Countdown to Clearwater: Here’s looking at you, kids

Countdown to Clearwater: Here’s looking at you, kids

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.

You never know who’s going to rise up from the edges and make a difference for a major league team.
 
Look at Tommy Joseph. A year ago at this time, his career was on the rocks. He’d been waived, passed over in the Rule 5 draft and assigned to minor-league spring training camp. Before you knew it, however, he was in the big leagues, driving in runs and muscling balls over the wall.
 
When the Phillies open camp next week, Joseph will have a locker in the big-league clubhouse and the regular job at first base will be his.
 
So who will be this year’s Tommy Joseph?
 
Who will be that unheralded guy that pops in from the margins and makes a contribution in the majors in 2017?
 
Could it be Andrew Pullin?
 
Pullin, 23, is one of about 20 young prospects who will get time in big-league camp before heading off to the minors this season. The list includes some of organization’s brightest and most talked-about prospects, including shortstop J.P. Crawford; catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp; outfielders Dylan Cozens, Roman Quinn and Nick Williams; first baseman Rhys Hoskins; second basemen Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin; and pitchers Victor Arano, Elniery Garcia, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively and Drew Anderson, among others.
 
The first few weeks of camp will be a time to watch Crawford, the organization’s top prospect, work counts and make the pivot on double plays. It will be a time to watch Alfaro and Cozens play dueling power bats in batting practice, a time to see Quinn show his electrifying speed on the bases, and a time to see if Arano might be in line for a quick jump to the Phillies’ bullpen.
 
We single out Pullin because he’s the guy that reminds us a little of Joseph in that he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December and 29 other teams passed on him. The Phillies retained the 23-year-old corner outfielder and thought enough of him to invite him to big-league camp for a look-see. Pullin is a left-handed hitter with a swing that reminds some of Jim Eisenreich. It would not be a complete reach to think he could help in Philadelphia at some point this season.
 
Pullin’s journey to Phillies big-league camp is kind of interesting. He hails from Centralia, Washington, about 90 minutes south of Seattle, and was headed to the University of Oregon before the Phillies selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Before the draft, Pullin had caught the eye of a number of Phillies scouts, including Pat Gillick, as they spent time watching another player from the Centralia area, pitcher Mitch Gueller. The Phils picked Gueller in the sandwich round, 54th overall. He has moved on from baseball and is now playing football at Idaho State. Meanwhile, Pullin presses on with his baseball career.
 
Drafted as a second baseman, Pullin moved to the outfield in 2015 and drove in 73 runs in the Florida State League. His career seemed to be moving on a good track when he abruptly announced that he was retiring from baseball just before the start of the 2016 season. Six weeks later, he reconsidered, returned to the Phillies’ system and his career got back on track as he hit .322 with 14 homers, 51 RBIs and a .885 OPS in stops at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading. He hit .346 with a .955 OPS in in 46 games after his promotion to Double A.
 
“I had some personal things I needed to take care of and the Phillies were very gracious and helpful,” Pullin said of his decision to step away from baseball temporarily. “Everything’s taken care of and I’m glad to be back. Everything’s great.”
 
That includes his right elbow.
 
Pullin injured the elbow making an awkward throw during the final week of last season while playing for Reading. The injury cost him a scheduled assignment to the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League and gave management reason to gamble and leave him off the 40-man roster in November, thus exposing him to the Rule 5 draft in December. The gamble paid off.
 
“My elbow is fine now,” Pullin said. “I’ve been throwing and it’s feeling good.”
 
Pullin recently took part in the Phillies prospect education seminar. During a weeklong stay in Philadelphia, he got to work with new hitting coach Matt Stairs in the batting cage.
 
Like Gillick before the 2012 draft, Stairs was taken by Pullin’s crisp and efficient swing.
 
“He’s got a very quiet approach, tremendous hands and a short, fluid swing,” Stairs said. “The scouting report is you can’t beat him with a fastball and I can see why. I’m excited to see him on a more regular basis in spring training.”
 
It’s unclear where Pullin will open the 2017 season. The Triple A outfield appears set — and prospect-studded — with Quinn, Williams and Cozens. Pullin might have to return to Double A to get regular at-bats, but if he produces like he did last season he will continue to get noticed and play himself onto the 40-man roster in November – and maybe sooner if he hits his way to Philadelphia this season.
 
“I feel like I can compete anywhere,” Pullin said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I can do and I’m just trying to repeat that. My goal is to improve with every game and keep moving up so next year I can hopefully make it on the 40-man roster.”

