't willing to trust earlier. Brilliant!

Part of the Phillies dilemma, as I see it: they don't want to trust the kids who are actually getting the job done over veterans who are getting paid more money and have more experience.

Kapler should be using 25-year old Edubray Ramos and 23-year old Victor Arano in the 7th and 8th innings to set up the 23-year old Dominguez for the 9th inning.

Ramos has a ridiculous 0.75 ERA mark and a low 1.167 WHIP. He has allowed just 18 hits over 24 innings with a 27/10 K:BB ratio. Arano has fashioned a 2.11 ERA and 1.031 WHIP mark, allowing just 17 hits over his 21.1 innings. He has a fine 23/5 K:BB ratio thus far.

Let the team battle through the first half-dozen innings as a whole. Use the veteran relievers to get through any tough situations that might pop up when the starters falter or tire. Then turn to the lights-out kids to hold down any leads you take into the late innings.

Despite what some try to say, baseball does not need to be reinvented constantly. What a baseball team that really wants to win needs is for the people running the ship to believe what their eyes are seeing. It request them to understand the formula that has been proven effective over decades of experience.

Seranthony Dominguez should be the Philadelphia Phillies closer right now, and hopefully for years to come. It is then up to the manager and the rest of club management to find the pieces and place them properly to get through tough innings that come up prior to the 9th rolling around.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Phillies sign top draft pick Alec Bohm

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Bohm becomes the Phillies third baseman of the future

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Phillies announced the signing of 2018 first round draft pick Alec Bohm to a $5.85 million contract. The 21-year old third baseman out of Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita State now heads down to Clearwater, Florida to begin his minor league development.

Bohm (pronounced "Bome") is an advanced college hitter whom the Phils selected with the third overall pick in last week's 2018 MLB Draft.

If you are thinking already about when he might get to Citizens Bank Park to make his big league debut in red pinstripes, it is wholly reasonable to think that could happen early in the 2020 season, if not sooner.

It is anticipated by scouts that Bohm will hit. He has a great eye at the plate, good patience, and big time power. The question has never been with his right-handed bat. What has concerned some with the 6'5", 225-pounder is where he will end up defensively.

Phillies director of amateur scouting Johnny Almanzar, addressed this question specifically in the aftermath of his selection. Per Matt Gelb at The Athletic, Almanzar stated the following:
“We loved the bat. We loved the offensive capabilities, so we would have taken him regardless [of] whether he felt he could stay there. But we don’t believe that. We believe he can stay there. He’s a very athletic player. He’s a good third baseman and, with some instruction, I believe that he’s got the chance to be an average to an above-average third baseman at the major-league level. Very, very athletic for his size at 6-foot-5.”
Bohm hit well at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha, and won the Home Run Derby at the Connie Mack World Series in 2015. But he went undrafted out of high school and moved on to Wichita State.

During his collegiate career, Bohm blasted 40 doubles and 33 home runs, 16 of those homers in this past Junior season. He became an all-star in the Cape Cod League, and was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America.

Bob Brookover at Philly.com pointed out just how important it will be to the Phillies for Bohm to be able to stick at the hot corner: 

"...mostly third base has been a huge hole for the Phillies over the last 15 years. The Phillies have finished 21st or lower in OPS at third base 12 times during that stretch, including 28th last year. This year, the Phillies’ third basemen ranked 25th in OPS at .698 going into Tuesday night’s game against the Colorado Rockies."

Bohm was in attendance at the draft, and it was clear in his post-selection on-air interview that he isn't particularly comfortable in front of the cameras just yet. His answers to local reporters have been just as succinct.

“It’s been a wihirlwind for me,” said Bohm per Tom McGurk at The Courier-Post. “I’m excited to get started. I just want to get out there and get some at-bats, get back into playing, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve played.”

That's fine. Some of that hesitation will melt away the more he faces reporters questions and matures as a person and a ball player. More importantly to Phillies fans is that Bohm speaks loudly with his bat, and that he advances to play in South Philly as quickly as possible.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

My ideas to "Be Bold" and fix the 2018 Phillies

Machado is key to a "Bold" contending future for Phils
Anyone who has been following the Philadelphia Phillies on a regular basis knows simply by watching that this is an improved baseball team.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Phillies currently have more legitimate rising talent at the Major League Baseball level than at any point in the last half-dozen or so years.

However, partly because there is so much youth at one time, and partly because some of that youth is being mishandled, the team has not been maximizing its potential. This has begun to show up in the results and the standings over the last few weeks.

Four times the Phillies lifted themselves up to nine games over the .500 mark during the month of May. All four times they followed with a loss, never capable of pushing to the double-digit mark.

Their recent 3-7 road trip was disheartening. It added to what has been a month and a half of sub par baseball. The Phillies have now gone just 16-20 stretching back to an April 27th win over Atlanta. That victory gave them 15 wins in 20 games, and they simply haven't been the same ever since.

The club wakes up this morning at just three games over that .500 mark, three games off the pace in both the NL East and NL Wildcard races, and fading fast. This kind of thing has happened twice in recent years as well. A nice start over the first month and a half, followed by reality setting in.

How do these Phillies reverse this present-day skid? How do they keep themselves from becoming just another short-term tease and long-term disappointment to the fan base?

I believe there are things that can be done. Hard things for sure, at least based on the way that the club has chosen to conduct itself in the early months of the Gabe Kapler era.

And while some of it is indeed on the rookie skipper, he is going to need help from management if the Phillies actually envision a summer of postseason contention.

The most difficult thing can often be admitting that you made a mistake. That is especially so if that mistake actually cost you a large amount of money, and you still have years to pay on that mistake.

Signing Carlos Santana was such a mistake. The Phillies handed the aging first baseman with limited power a $60 million, three-year contract as a free agent this past off-season. This, when they already had that position answered for the long term with power-hitting Rhys Hoskins.

The Phillies need to recognize this mistake for what it was quickly, move Santana to anyone willing to eat a piece of that contract, and put Hoskins back at first base where he belongs. Toronto, Minnesota, and Colorado might fit the bill.

The second difficult move that the Phillies brain trust needs to make happen is also on the right side of their infield: a trade of second baseman Cesar Hernandez. He has always had empty offensive numbers, but right now is in his prime and playing well.

Some team (the LA Dodgers?) with a need and aspirations of contending might be willing to part with a half-decent pitching prospect (Dennis Santana? Dustin May? Caleb Ferguson?) for the 28-year old.
In my "Bold" plan, the Phillies would deal
both Santana (L) and Hernandez (R)

This would make room for Scott Kingery to get to his natural position of second base, where he is clearly the future at the position. Putting Hoskins and Kingery out as the regular, everyday starters at their natural positions should result in them becoming more comfortable. I believe it would result in increased offensive production and consistency from both players.

These moves would also result in clarifying the starting outfield roles for the time being. Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, and Nick Williams become the starting outfield from left to right. This youngish trio should have the opportunity to grow and show what they can do against all pitching over an extended period of time.

The left side of the infield needs to be Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford - again, for the time being. Both players are still young enough, Crawford obviously so, that they need to be playing in secure, everyday roles. We'll get to the "for the time being" situation later in this piece.

The next move is to formalize what everyone already seems to know is the best move at the closer position: formally anoint Seranthony Dominguez to the role.

Also in the bullpen, give Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano key late innings roles. Move veterans Hector Neris, Tommy Hunter, Luis Garcia, and Adam Morgan to the earlier 6th and 7th inning roles.