Some Silver Linings on the Horizon for Flyers

Some Silver Linings on the Horizon for Flyers

The Flyers are 8-10-1 through 19 games, standing on the
outside of the postseason picture looking in, and many observers are wondering if
this is even a good team. Our own Tim Panaccio questioned earlier this week whether or not they
can get it done
as currently constructed, and as
of Friday the Daily News’ Sam Donnellon has already concluded that nope, they
can’t, thanks for playing.

It’s fairly obvious to anybody this team is not where they
want to be yet, and not just in the standings. They’re still prone to sluggish
starts, still a pitiful 4-8 on the road, still not winning enough faceoffs,
still allowing 3.05 goals per game despite the fact that Ilya Bryzgalov has
been one of their best players so far.

In short, they haven’t had the look of a club that could put
together a Stanley Cup run, and there isn’t much room to debate that. Having said that, you might want to consider at least pumping the brakes ever so gently, because the worst
appears to be over for the Flyers, at least in terms of the schedule.

The Flyers have played an absolutely brutal slate unlike any
other in the NHL up to this point. For starters, they’ve been in 19 games
already, the highest total in the league. For comparison’s sake, only three teams were
even at 18 after Thursday night, and half the league is sitting at 16 or less. 19 contests
in 34 days would take a toll on any hockey team.

And how did they get to 19? Six, count ‘em, six
back-to-backs. Everybody has them in a condensed schedule, but how many played
six in a month? As if that weren’t enough, every last one of them has
involved travel, which ought to come as no surprise given the Flyers have played 12 on
the road compared to seven at the Wells Fargo Center.

The degree of difficulty in Philadelphia’s schedule so far
has been enormous bordering on insane – but finally that’s all about to change.

Things are finally going to get back to some sense of
normalcy for the Flyers from here on out. 12 of the next 17 tilts are at home,
with only one back-to-back between now and March 30. Things are going
to quiet down so much at one point in fact, there is actually a stretch of five consecutive days
off in mid-March, which should theoretically help the guys recharge their
batteries before heading into the final stretch.

Further complicating the first portion of their schedule
were several key absences, some longer than others. Danny Briere, Wayne
Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, and Sean Couturier have all missed games
at one time or another, and although bumps and bruises are par for the course,
the Flyers have also been without Scott Hartnell and Andrej Meszaros almost the
whole way.

Both Hartnell and Meszaros are expected back within the next
couple weeks, and while Matt Read replaces them on the injured list (six weeks to torn rib cage muscle – ouch) with more sure to follow, it will be good to get back a key component of the top line and
some defensive reinforcement. Hartsy could provide an especially big
boost now that Claude Giroux seems to have found a comfort zone with Jakub
Voracek, and Meszaros certainly can’t make their blue-line depth any worse.

Do a friendlier schedule plus a couple players returning to
the lineup equal the Flyers' season turning around? Does it correct or even mask
every single one of their flaws? No, and no. They still need to go out and win
games, and do so with a patchwork defense and a headcase in net.

Before we go and rule them out as contenders though, maybe
we should see what the rest of the season brings now that the Flyers finally have a
chance to catch their breath and recuperate a little.

They've made some strides in recent weeks, climbing toward the top 10 in scoring and power-play conversion rate, and the all-around effort has been more consistent over the past three games. Plus, all of the injuries have helped them to identify quality young players in their system who could find themselves pressed into critical roles down the road – guys like Tye McGinn and Harry Zolnierczyk.

After beginning the season 2-6, the Flyers have since gone on to post a 6-4-1 record in their last 11 in spite of everything. Given the circumstances, another assessment might conclude they are actually a team that's trending up.

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

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In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

When Ray Horton brought his two-gapping 3-4 defense to the Tennessee Titans in 2014, Mike Martin wasn’t thrilled. 

After all, the former third-round defensive tackle thought he was at his best in an aggressive get-up-the-field type defense, not the one full of lateral motion that Horton established in Tennessee. 

