Asche looking to lock up Phils' third base job

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Asche looking to lock up Phils' third base job

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NEW YORK – The Phillies’ front office has a number of holes to fill this winter as it tries to get this club back to contender’s status.

Cody Asche’s play is beginning to scream: Hey, don’t worry about third base. I got it.

The 23-year-old former Nebraska Cornhusker continued his strong play in the field and at the plate Monday night. His two-run triple in the fourth inning was the difference-maker in a 2-1 win over the New York Mets at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).

Asche, a 2011 draft pick who has been in pro ball for just two years, debuted in the majors on July 30. He had just one hit in his first 17 at-bats. Since then, he is hitting .303 (20 for 66) with six doubles, a triple, two homers and 13 RBIs.

Hey, don’t worry about third base. I got it.

“I think that’s ultimately what I’d like,” Asche said after Monday night’s win. “But the season doesn’t end today. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played and I have a lot to prove. I just have to stay focused on what’s next and that’s tomorrow’s game.”

Asche isn’t the only one trying to win a prominent job for 2014. Interim manager Ryne Sandberg is trying to earn the full-time manager’s gig. At this point, he looks like a slam dunk as the Phillies have shaken themselves out of the funk that cost Charlie Manuel his job. The Phils have won seven of their last nine under Sandberg.

The conventional wisdom not long ago was that Asche would come to spring training with a shot to win the third base job.

He might end up winning it over the final five weeks of the season.

“Anything’s possible,” Sandberg said. “In a lot of ways, that’s what this month is for. He’s rising to the occasion.

“From what I’ve seen, he’s the full package down there at third base. I really like his range. He’s really come a long way (since spring training) with his glove work and his feet. And he has a true, accurate arm.”

Sandberg likes Asche’s left-handed stroke.

“He’s got a natural line-drive stroke,” Sandberg said. “He’s got a good chance to hit the ball every time because his bat stays in the zone long.”

On top of his physical tools, Asche has impressed with his intangibles. He did not get flustered when he was 1 for 17. Some young players would have.

“He doesn’t get too bothered about anything,” Sandberg said. “He shows fire. He gets mad, but in a positive way. Very mature. Gamer. Good work ethic. A lot of good characteristics.”

Asche’s triple helped make a winner out of Cliff Lee for the first time since July 5.

Lee likes what he’s seen of Asche so far.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Lee said. “His skills are starting to show. His first week, he looked a little tense, which is kind of normal. He’s put that behind him and is now being a solid player. He plays the right way. I see him being here a while.”

Asche’s triple came on a 95-mph fastball from right-hander Zack Wheeler. He laced it to right-center.

Wheeler was tough. He allowed just five hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings, walked one and struck out seven.

Lee was a little better. He held the Mets to five hits and one run over eight innings. He walked one and struck out seven. His biggest strikeout came on his final pitch -- No. 121 -- of the night when he struck out Juan Lagares on a full-count fastball with two runners on base.

Lagares gave the tiring Lee an assist when he swung at a 2-0 pitch that was up and out of the zone. It would have been ball three.

“That definitely helped me out there,” Lee said. “It should have been 3-0. Instead it was 2-1 and it helped me get out of that.”

There was no way Sandberg was going to the bullpen at that point.

“It was his game right there,” the manager said of Lee.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."