Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

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Big changes could be brewing as Phils return to work

The Phillies resume their frustrating -- fans might call it infuriating -- season Friday night in Atlanta with A.J. Burnett taking on the Braves’ Ervin Santana.

After going 42-53 before the All-Star break, the Phillies will need something approaching a miracle to get into the hunt in the National League East.

While the idea of a pennant race seems far-fetched, the next 2½ months figure to be fascinating as the team churns a roster that is in need of a good churning.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the Phils come back from the All-Star break.

Trade talk
The non-waiver trade deadline is just two weeks away and the Phillies will be busy. Actually, they’ve already been busy. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his lieutenants are on the phone daily with rival clubs, laying groundwork for deals. The Phillies’ professional scouting staff is on the road, in big-league and minor-league parks, looking at players who might come back in deals.

The Phillies are not buyers. They need a serious retooling. Management is looking to bring young talent into the system. To do this, the club is willing to deal any player. Sure, some players such as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins (both have full no-trade rights and Rollins is just 35 at-bats from having his $11 million contract guaranteed for 2015) and Cole Hamels are less likely to move than others. But make an offer and the Phillies will talk. Just be prepared to give up three or four mega talents for Hamels.

The Phils have plenty of veteran talent that could help contending clubs. Burnett and Cliff Lee are both available. The Orioles have scouted a number of Burnett’s recent starts, and the Yankees and Blue Jays both had scouts at Lee’s minor-league rehab start in Clearwater on Tuesday night. Lee returns to the rotation Monday night after two months on the disabled list with an elbow strain and the scouts will be out in force. Lee will have just two starts before the trade deadline. That might not be enough time for a suitor to feel confident about trading for him, not when he’s guaranteed $37.5 million after this season. So Lee might go in an August waiver deal. Either way, his and Burnett’s availability are big second-half items.

Looking for a reliever? Jonathan Papelbon has already made it clear he wants out and there are enough teams looking for top relief help (both Los Angeles clubs, the Tigers, the Orioles, the Giants) that he should get his wish, especially because the Phillies have long been willing to eat part of his salary to move him. Teams are always looking for lefty relievers, so Antonio Bastardo could be on the move.

There is a dearth of top right-handed power bats on the market. That will help the Phillies if they decide to move Marlon Byrd. The Mariners have interest in Byrd, but he has a no-trade clause to that club and may require his $8 million option for 2016 to be guaranteed before he says yes to a deal.

The Phils are looking to remake their outfield. Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are both available for deals.

So what are the Phils looking for in return? Offense, Amaro has said, but he’s not likely to say no to pitching talent either as the Phils don’t have much that’s close in the minors.

Whither Ryan Howard?
Once the most feared hitter in the Phils’ lineup, Howard is hitting just .220 with a dreadful .681 OPS. Sure, he has 15 homers and 56 RBIs, but his inconsistency is a major problem. He is hitting .141 with just three extra-base hits (two doubles and a late-inning home run in a game the Phils led by six runs) in his last 21 games.

There are signs that the organization is running out of patience with Howard. Amaro suggested that prospect Maikel Franco could come up from Triple A in the coming weeks and get some time at first base. Manager Ryne Sandberg has said that he could start tinkering with different lineups once people “get healthy.” That is a reference to first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf, who is back playing at Triple A after rehabbing a broken wrist.

Howard is signed for two more seasons and guaranteed $60 million over that time. That makes him untradeable even though the Phillies would eat a significant amount of the number to move him.

In the offseason, there was a lot of talk about platooning Howard or sitting him if he did not produce. That wasn’t going to happen, however, without his getting a good, long look as an everyday guy. The look has been long now. Will Sandberg start cutting into Howard’s at-bats? And if he does, is it just a precursor to management considering a buyout? Stay tuned.

New faces
The final two months could be a time to take a peek at Franco at third and first. He is hitting just .230 at Lehigh Valley but might benefit from some lineup protection in Philadelphia.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore is already here. The Phils will spend the final months of the season evaluating whether he could be a contributor, possibly in a platoon, next season.

David Buchanan will be back, sooner rather than later if the Phils trade a starting pitcher, and Jason Marquis could come along, as well (see story).

And don’t rule out the Phils' bringing the Mystery Man, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, up for a look before the season is over. His problematic shoulder is holding up better since he moved to the bullpen. His fastball has been sitting at 93-94 mph at Double A Reading.

Attendance drop
The Phils are on pace to draw 2.5 million fans this season. That will break a string of seven straight seasons of drawing at least 3 million. Heck, they drew more than 3.5 million in four of those seasons.

Last year, the Phils drew 3.01 million so they are headed for a half-million drop, which, with an average ticket price of $37, equals a huge loss of revenue.

The last time the Phillies had a significant drop in attendance was 2005 when it fell by almost 600,000. General manager Ed Wade was fired after that season. Amaro’s job is already on the line because of the team’s performance. Attendance is another factor to watch as it relates to the GM’s job security.

Games to play
The Phillies have 67 games left. There is time. But here’s why it’s so hard to believe they can play their way into contention. They are 11 games under .500 and 10 back in the division race. They have been above .500 just five days since last year’s All-Star break. Teams can’t even think of the playoffs until they get to .500 and this team has shown itself to be completely incapable of doing that.

Still, they march on, looking over their shoulders as changes are surely coming.

“There are plenty of games to make up that ground,” a hopeful Utley said. “But we have to play better baseball. There is no doubt about that.”

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

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.