But without recourse, Martin played out the last two seasons of his rookie deal in Horton’s defense, before joining the Eagles in free agency this offseason. 

“That’s something that I was kind of disappointed in Tennessee when we were playing that, but you gotta adjust,” Martin said this week. “That’s this game. Coaches switch and you have to be able to change to stay in this game. But to be back in a system like this, excites me a lot.”

Martin, 25, admitted part of the reason he joined the Eagles was the opportunity based on the lack of depth the team had at his position, but an even bigger reason was the opportunity to play in Jim Schwartz’s downhill scheme. 

Really, it’s the main reason the 6-1, 306-pound interior defensive lineman decided to sign a one-year deal to join the Eagles in April. 

“I already knew what they were all about and then when I got to see what type of scheme they were bringing in and what Coach Schwartz wanted to emphasize, with getting off the ball and getting to our landmarks and things like that, really excited me and solidified it for me, because I know I can flourish in a system like that.”

In fact, Martin thinks he fits best in the kind of defense the Eagles will run this year. 

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,” Martin said. “My quickness and my get-off and the type of player I am, it suits me well, so it’s exciting.”

Martin came to Philadelphia because of the defensive scheme, but he already knows a couple players on the team. Martin played at Michigan with Brandon Graham; the two have been good friends ever since. And Vinny Curry was Martin’s roommate at the Senior Bowl back in 2012. 

This offseason, as Fletcher Cox stays away from the Eagles’ spring practices while he awaits a new contract, other guys are getting extended reps. One of those guys is Martin. While Taylor Hart lined up next to Bennie Logan on the first-team defense last Tuesday, it was Martin next to him this week during the practice open to the media. 

Martin said he’s been sporadically working with the first unit and has been switching sides with Logan too. 

Eventually, Cox will return and reclaim his rightful spot as the starter and Martin will be sent back to his spot in the depth chart with the likes of Hart, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao and Connor Wujciak. 

In the meantime, Martin is just focused on showing his coaches as much as he possibly can, which isn’t very easy in May. During these practices players aren’t in pads and the hitting won’t start until training camp — even then, it’s limited. 

Still, Martin thinks he can show something over the next few weeks. 

“Really, I’m just trying to focus on my hands because we’re not allowed to have a lot of contact,” he said. “If I’m good with my hands, I can show them how I can move in this defense. I think that’s something that they can see and you can’t really deny. I’m just going to continue to improve and show them those things. When it comes time to put the pads on, it will just translate.”

Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

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Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

Phillies (26-21) at Cubs (31-14)
2:20 p.m. on CSN

After their having their second straight Thursday off, the Phillies open up a challenging three-game weekend series Friday afternoon against the Cubs, owners of the majors' best record.

Let's take a look at what to expect:

1. Best in the bigs
The Cubs are three games better than any team in baseball. Their run differential of plus-119 is 47 better than the next-best team. They've scored the most third-most runs (256) and allowed just 137, which is 12 fewer than any other club.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs probably have the deepest starting rotation in baseball. 

With Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, they have the National League's top offense.

With guys like Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur and David Ross making key contributions, they have one of the best benches in baseball.

There is no real weakness with this team. Even the mostly anonymous bullpen has been among the game's best, posting a 3.09 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 122⅓ innings.

This is, however, the right time to be playing the Cubs. Chicago is 4-6 in its last 10 games and 6-8 in its last 14. The Cubs did appear to get back on track by beating the Cardinals in the final two games of a nine-game road trip that ended Wednesday.

At Wrigley, the Cubs are 14-6. They've lost two home series this season to the Padres and Rockies.

2. Cool Lester Smooth
Props if you get The Wire reference.

The Phillies open the series against left-hander Jon Lester, who is 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA this season but is coming off his worst start. Lester allowed five runs in just 2⅔ innings in last weekend's loss at San Francisco.

Aside from that, he's enjoyed another very good season. The 32-year-old joined the Cubs in free agency prior to last season on a six-year, $155 million deal, and has gone 15-15 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 41 starts with Chicago. He's struck out 259 batters in 260⅓ innings.

