Charlie Manuel on Phillies: 'We're a ways off'

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Charlie Manuel on Phillies: 'We're a ways off'

It’s funny how quickly things have changed.

Once, the Phillies held one of the longest postseason droughts in all of baseball. From 1994 through 2006, the Phillies did not have one playoff appearance. And mostly, they weren’t even close. In team history, the five straight division crowns from 2007 to 2011 are unprecedented as the club has made just 14 postseason appearances in 129 seasons.

So as the Phillies limp into the dog days with a 48-56 record and a ready-to-move roster, it appears as if the old days are back with the Phillies.

Barring an unforeseen late-season surge, the Phillies will miss the playoffs for a second straight year. With a payroll that ranks up with the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and spoiled by the recent success, a two-year drought takes some getting used to.

But according to manager Charlie Manuel, recapturing the not-so-old glory is going to take some work.

“I think we’re a ways off,” Manuel said before Tuesday night’s game against the Giants at Citizens Bank Park.

Take your pick as to why this is the case. The aging core, a roster loaded with starting pitching but not much experienced bullpen help, injuries and a dearth of prospects ready to contribute in the big leagues. As Manuel says, watch the game.

“I’ve known what we’ve had for the last two years,” Manuel said.

Manuel knew it, but there isn’t much he’s been saying. During the lost weekend in Detroit where the Phillies were swept by the Tigers and outscored 24-5 in three games, Manuel pointed out how managers aren’t asked for much input when the front office puts together the roster.  

Before Tuesday’s game against the Giants, Manuel lamented the lack of bullpen talent.

“We have a young bullpen that needs experience and it takes a top-flight team to win the division and be able to go to the World Series,” Manuel said. “That's what we're talking about here, right?”

Certainly, that’s one part of it. But it’s tough to pin the entire woebegone season on the relievers. During the current eight-game losing streak, the Phillies have batted just .202 and scored 14 runs. That comes to 1.75 runs per game, which, combined with the 6.19 ERA by the pitching staff, shows just how tough it’s been.

Plus, Manuel’s lineup in Sunday’s loss featured just three players that were in the opening day starting lineup. Where’s the consistency?

“Age goes into it, injuries go into it, that's what I've been talking about,” Manuel said.

Age and injuries. Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay stand out in that regard. Meanwhile, outfielders Ben Revere and Dom Brown have been out as well. However, even if the Phillies had been healthy all year, Manuel still isn’t sure if it would have been enough to keep the Phillies in contention.

“There's a lot of ifs in there,” Manuel said. “We’ve got Brown coming (back), we’ve got Howard, if we can get him well. He's gotta get well, he's gotta get healthy and then he's got to get into top-notch shape. We've got Halladay -- if we had Halladay, then yeah, we’d get better. But there's a lot of ifs there.

“Now I have to (ask), if we can we count on people? Count on the issues that we had getting better, and also performing at their peak. When the year starts, I like every one of our players. I've always said that and I still like our players. But I also see how we play. Let's don’t fool ourselves. How we play is how we play.

“Now if we play like we did on the road trip, we're not going to be very good. We have to play better.”

How to accomplish that is the big question. Manuel says the Phillies need to get better “at a lot of positions.” He also said that the Phillies need to improve beyond what anyone is talking about.

Perhaps Manuel is suggesting that the Phillies need to get better at positions that aren’t seen in the box score?

“What do I think when I watch our games? What do you see? You tell me what you see every day, day in and day out,” Manuel said. “I see that we have to get better.”

It’s hard to disagree with that. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Phillies were in third place in the weak NL East, 11½ games behind the Braves. So yes, the Phillies need to get better.

How to get better is a different issue.

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have completed the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $7.5 million contract (see story). The deal could be announced Tuesday and will require the club removing a player from the already-full 40-man roster.

Benoit is one of three additions that the Phils have made to their bullpen this offseason — the club traded for veteran right-hander Pat Neshek and picked up lefty David Rollins on waivers — and more will likely come, probably on minor-league contracts, before the team reports to spring training.

Now that the bullpen has been addressed, let’s take a look at what could be next for the Phillies this winter.

• The addition of Benoit could create enough back-end bullpen depth that GM Matt Klentak could look to trade either Jeanmar Gomez or Hector Neris. Gomez saved 37 games in 2016, but struggled down the stretch. Neris showed great promise in recording a 2.58 ERA and striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings in 79 games in 2016. The hard-throwing righty is young (27), talented and inexpensive so the Phils would have to be overwhelmed by an offer to move him. Last year, Klentak moved a young closer in Ken Giles for a significant return from Houston, so he has history in making these types of moves.

• In addition to more potential comings and goings in the bullpen, the Phils will look to add a backup infielder and maybe a backup catcher in the coming weeks. Andres Blanco could return as that extra infielder. A.J. Ellis could return as the catcher. But nothing is firm. In fact, Klentak hinted Monday that he’d be comfortable bringing Andrew Knapp up from Triple A to be the backup catcher next season.

