Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Cesar Hernandez added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame over the winter, taking him to 180 pounds.

So does that mean he’ll be swinging for the fences this season?

“No,” the 26-year-old second baseman said in front of his locker on Friday. “Line drives and ground balls.”

Hernandez learned his lesson last season. The 5-foot-10 switch-hitter was hitting .248 with a .293 on-base percentage when he was benched on June 20.

Manager Pete Mackanin pulled him aside that day in Minneapolis and delivered a message.

“I told him this wasn’t a rest, that he was going to have to change his swing, eliminate the uppercut, or I was going to start playing Whitey (Andres Blanco) more,” Mackanin said.

Bench coach/infield guru Larry Bowa delivered a similar message, telling Hernandez, “You’ll be sitting next to me on the bench for the rest of the season if you don’t make changes.”

Hernandez responded quickly.

“I watched him in batting practice that day and he was hitting down on everything — line drives,” Bowa said.

As it turned out, Hernandez’s benching lasted only a couple of days. Tommy Joseph felt ill before the final game of the series in Minnesota and Mackanin needed Blanco to play first base. Mackanin had no choice but to play Hernandez and the response was immediate. Hernandez went 4 for 4 with a triple, a walk and three runs scored that day.

After the June 21 benching, Hernandez’s batting average for the remainder of the season was .327, 13th-best in the majors over that span. His on-base percentage was .421, fifth-best in the majors over that span.

Hernandez admitted that the benching lit a fire under him.

“I understood the message,” he said. “I knew I needed to improve. I needed to do things better. It’s what I focused on.”

Hernandez’s play after the benching earned him a nice pay raise — from $525,000 to $2.55 million as a first-time arbitration-eligible player — and solidified his standing as the club’s leadoff man.

But Hernandez is hardly a proven player.

There remains curiosity about whether his strong second half in 2016 was a one-time hot streak or the start of something big, consistent and long running. Hernandez needs to continue to prove that it was the latter because middle infield is fast becoming an area of depth in the Phillies organization. 

The club will have a prospect playing second base in Triple A (Jesmuel Valentin) and Double A (Scott Kingery) this season. And lest we forget, second base still could be a landing spot for Freddy Galvis if shortstop J.P. Crawford ascends to Philadelphia. Also, left fielder Howie Kendrick is a natural second baseman so he could be in the picture if the Phillies decided to capitalize on Hernandez’s trade value. Nothing seems imminent, but numerous baseball sources say the Phillies did put Hernandez in play this offseason -- at a very steep price.

Basically, it’s up to Hernandez to lock himself in as a fixture at the position and that can only be done by playing the way he did in the second half of 2016.

“I know I can be better,” he said. “If I’m consistent and I try to do things the right way, I can be very successful. That’s the plan.”

Hernandez ended last season at 165 pounds. He spent time in the weight room this winter, as evidenced by his new bulk. He hopes the added strength will allow him to send line drives into the gaps this season – he led the majors with 11 triples last season – and said the bulkier frame would not affect his speed. In fact, his big goal for the season is getting on base and stealing 30 bags. He had 17 steals last season but was caught 13 times. He wants to improve that percentage.

Mackanin is all for that.

“It will help just to get in scoring position more often,” he said. “Cesar is one of the fastest players in baseball. He just needs work on his jumps, reading pitchers’ moves. I think he’s capable of it. It will enhance his overall value as a player.”

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

BOX SCORE

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phillies officials have a big personnel powwow on Sunday and one of the matters that will be discussed is who gets the final two bullpen jobs.

With evaluation time dwindling, the Phils used Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox as an opportunity to look at Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez, all candidates to win a job in the bullpen.

"They all got a lot of work," manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies played to a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.

The right-hander Asher worked three innings and gave up three hits and two runs.

The lefty Morgan worked three innings and allowed a solo homer.

The lefty Rodriguez worked two innings, gave up a hit and struck out three.

"To hold the Red Sox to three runs is pretty nice, especially in this ballpark," Mackanin said. "They had their guys in there and we held them down."

Morgan has allowed just one run over six innings his last two outings.

"He has changed speeds well last two times out," Mackanin said. "That's how he needs to pitch."

The Phillies have five spots set in their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos. They are all right-handers. The final two spots will likely come down to Morgan, Asher, Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, who are all on the 40-man roster. That is an important consideration because the Phils would like to keep their 40-man roster subtractions to a minimum. There is an outside chance they could go with an eight-man bullpen, though that might be tough in the National League, where a full bench comes in handy. That will be discussed Sunday.

The makeup of the bench will also be discussed Sunday. Andrew Knapp's place on the 40-man roster will help his chance of being the backup catcher. Veteran catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday both can opt of their contracts in the next few days if they are not going to make the club. Utility man Chris Coghlan also has an opt-out coming. Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi are also candidates for what looks like two remaining spots on the bench. Nava does not have an opt-out until June. Stassi is under control and would have to accept an assignment to the minors if he does not make the club.

Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp. He is on the 40-man roster. The question is whether the team wants to carry the 22-year-old as an extra man or get him regular reps at second base in Triple A. Valentin is 11 for 31 (.355) this spring. He hit his fifth double on Saturday.

"He swings the bat really well from the right side," Mackanin said. "He's got some work to do from the left side. He's got good actions and instincts. In a short period of time, he's made a good impression on me and I think he can be a major-league player."

The game
The Phillies had 12 hits but scored just three runs. They have scored just 10 runs over the last four games.

"We just can't accumulate a lot of runs," Mackanin said.

The Phils were last in the majors with 610 runs last season.

The Phillies tied the game in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Coghlan.

Mackanin tried to suicide-squeeze home the go-ahead run, but Roman Quinn popped up the bunt.

Colton Murray preserved the tie with a clean bottom of the ninth.

Former Phillie Kyle Kendrick pitched six innings of two-run ball for Boston. He walked none and struck out six. Kendrick projects to open the season at Triple A, but is No. 6 on the Red Sox's starting pitching depth chart and is likely to see big-league at some point this season.

Up next
The Phillies host the Pirates on Sunday. Clay Buchholz will make the start against right-hander Josh Lindblom, who spent time with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade in 2012.