The Phillies have faced Lester six times — five when he was with the Red Sox — and they've never beaten him. He's 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA against them and has allowed just 30 hits in 41 innings. He's gone seven innings in five of the six starts.

Lester's repertoire has remained consistent through the years. He throws mostly four-seam fastballs, cutters and curveballs. He'll also mix in sinkers and changeups, but 85 percent of his pitches this season have been four-seamers, cutters and curves.

Lester's cutter is his great equalizer against right-handed hitters, who have hit .240 against him the last four seasons. He can back-door it, starting it outside and having it break back over the outside corner, or start it over the middle and have it break in to jam a righty.

Current Phillies are 10 for 55 (.182) against Lester with two walks and 18 strikeouts. Ryan Howard and Freddy Galvis have each homered off him. Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 11, Cameron Rupp is 0 for 3 and Maikel Franco is 0 for 6. Odubel Herrera has never faced him.

3. Tommy time
Facing a lefty means an automatic start for Tommy Joseph at first base. Joseph went 4 for 11 in the Tigers series with a double and a homer, hitting the ball hard even when he made outs. 

What will be interesting is how Pete Mackanin uses Joseph the rest of the series. The Phillies will face right-handers on Saturday and Sunday in Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. Only once since Joseph came up from Triple A has he started against a right-hander in place of Howard. Joseph faced two righties in the Tigers series, but Howard was the designated hitter. The only game in which Joseph replaced Howard at first base against a right-hander was last Sunday in the Phils' win over Casey Kelly and the Braves.

Joseph hit .324 with seven extra-base hits against right-handed pitchers at Triple A this season, and is 4 for 18 (.222) with a double and a homer against them with the Phils. Both extra-base hits came Monday off Mike Pelfrey.

Here's the Phillies' lineup Friday:

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
7. Tyler Goeddel, LF
8. Adam Morgan, P
9. Peter Bourjos, RF

4. Morgan's command must be perfect
It's the same thing every time Adam Morgan takes the mound but it's especially true this afternoon: He needs to throw quality strikes early in counts and command his fastball nearly flawlessly on the inside and outside corners.

Morgan (1-2, 5.61) is coming off a decent start against the Braves in which he allowed two runs over six innings. But the Braves and Cubs are about as different as two offenses can be. 

Morgan held lefties last season to a .225 batting average, but this year they're 8 for 26 (.308) against him with two doubles and a homer. He's not the kind of lefty who makes it uncomfortable for a same-handed hitter, but Rizzo and Heyward are both out of the Cubs' lineup Friday.

Morgan faced the Cubs last season and allowed four runs in five innings in a loss. Fowler, Heyward and Javier Baez all had multi-hit games against him.

5. Model for success?
The Cubs endured several years of losing during their own rebuild and have emerged as one of the most talented teams in recent years. It took a little luck along the way. The Astros drafted Mark Appel first overall and left Kris Bryant at No. 2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took advantage of a rare win-now move from Billy Beane in trading a half-season of Jeff Samardzija and Hammel for Russell. 

But the Cubs also identified Kyle Schwarber (out for the season, but a very good young hitter) and drafted him higher than most analysts predicted he'd go. They found lights-out closer Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. They clearly won the 1-for-1 swap of Andrew Cashner for Rizzo. Most importantly, they bought low on a highly-touted Arrieta, who was struggling with the Orioles before emerging into one of the three-best starting pitchers in the majors.

And when the prospects began graduating to the majors, the Cubs did what the Phillies will likely do in a year or two: They spent. 

As much as everyone loves to talk about Chicago's young talent, they also spent $184 million on Heyward, $155 million on Lester, $56 million on Zobrist and $60 million on catcher Miguel Montero. They filled in their roster with veterans who fit the plan, and it's allowed them to continue to ease in guys like Baez and Jorge Soler.

It would take a ton of breaks for the Phillies to be as exciting or as successful a team as the Cubs in a few years, but Chicago has shown that this model can work in a major market.