Countdown to Clearwater: Get to know the new players while you can

Countdown to Clearwater: Get to know the new players while you can

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Time moves on.
 
Players come and go.
 
The Phillies report to spring training in Clearwater, Florida, in less than two weeks and for the first time this century there will not be a player in the clubhouse that has a link to the 2008 World Series championship team.
 
Pat Burrell attended his first big-league camp in 1999, back when the team still called cozy, old Jack Russell Stadium its spring home, and Jimmy Rollins came through the door a year later.
 
The Phillies moved a few miles down Drew St. to gorgeous Bright House Field in 2004, and Burrell and Rollins were eventually joined by the likes of Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard in what became the core of the 2008 championship team.
 
They have all moved on now, first Burrell not long after the World Series parade and then Rollins, Hamels and Utley a few years later. The exodus continued when Ruiz was traded in August and concluded when Howard tipped his cap as his contract expired in October.
 
So, for the first time in 19 seasons, there won’t be a player in the club’s spring-training clubhouse — new hitting coach Matt Stairs doesn’t count — that was part of the 2008 title team.
 
Maybe it’s fitting that even the ballpark has a new name. Bright House Field has become Spectrum Field after a corporate transaction.
 
The sense of newness actually shifted into high gear a year ago when club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak presided over their first spring training as leaders of the rebuilding club.
 
The Phillies made a solid improvement in 2016, winning 71 games, eight more than they did while racking up baseball’s worst record in 2015. But this club remains an active construction site and playoff relevance/contention is probably at least a year away, maybe more depending on the progress of young players. Klentak spent the winter making modest additions designed to support a core of young players that has already arrived in the majors and inch the win total upward without requiring lengthy contract commitments that would block the next wave of young players that the rebuild and the goal of long-term sustainable success hinges upon.
 
Klentak offered a look at his offseason playbook in the fall.
 
“We want to make the 2017 Phillies better than the 2016 Phillies,” he said. “It’s important that we continue to move the ball down the field and show progress. Simultaneously, we need to be very cognizant of not blocking the development timeline of our players, some that are in the big leagues and some that are on the cusp of reaching the big leagues.”

The embodiment of Klentak’s plan will be visible in spring training as five well-known veterans begin what figure to be short stints with the club.
 
Klentak added a pair of veteran relievers in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, a starting pitcher in Clay Buchholz and two outfielders in Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick came in trades. Benoit and Saunders were free-agent signings. All are signed for just 2017, though Saunders’ contract has a club option for 2018.

Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick all were essentially salary dumps by their previous clubs. Throughout their rebuild, which began under previous general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies have been willing to take on money to get players that fit the club’s purpose. They did it in the Cole Hamels trade, which netted them several potential building blocks, including rotation rock Jerad Eickhoff, and they did it in acquiring Jeremy Hellickson last winter. He had a solid season in 2016 and returns in 2017.
 
Like Hellickson a year ago, each one of these new Phillies veterans is seeking a rebound of some sort.

Kendrick, who lines up to start in left field, is looking to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his career.

Saunders, who will start in right field, is looking to show he is the guy who hit .298 with a .923 OPS in the first half of 2016 and made the American League All-Star team, not the guy that hit .178 with a .638 OPS after the break.

Buchholz seeks consistency after pitching his way in and out of Boston’s rotation last season.

Benoit and Neshek have both experienced highs and lows in their careers. The Phillies would gladly take the best these two relievers have because this team’s starting rotation has some talent and depth and that could give the club a puncher’s chance heading into the late innings a lot of nights.
 
There will be other new faces in the clubhouse. Veterans Daniel Nava, Bryan Holaday, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Hanigan, Pedro Florimon and Sean Burnett will all be in camp on minor-league contracts and there will be a host of first-time prospects on board to get their first taste of big-league life before heading to the minors for more seasoning.
 
But Kendrick, Saunders, Buchholz, Benoit and Neshek are the most notable new names, players who’ve had success in other places and are now making mid- or late-career stops with a rebuilding team in Philadelphia.
 
Say hello to them all but make it quick. If they play well for four months, Klentak will surely look to trade them for young players that will help the club’s long-term rebuild.
 
That’s in his playbook, too.
 
“We’re trying to make our team as competitive as we can and the hope is that we will be playing meaningful games when we get to the end of July,” Klentak said. “But it certainly isn’t lost on us that if the standings are looking the other way at the end of July, we have a lot of meaningful players in the last years of their contracts that could be trade chips.”

Next: A look at pitcher Aaron Nola as he returns from an elbow injury.

Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

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Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time for the 2017 Cleveland Indians to be introduced to the one and only 1884 Providence Grays.

They share some unlikely history, the two teams, which played a mere 141 years apart, are the only two clubs to have ever won 27 out of 28 games.

The Indians joined the Grays on Thursday when Francisco Lindor's three-run homer led Cleveland to a 4-1 victory and three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Grays ended up winning 28 of 29, leaving the Indians one game shy of matching the record (see full recap).

Cubs rally in 9th, beat Brewers to open big series
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez grounded a tying single with two outs in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in the 10th and the Chicago Cubs widened their NL Central lead over Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 5-3 Thursday night.

The Cubs now are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers after winning the opener of a four-game series.

Milwaukee was in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Wade Davis (4-1) struck out Domingo Santana and then, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to Orlando Arcia, came back to retire him on an easy comebacker on a full-count pitch.

The Cubs trailed 3-2 when Ian Happ led off the ninth by hitting a grounder that first baseman Neil Walker fielded wide of the bag. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress covered first and Happ was called safe in a close play, a ruling upheld on replay (see full recap).

Twins rout Tigers, lead AL wild card by 2½ games
DETROIT -- With a postseason berth tantalizingly close, the Minnesota Twins snapped out of their mini-slump in emphatic fashion.

Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each, and the Twins extended their lead for the American League's second wild card by beating the Detroit Tigers 12-1 on Thursday night. Minnesota is 2 games ahead of the Angels in the race for the AL's final postseason spot. Los Angeles lost earlier in the day to Cleveland .

The Twins had lost five of six coming into the night, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but they routed a depleted Detroit team that is 4-17 in September after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton.

"As a whole in this season, it's been pretty impressive," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Staying away from the long losing streaks, coming back from some tough losses and some tough stretches and getting back to playing winning baseball, for the most part,” (see full recap).

Fowler delivers again as Cardinals beat Reds
CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals rinsed the bad taste of being swept by the Chicago Cubs the best way they could -- sweeping the Cincinnati Reds.

Dexter Fowler delivered again, hitting two doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame Scott Schebler's two home runs to beat the Reds 8-5 Thursday night.

The Cardinals began the day 2 games behind Colorado for the second NL wild-card spot and five games behind the Central-leading Cubs.

Fowler drove in two runs. He went 7 for 13 with two home runs and six RBIs in the three-game series (see full recap).

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.