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.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."