Buy or sell? Amaro deep in preparations

060213-amaro-slideshow-ap.jpg

Buy or sell? Amaro deep in preparations

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has spent the week consulting with his major-league staff and top advisers -- Pat Gillick was in town for meetings on Thursday -- as he plots strategy for the nearly three weeks that remain before the non-waiver trade deadline.

As he stood on the field during batting practice before Thursday night’s game, Amaro was neither a buyer nor a seller. He could go either way, depending on how his club plays in the 12-game stretch from Friday’s series opener against the White Sox to the July 28 series finale at Detroit.

“If tomorrow was July 31, we’d be buying,” Amaro said. “We’re 6½ out of the wild card. No one is running away with it. No one is invincible.”

Amaro straddled a similar line last July and ultimately traded away Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.

Four days before the all-star break, the Phillies are in better shape this year than last. Last year, they were 13 games under .500, 14 back in the division and 10 back in the wild-card race at the all-star break. Entering play Thursday, they were two under .500, 7½ back in the division and 6½ back in the wild-card race.

“I considered us less of a contender last year,” Amaro said. “We’re in a better spot this year.”

Even as they plot strategy for the next few weeks, Phillies officials are planning multiple scenarios based on whether they add or subtract, stay in the race or wave the white flag and plan for the future. That means communication with other teams.

“Tons of calls,” Amaro said. “It’s all I do is take calls. Things are very active. It’s that time of year, man. Nothing different than any other July.”

There is plenty of interest in Phillies players. You know the names -- Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Michael Young. It’s possible that one or all could go if the Phillies sell.

Young, the Phillies’ third baseman, could go either way. According to sources, the Phils have heard from a handful of teams that have interest in the versatile infielder. Some of those teams like the fact that Young can play some second base. The Toronto Blue Jays have scouted the Phillies this week. The Jays like Utley, but it’s believed his contract allows him to block a deal to Toronto. The Jays are talking about moving Brett Lawrie from third to second. That could add up to them taking a peek at Young for third base. Young, however, has a full no-trade clause and would probably only approve a deal to more of a legitimate contender. Baltimore might be an interesting fit for Young as a utility man and bat. Young has a good history with Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who values the type of winning veteran intangibles that Young can bring.

Young would be expendable because the Phillies have some options at third base, including Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and possibly Cody Asche. He’s also 36 and on an expiring contract. Amaro is reluctant to trade away young talent.

“I don’t really want to move young talent,” Amaro said. “If we have to [make a trade] we’ll figure something out. With the way our club is and with our age -- it’s a young man’s game. We want to try to keep as many young guys as we can.”

Amaro continues to list bullpen help as the Phils’ No. 1 need. He was asked how much financial flexibility he has to take on talent.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “But my boss has always allowed the sensible thing.”

If the Phils get in the race in the second half, Amaro hopes to have Roy Halladay back in the rotation in September.

“It’s possible,” Amaro said. “We have to see how he feels. If he’s pitching by September, I’ll be ecstatic.”

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.