“I don’t think we need a veteran backup catcher,” Klentak said. “If it works out, we’re open-minded to that. But Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A. He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and (Jorge) Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

• One of the biggest remaining issues facing Phillies management this winter centers around the outfield and the offense. Basically, Klentak and his advisers are weighing the merits of adding another veteran hitter — the club already traded for Howie Kendrick — to improve the offense or giving a significant playing opportunity to a promising youngster and potential future core piece such as Roman Quinn in what currently projects to be one opening in the outfield.

“That topic is the one that we have spent the most time discussing, not just here but this offseason, about striking the right balance between adding a veteran bat or veteran free agent to this team to make our team better, but again, not taking playing time away from players that need the playing time.

“That’s part of the dynamic that we have to consider there. Roman Quinn came up at the end of the year and, at times, looked like a legitimate major-league contributor. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that he hasn’t logged a single at-bat at Triple A yet.

“This doesn’t have an obvious answer. We are continuing to talk about trade acquisitions and talk to agents for free agents to see if the right opportunity exists to blend all those factors together. But what we do not want to do is bring in so many veterans that we are denying opportunities to our young players.”

This brings us to a situation that could potentially satisfy the team’s desire to improve the offense without taking away a playing opportunity from Quinn.

J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is an outfield bat that the Phillies like. They like his production and the fact that he’s signed for just 2017. In other words, he wouldn’t block a young prospect’s pathway to the majors, at least for long.

Martinez, owed $11.75 million, which is very affordable for the Phillies, is a serious trade candidate for the cost-cutting Tigers and the Phillies have spoken to Tigers officials, dating to the early part of the offseason.

According to sources, the Phillies and Tigers could be a trade fit if the Tigers were to deal second baseman Ian Kinsler. If the Tigers move Kinsler, they could look to move Martinez to the Phillies for second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Phillies officials have said they are in no hurry to deal Hernandez, but the team does have depth at second with a pair of prospects (Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin) on the way and a ready-made stopgap in Kendrick at the position. 

So keep an eye on Kinsler. If he moves, the Phillies could pursue the veteran bat that would make their offense better. And it would not cost Quinn an opportunity as he could play left field with Kendrick moving to second.

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens stopped by the winter meetings on Monday and left with a little something extra in his wallet.

Cozens was honored with the Joe Bauman Award, given annually to minor league baseball’s home run king. The award came with an $8,000 check — $200 for each homer he hit in 2016.

“That will make shopping this holiday season a lot easier,” Cozens joked.

Cozens, a left-handed-hitting rightfielder, hit .276 with 40 home runs and 125 RBIs for the Double A Reading Fightin Phils. He was named Eastern League MVP. During his acceptance speech at Monday’s awards luncheon, Cozens thanked his Reading teammate, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, for pushing him to his power heights. Hoskins also had a huge season with the bat. He hit 38 homers and had 116 RBIs on his way to becoming the Eastern League’s Rookie of the Year. Night after night in Reading, Cozens and Hoskins staged a friendly power competition. At the end of the season, they shared the Paul Owens Award, given annually to the Phillies’ minor-league player of the year.

Cozens, 22, recently finished a 25-game hitch in the Dominican winter league. Despite hitting just .165 for the Aguilas club, he had four home runs — all against lefty pitching, which has been a nemesis.

Cozens, a 6-6, 250-pound behemoth, made some off-the-field news in the DR when he was involved in a pregame fight with teammate Boog Powell, a Seattle Mariners prospect. Cozens downplayed the incident.

“Just a little boys-being-boys type thing,” he said. “I feel like it was blown out of proportion like almost everything is these days. But, after it happened we became good friends. It was more the level of respect there and I’d say we’re still friends, so it’s good.”

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said the incident was in the past and would have no long-range ramifications for Cozens.

“There is no concern,” Klentak said. “Dylan is an intense kid and he plays the game really hard. That is a good thing. If you’ve watched that, you can see that in his at-bats and when he runs the bases and is running around in the outfield. That’s just his style of play. That aggressive nature at times can boil over. You hope that it doesn’t boil over into altercations with teammates. But we have no long-term concerns with that at all.”

Cozens was recently added to the 40-man roster and will be in big-league spring training camp. Though he projects to open the 2017 season at Triple A, he’s conceding nothing.

“I’m just going to go out there and try to get better, turn some heads and make people notice and hopefully get called up as soon as possible,” he said. 

Plate discipline and strike-zone management are the areas in which Cozens needs the most improvement. He struck out 186 times and walked 61 times in 134 games in 2016. Phillies officials would like to see the strikeouts come down.
 
“I’m learning how to take my walks more often, having better strike-zone judgment, maybe not chase after as many pitches,” Cozens said. “I want to be aggressive, but if they don’t want to pitch to me, just take a walk. I feel like I did not do a good job of that and it’s something I can improve on next year.”