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.”

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- With his second straight opening day start coming into focus, Jeremy Hellickson delivered his best outing of the spring on Friday.

The right-hander, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, held the New York Yankees to five hits and a run over 6 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.

Hellickson was remarkably economical with his pitches, throwing just 75.

"I'll take that any time," he said.

So would Pete Mackanin.

"He was great," the manager said.

Hellickson will have one more tune-up -- Wednesday -- before his opening day start April 3 in Cincinnati.

"I'm ready," he said.

And that about says it all.

The game
The Phillies lost, 3-2, when reliever Michael Mariot gave up three hits and two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Tommy Joseph had a pair of hits, including the Phils' only extra-base hit, a double.

Freddy Galvis made a couple of nice plays in the field.

"He just shines out there," Mackanin said.

Joseph, the Phillies' first baseman, was involved in a humorous play in the fifth inning. Hellickson made a pickoff attempt on Aaron Hicks at first base. Hicks dived back toward the base but seemed to get stuck in the infield dirt and came up about a foot short of the bag. Joseph, sensing Hicks would easily beat the throw, didn't immediately notice that Hicks was grounded short of the bag and by the time he did, Hicks was able to scurry to the bag.

As fate would have it, the next two batters hit tough ground balls to Joseph's right and he made close plays at second both times. He fired what looked like a 90 mph fastball at shortstop Galvis on the first one. Galvis even seemed shocked how quickly the ball got on him.

"We laughed about the pickoff play," Hellickson said. "But he made two really good plays after that. I told him he totally redeemed himself. That was funny, though."

Saunders OK
Michael Saunders was hit on the right hand by a pitch in the fifth inning. He left the game for precautionary reasons, but was fine. Just a bruise.

"Glancing blow," Mackanin said.

Roster ruminations
The Phillies leave Florida in a week. They have thinned their roster several times and did so again on Friday, optioning pitcher Jake Thompson and outfielder Tyler Goeddel to the minors and reassigning three others (see story).

An even clearer picture of the roster will begin to emerge Sunday as several non-roster players can opt out of their contracts if they are not added to the 40-man roster. That list includes catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday, reliever Sean Burnett and outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Mackanin said the team would have a personnel meeting on Sunday.

"By Monday we should have some more news," he said.

Still unsettled are the bench and bullpen. Typically the team would have five men on the bench and seven in the bullpen, but Mackanin said the possibility of a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen would be discussed.

"I don't want to do that, especially in the National League, but we're talking about it," he said.

The Phillies have a tight 40-man roster, and that could help Andrew Knapp's chances of making the club as a backup catcher/first baseman. He is already on the 40-man roster. Even if Knapp makes it, the Phils could bring along Hanigan or Holaday as a third catcher.

"That's a possibility," Mackanin said. "We discussed it at the last meeting. We're going to discuss it again on Sunday.

"We're trying to come up with the best plan for when we break, and a lot of it has to do with the non-roster players. If we make a move, someone has to come off (the 40-man roster) and that's an issue."

Up next
The Phillies travel to Fort Myers on Saturday to play the Red Sox. The game shapes up as another audition for a spot in the Phillies' bullpen as Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez are the scheduled pitchers.

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- With a week to go before they leave Florida, the Phillies made several roster moves on Friday morning.

Outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who spent all of last season in the majors, was optioned to the minor leagues.

Pitcher Jake Thompson, who made 10 starts in the majors for the Phillies last season, was also optioned to the minors. He is expected to open the season in the starting rotation at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Goeddel, 24, joined the Phillies organization in December 2015 after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He had originally been a first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011.

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must spend an entire season in the majors or be exposed to waivers and offered back to their original club. The Phillies kept Goeddel all of last season, fully securing his rights, but he received only 213 at-bats and hit just .192 with four homers and 16 RBIs.

The news on Goeddel was not completely surprising. The wintertime additions of outfielders Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders had made Goeddel a long shot to make the team.

"I knew going into camp I was going to have to earn my spot," he said. "There's a lot of guys in here that have been playing well. Whatever happened, happened."

Goeddel needs to recoup some at-bats in the minor leagues. The question is: where? The Phillies have three top outfield prospects -- Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens -- who will require regular playing time at Triple-A. It's possible that Goeddel could open the season at Double-A.

Team officials discussed that possibility with him.

"They want me to get more at-bats," Goeddel said. "That's the main thing. Only getting 200 in your age-23 season is not enough.

"They said there's a chance I'm at Reading. I'm not too happy about that but you can't control it. That's where their most openings are and most consistent playing time.

"I want to play every day. It was tough last year playing sparingly. Getting at-bats is going to be great. Obviously, I wish it was up here. But at the end of the day, you can't control it."

Goeddel is still on the 40-man roster and as long as he stays on it can come back to the majors quite easily if a need arises.

"They said that," Goeddel said. "Last year (pitcher Alec) Asher started at Double-A and was called up. They said that in there. They just want me to get at-bats. That was their main thing."

Thompson could be one of the first to return to the majors if a need arises in the starting rotation.

The 23-year-old right-hander was one of five prospects that the Phillies acquired from Texas for Cole Hamels in July 2015. He went 11-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 21 starts at Triple-A last season and 3-6 with a 5.70 ERA with the big club.

The Phils also reassigned pitcher Dalier Hinojosa, catcher Logan Moore and infielder Hector Gomez to minor-league camp.