MLB Notes: Tigers star Miguel Cabrera could return soon from back stiffness

MLB Notes: Tigers star Miguel Cabrera could return soon from back stiffness

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera could soon return to the lineup after being sidelined by back stiffness.

Cabrera has been out since leaving the Dominican Republic's game last Saturday in the World Baseball Classic.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said Cabrera might play Friday against Atlanta.

"Just not going to rush it," Ausmus said before Wednesday's game against Toronto. "There's no reason to rush it. He's got plenty of at-bats. We'll see how he is on Friday."

Cabrera hit .316 with 38 homers and 108 RBIs last season.

Outfielder J.D. Martinez, who sprained his right foot making a shoestring catch Saturday, is scheduled to be re-examined Friday.

Martinez hit .307 last year with 22 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Blue Jays: Bautista says he is over lower back stiffness
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista says the lower back stiffness that prevented him from playing for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic last weekend is no longer an issue.

Bautista was in the original lineup for Wednesday's spring training game against Detroit. But with an off-day Thursday, it was determined to have him play Friday instead.

"I'm feeling great," Bautista said. "I talked to the staff and it makes no sense to just kind of crank it up. Just take a day off."

Bautista is hopeful that his strong start, hitting .563 with two homers and six RBIs in six games before leaving for the WBC, will continue.

"I'm seeing the ball well and feeling good at the plate," Bautista said. "Just excited to be back in the swing of things with the guys, and looking forward to getting ready for the season” (see full story).

Twins: May has Tommy John surgery
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins right-hander Trevor May has undergone Tommy John elbow surgery that will keep him off the mound this season.

The Twins announced on Wednesday that the replacement of May's torn ulnar collateral ligament was successful. The 27-year-old was transitioning back to starting, following a move to the bullpen halfway through the 2015 season.

With May's injury and their release on Tuesday of veteran right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, the Twins are down to Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey and Adalberto Mejia in the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation.

May was placed on the 60-day disabled list, making room for the Twins to add left-hander Craig Breslow to the 40-man roster. The 36-year-old Breslow is among the finalists for a middle relief role.

Cardinals: Martinez to pitch on opening night
JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals have picked Carlos Martinez to start on opening night against the World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Martinez about the choice before he pitched Wednesday in an exhibition game against Washington.

The Cardinals host the NL Central rival Cubs on April 2.

Adam Wainwright had started the past four openers for the Cardinals. Matheny said Wainwright took the news well about Martinez getting the assignment this year.

The 25-year-old Martinez was an All-Star in 2015. He went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year.

Yankees 7, Phillies 3: Long balls hurt Vince Velasquez; Daniel Nava auditions at first base

Yankees 7, Phillies 3: Long balls hurt Vince Velasquez; Daniel Nava auditions at first base

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin got right to the point after this one.

"Well, I wish Joe Girardi didn't bring Bird along," he said after the Phillies' 7-3 loss to the Yankees. "It would have been a different ballgame if he didn't show up."

Mackanin was referring to Greg Bird, the Yankees first baseman and owner of a sweet lefty swing that has produced six home runs this spring, including a pair on Wednesday.

Both of the home runs came on down-and-in fastballs from Vince Velasquez. On one of them, Velasquez missed his spot badly.

"Velasquez pitched better than what he gave up," Mackanin said. "He had a good fastball. He got his pitch count up and he got through six innings. We're happy about that."

Velasquez lines up to pitch the home opener on April 7.

Nava auditions at first 
Daniel Nava, fighting to make the club as a non-roster player, played the entire game at first base. He had a walk, drove in a run and made a nifty play with the glove at first.

The Phillies have a serious roster crunch. If Andrew Knapp makes the club as the backup catcher -- a strong possibility because he is already on the 40-man roster -- then Nava could be battling with Chris Coghlan and Brock Stassi for one of the final two spots on the bench. Nava and Stassi are similar in that they both play first base and outfield, so it could come down to one or the other. Both have swung the bat well this spring (see 25-man roster projection).

"I could go out there and do everything right and they could go in a different direction, and I could do everything wrong and they could want me," Nava said. "I've been in this spot numerous times so I'm just trying to control things that I can control. That's a classic cliché or phrase, but there's a reason it's a phrase because there's a lot of truth to it. I just don't look into that stuff because it's out of my control.

"They could go a lot of different ways and that's actually good because it's so far out of your control you can't worry about it.

"We have a bunch of guys here who are good players. We'll see what happens."

Up next
The Phillies host the Twins on Thursday (1:05 p.m./TCN). Aaron Nola will start.