Confident De Fratus ready to return to majors

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Confident De Fratus ready to return to majors

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- For a ballplayer, there can be no worse feeling than being demoted to the minors. But for Justin De Fratus, a righty who figured to have a role in the Phillies’ bullpen this season, being sent back to the minors was particularly tough.

With his hard slider and above-average fastball, De Fratus was ready to step into a meaningful role for Ryne Sandberg with the Phillies. The problem was Sandberg didn’t seem to trust De Fratus, using his just four times during the first month of the season.

“The season did not go how I planned and it did not go how the Phillies planned,” De Fratus said.

De Fratus, 26, didn’t give Sandberg much reason to go to him. In five innings in the big leagues, the right-hander allowed four runs on a pair of homers. One of those long balls came in an April 12 game against Giancarlo Stanton and the Marlins with the Phillies clinging to a narrow, two-run lead in the seventh inning.

That was De Fratus’ last game in the majors. It was also when he was forced to take a bit of personal inventory.  

“The answer I give is I never lost any confidence,” De Fratus said after Lehigh Valley’s 7-1 victory over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Thursday at Coca-Cola Park. “The thing was I had more confidence this year than any other year.”

There was no reason why De Fratus shouldn’t have felt confident. In parts of three seasons in the big leagues, De Fratus posted a 3.67 ERA in 76 games with 53 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. A hard thrower, De Fratus sometimes struggled with his command, issuing 33 walks. However, he was good at keeping the ball in the park, allowing just three homers and holding the opposition to a .236 batting average.

With those numbers it was easy to be optimistic about De Fratus holding down a significant role in the Phils’ 'pen. But when Sandberg didn’t use De Fratus in certain situations, one had to wonder how the pitcher was dealing with issue.

De Fratus figured out quickly that he was a mess mechanically.

“I was just lost mechanically,” De Fratus said. “I didn’t know what was going on or what was happening.”

The problem was De Fratus was watching and copying other pitchers. But what worked for others didn’t always work for him.

“I was watching too much of other pitchers, and you see pitchers do well and you try to emulate it and sometimes you forget what you do well,” De Fratus said. “Some of those things were unintentionally implemented and I got out of whack. I had to stop trying to be someone else and do what comes naturally. Once I came to that realization, it’s been back on track.”

Regaining his confidence as well as perspective about the demotion was a task the pitcher jumped into headfirst. His first order of business was to dig up video of his good outings to study how he pitched when things were going well. The idea, De Fratus said, was to get those performances “burned in my head.”

If De Fratus was lost when he was sent down, he found himself pretty quickly. In 12 games for Lehigh Valley, De Fratus has a 2.05 ERA with three saves, four holds and 11 strikeouts in 13 innings. Better yet, he’s allowed just three walks and is riding a six-game, seven-inning scoreless streak in which he’s given up just two hits and no walks.

He’s ready to get back to Philadelphia.

“Mentally I have a better understanding of what it takes to pitch [in the majors] and it’s just something I just had to go back and do some self reflection on my career and find some answers,” he said.

Still, even though the Phillies have the second-worst bullpen ERA in the National League, De Fratus isn’t campaigning to get his old job back. He’ll be back when the time is right.

“No one wants to be sent down, but I feel I’m ready and I’m back to a good spot mechanically,” De Fratus said.

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies' roster

Versatile Brock Stassi making his pitch to win a spot on the Phillies' roster

TAMPA, Fla. -- When Phillies camp opened earlier this month, Brock Stassi was considering mentioning his ability to play the outfield to manager Pete Mackanin.

Though he’s played mostly first base during his six seasons in the Phillies' system, Stassi has been used occasionally in left field. He’s also played the position in winter ball in Latin America. Even going back to high school, Stassi played center field.

As it turned out, Stassi didn’t need to have that conversation with Mackanin. The manager actually approached the player early in camp and told him he planned to get him some time in the outfield as well as at first base.

Mackanin and the Phillies' front office value versatility and they want to have it on their bench. Stassi has come to his second big-league camp as a serious candidate to win a job on the bench. His left-handed bat -- which he showed off with a solo homer in Friday’s 9-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Yankees -- would be attractive to the Phils. So would his versatility.

And if the ability to play first base and outfield isn’t enough versatility, Stassi can actually offer something else.

He can pitch.

In fact, the Cleveland Indians drafted him as a pitcher after his junior year at the University of Nevada in 2010.

Stassi returned to school for his senior year in 2011 and was a two-way player. The Phillies selected him in the 33rd round of the draft that year as a hitter, even though on draft day there was some confusion.

“Initially, I was announced as a left-handed pitcher then they changed it to outfielder,” Stassi said. “Then I got to Williamsport (the Phillies’ New York-Penn League team) and had a first baseman’s mitt in my bag, and I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. You’re going to be playing first.’”

Stassi’s minor-league managers in the Phillies' system have always been aware of his pitching background. He has made nine pitching appearances during his time in pro ball, including four with Triple A Lehigh Valley last year. All were in relief in long extra-innings games.

“I got a win and a loss,” Stassi said.

He recalled the loss with a big laugh.

