Clearwater Chronicles: Notes, quotes, observations as Phillies spring training ends

Clearwater Chronicles: Notes, quotes, observations as Phillies spring training ends

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies departed their spring home on Friday and will make a brief stopover in Philadelphia before heading to Cincinnati to open their 135th season on Monday.

The goal of any team in spring training is to stay healthy and the Phillies did that. Now the rebuilding club will attempt to take another step forward, improve on the 71 wins it put up last season and find out which young players on the roster will be around for the long haul while giving a good-looking group of prospects another year to grow in the minors.

Here are a few notes, quotes and observations as the Phillies exit Clearwater and head for the regular season:

1. Starting pitching should be this team's strength. The five arms that the Phillies have assembled have the potential to keep games close for six innings most nights. But, with the exception of Vince Velasquez, who looks primed for something big, the starters' ERAs were high this spring. In particular, Aaron Nola had an ERA of 8.38. Jerad Eickhoff finished at 6.86 and Clay Buchholz at 6.65

"I choose to believe that it's just spring training," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Nola showed that his elbow was sound. His velocity was actually up a tick or two. But it's hugely important that he re-find the pinpoint command and ability to locate that made him special in college and special for his first 25 big-league starts.

A better read of this rotation will start Monday when Jeremy Hellickson gets the ball.

2. The Phillies' tight 40-man roster drew a lot of attention this spring and affected some decisions for the opening day roster. The Phils could continue to have tough calls with the 40-man roster during the season, especially if they need catching help and determine that prospect Jorge Alfaro, who is on the 40, is not ready. At that point, the Phils might have to consider bringing up Logan Moore and making a tough call on whom to lop off the 40-man roster. Ditto in the outfield. If the Phils needed a backup outfielder and didn't want to have a 40-man prospect like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams or Dylan Cozens play part time, they might have to look at adding Cameron Perkins, who had a nice spring, to the roster. Again, who goes? Tyler Goeddel would have been the first outfielder to come up, but he was designated for assignment, a move that took him off the 40-man roster and possibly out of the organization, to make room for Brock Stassi.

3. Freddy Galvis had a brilliant spring with the glove. His big test this season will be improving his on-base skills as he tries to hold off top prospect J.P. Crawford. Early in camp, Galvis bristled when he was asked about Crawford. From this perspective, that was a good thing. Maybe he's ready to dig in and make improvements. Internal competition is a wonderful motivator and it's good to see that Galvis isn't conceding anything.

4. Jeanmar Gomez had a terrific spring, allowing just four hits and one run over 9 2/3 innings. He struck out five and walked one. He will open the season as the closer, but Mackanin continues to use qualifiers like "for now." Clearly, Mackanin remembers the struggles that cost Gomez that role last year. And so it seems Gomez will be on a short leash.

5. Newcomer Howie Kendrick showed unselfishness at the plate, moving runners by clearly trying to hit the ball the other way. File that under a veteran who knows how to play the game and set a good example.

6. Maikel Franco's swing looked a lot more under control. We can't recall his helmet popping off once. This is a big year for him as he tries to prove that he is a player worth building around to a front office that already has its eye on coming free-agent markets.

7. The buzz coming from next door at minor-league camp was significant, as much as these ears have ever heard. There was lots of talk about the Triple-A team mashing the ball, about 18-year-old pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez's dominating performances (word is team officials had to slow him down a little), about the strides another big-armed prospect, Franklyn Kilome, has made, and about the way the ball jumps off the bat of Cole Stobbe, last year's third-round pick. The minor-league season opens Thursday, and it will be a fascinating five-month ride as the organization has real prospects worth monitoring.

8. Aaron Altherr scorched the baseball over the final week or so of camp. Everything seemed to come off his bat hard. He is really liking the adjustment he has made in his stance. At the suggestion of new hitting coach Matt Stairs, Altherr lowered his hands. Altherr says it has helped him see the ball better and be quicker to the ball. Back in 2010, when he was still playing, Stairs made the same suggestion to Jayson Werth, whose body-type is similar to Altherr's, and it helped him earn a huge contract with the Washington Nationals.

9. Second base prospect Scott Kingery was the talk of the first half of the Grapefruit League schedule, with Mackanin saying it looked as if the 22-year-old was on a fast track to the majors. But it was another 22-year-old second base prospect that stood out late in camp. By virtue of his being on the 40-man roster, Jesmuel Valentin, who is a month younger than Kingery, got to hang around until the final cut. He hit .366 with a .934 OPS. He will start at Triple A and Kingery at Double A. As stated above, internal competition is good and the Phils have some at second base. And lest we forget, Cesar Hernandez does not turn 27 until May.

10. Eickhoff made good strides with his changeup. It'll be interesting to see where that takes him as he looks to build on last season's breakout, 197-inning season.

11. One of the most memorable quotes from camp was provided by director of player development Joe Jordan, who, in talking about pitcher Drew Anderson said, "We have scouts who will tell you he might be our top pitching prospect." Anderson will open the season at Double A in a rotation that will include former first-round pick Shane Watson, who is back from injury and throwing in the mid-90s.

12. It was pretty sweet to see the reactions of Andrew Knapp and Brock Stassi when they were told they'd made the club. Both of their dads played pro ball and topped out in Triple A, so there's a lot of joy in those households.

13. Entering camp, Knapp knew he had a chance to make the team because he was already on the tight 40-man roster. But early in camp, he did not look good at the plate. He started off 1 for 22 and was clearly pressing because he knew what was at stake. Once he got the vibe that he was going to make the club, his play improved dramatically, at the plate and behind it. He threw out four runners on the bases in the final week of camp, one with a hat tip to Valentin for a nice pick, and showed extra-base pop. He had a three-run double in the spring finale Friday.

14. Zach Eflin looks to be in terrific shape and could be poised for big things now that his knees don't hurt anymore. He had surgery on both of them in the fall to fix tendinitis issues. The Phillies will give him a few more weeks to build leg strength, so he will open the season on the disabled list before moving into the Triple A rotation.

15. Reliever Colton Murray had a tremendous spring. He gave up just two runs in 11 innings, held hitters to a .161 batting average and had a WHIP of 0.91. He was taken off the 40-man roster in October but will give the team something to think about if he continues to pitch well at Triple A.

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

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The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."