This Is Not a Freefall. There Is No Need for Alarm.

This Is Not a Freefall. There Is No Need for Alarm.

Five straight losses. Going from second the conference to on the brink of being on the outside looking in. Being compared negatively to the Sixers. Another concussion. Costly turnovers by should-be-Phantoms. No skate that fits. No clear-cut number 1 in net. Again.

All these elements have many Flyers fans digging through closets for baseball gloves and fastidiously reading reports on pitchers and catchers in Clearwater. In Philly, we know all to well how to rush the season, talkin' Mel Kiper Jr, fifth outfielders, and ping pong balls. But it's nowhere near time to write off this Flyers team. I'm not saying don't go out and have a 37º catch in the yard. By all means... Just don't get off the Orange & Black bandwagon before the homestretch.

True I may not have seen the worst of these recent Flyers games. Someone had to look pale and out of shape by a pool in Arizona while all ya'll chipped ice off your windshields and played bumper cars on 76 and the Blue Route. But I have a theory about these recent losses: They're a good thing...


Virtually every great season sees a time of failure and futility—a slump. Slumps are inevitable over a several-month season, whether you're talking 162+playoffs on the diamond, 16+ on the gridiron, 80+ on the hardwood, or 82+ on the ice. Pretty much every decent-to-great team has that reality check, look-in-the mirror, cold-shower leg-sweep. But as long as two very important things are part of the equation, there's no need for alarm.

These two elements are fairly simple in theory: (1) the team must learn about its weaknesses and make adjustments to correct them; and (2) the timing must be good. The first is easy enough to understand, but undoubtedly harder to implement. The ability to make these improvements is what separates Theo Epstein from Ed Wade, Bill Walsh from Andy Reid. The timing thing is more tricky, and has a lot more to do with luck than anything else. But its importance can't be discounted. Ask the Patriots if they'd have liked to lose their only game of the season on a Sunday afternoon in week 8 or intermittently between multimillion dollar commercials. The timing of a slump is everything. Too early, and you may slump again later, peaking too early. Too late, and it can spoil the playoff run. But timed just right, it can be one of the keys to going deep into the postseason.

So how does Goldilocks feel about this pile of porridge the Flyers are in? It might be just right. For starters, it's before the trade deadline. Adjustments can still be made, and the rumors have been flying about puck-moving defensemen, and of course, Peter Forsberg, although the latter seems less likely with every passing day. Paul Holmgren has made some great adjustments since taking over, so we can be confident in his ability, but will he be able to part with any of the pieces he so recently brought in? Time will tell, but I'd bet on him.

One rumor had Scottie "Menage" Upshall being tradebait, but his lingering lower-ex ailments could hurt his return value more than his playing time. Also, if there's one thing about this year's batch of trade rumors, it's that they definitively lack substance. First Rob Blake is a target, then he's not willing to play in the East. Tomas Kaberle. Dan Boyle. Your dad. The reason we haven't covered the trade scenarios is that there's just no reason to. Most of them have no possibility of happening, although there's a good chance something will.

Finally, as I wrap this up, and not a moment too soon, it's important to remember who this team is. One year removed from finishing dead fucking last in the league, the worst season in franchise history, a GM in his first full season has made a very complicated cocktail of leadership and potential, and many of the faces on the roster weren't even here last season. It's entirely unreasonable to expect them to hold on to first place in the division all year, or even to finish there. Also, have you seen the NHL playoffs? Seeding doesn't matter much, and you can get the same shitty match-up with the Devils whether you're the 3 playing the 6 or the 7 playing the 2.

There's a great chance that the playoff inclusion and seeding will continue to shuffle for the duration of the season. Over the past several months, most teams have traded spots multiple times, and we've seen nothing to indicate that the trend won't continue on into that first week of April. Don't get me wrong, I'll be pissed if the Pens win this division. But it's not the end of the run if they or the Devils or even the Rangers (ha!) do.

So even if the Flyers drop 2 of 3 against Montreal and Ottawa, let's not get too hasty to call it a season. They're still the same team that played with an air of dominance for long stretches this season, but they're also still getting to know exactly who they are and what they've got.

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies’ roster

TAMPA -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

TAMPA -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.