“I shook off Logan,” he said, referring to catcher Logan Moore, another candidate pushing for a spot on the Phillies’ bench. “I shook to the fastball against a lefty. It wasn’t the right move and Logan won’t let me forget that. The guy hit a triple. Then I got hit with a comeback one-hopper right on the butt. It was like a 14-inning game.”

Stassi throws a fastball, curveball and changeup.

“My fastball is like 84,” he said with a laugh.

Many position players in a big-league clubhouse were pitchers at some point in the baseball journey. Roman Quinn, who broke into pro ball as a shortstop and is now a centerfielder, was used as a closer in high school and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.

“I believe it,” Stassi said. “That guy’s got a cannon. I had to catch him when he was playing shortstop. He’d come charging in on a close play and he’d let one loose and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And even from the outfield he’s got a cannon.”

Stassi’s arm doesn’t bounce back the way it used to when he pitched in college.

“Every time I have to pitch now I’m hanging for like two weeks,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t grab the baseball and gut out an inning if Mackanin ever needed it.

“Hey, if that’s what it takes,” he said.

Figuring out the Phillies’ bench at this point of camp is a little like solving a Rubik’s Cube. There are many possible combinations. Infielder Andres Blanco is a sure thing and outfielder Aaron Altherr seems like a good bet. So does outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Andrew Knapp, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday and Moore are the candidates for backup catcher. Knapp can also play first base. And it’s not out of the question that the Phils would carry three catchers.

They could fill the perceived final spot on the bench with an infielder such as Pedro Florimon or another outfielder such as Daniel Nava, Andrew Pullin or Cameron Perkins. Or it could be Stassi, whose versatility is a plus.

“There’s a lot I like about Stassi,” Mackanin said.

Stassi comes from a baseball family. His brother, Max, is a catcher with the Houston Astros. They played for their dad, Jim, at Yuba City High School near Sacramento, California. Jim was a catcher who reached Triple A during his playing days in the Giants system.

“My dad always talked about the value of versatility in high school,” Brock said. “He preached it to the whole team. You might have two second basemen and they’re pretty equal, but you want both bats in the lineup so you might have to play outfield. It’s good to be able to do it. Don’t take it as a knock that you’re not at your normal position -- you’re in the lineup.”

In addition to wearing several different gloves, Stassi can swing the bat. He was Eastern League MVP in 2015 when he hit .300 with 15 homers, 90 RBIs and a .863 OPS for Double A Reading. He hit .267 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .806 OPS at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season.

Stassi has been described as “a grinder” by members of the Phillies’ player-development staff, and that’s a compliment. More than one thousand players were selected ahead of him in the 2011 draft. His signing bonus was just $1,000. He’s never appeared on one of those Top 10 prospect lists and never been on a 40-man roster, never mind appeared in a big-league game. But he’s continually moved up the ladder and now, at age 27, is under serious consideration to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench.

And maybe -- if needed in a pinch -- in the bullpen, too.

“Oh, man, it would be a dream come true,” Stassi said. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. Just the path that I’ve taken -- I've had to earn everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be really awesome to make this team.”

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

Yankees 9, Phillies 4: Cameron Perkins comes out swinging

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Phillies’ bats were slow getting started in the Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon. The Phils did not have a baserunner through the first six innings in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.

“First game, I’m just happy we got at-bats because the pitching is always ahead of the hitting this early,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said afterward.

Outfielder Cameron Perkins had the Phillies’ first hit, a single up the middle in the seventh inning. He added a solo homer in the ninth inning.

Perkins, 26, was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. He graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis, the same school that produced Phillies great and Hall of Famer Chuck Klein.

A right-hander hitter who eschews batting gloves, Perkins hit .292 with eight homers and 47 RBIs at Triple A Lehigh Valley last season. He is not on the 40-man roster but was invited to camp for a look-see. He is considered a longshot to win a spot on the Phillies’ bench, but will certainly improve his chances if he keeps swinging it like he did Friday.

“I don’t think about it,” Perkins said of his bid to make the club. “All I can do is what I did today -- get my opportunity and make the most of it.”

Brock Stassi, another candidate for a job on the Phillies’ bench, also homered.

On the pitching side
Right-hander Alec Asher, who projects to open in the Triple A rotation, started for the Phils. He pitched two innings, allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius and struck out two.

Asher made big strides with his sinker last season. He’s added a cutter now.

Right-hander Nick Pivetta debuted with two scoreless innings. He gave up a hit, walked one and struck out three. The Phillies acquired Pivetta from Washington from Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015. He projects to open in the Triple A rotation, but first will pitch for Team Canada in the WBC in March.

“It’s a lifelong dream for me, right up there with whenever it is that I get my first start with the Phillies,” Pivetta said.

The bullpen
Mackanin has said he’d like to have two left-handed relievers in his bullpen. The Phillies have just one -- Joely Rodriguez -- on their 40-man roster, although it’s possible that Adam Morgan could be shifted from starter to reliever later in camp.

The Phils have brought two veteran lefties -- Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos -- into camp on minor-league deals to compete for a job. Burnett made his debut Friday and gave up a triple, a sacrifice fly and a home run in his inning of work.

Luis Garcia was tagged for four hits and three runs in his spring debut.

Up next
The Phillies host the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday afternoon. Morgan will start for the Phils against right-hander Adam Warren.