Countdown to Clearwater: Now that Mackanin has those 2 bats, how will he line them up?

Countdown to Clearwater: Now that Mackanin has those 2 bats, how will he line them up?

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.

Pete Mackanin got his wish.

Back in September, he talked openly about his desire to add two veteran bats to the Phillies’ feeble lineup.

When asked at the time about Mackanin’s wish list, general manager Matt Klentak acknowledged that the skipper was right — the Phillies needed to upgrade their offense.

But Klentak went on to caution that he, as steward of the present and future, would remain committed to a long-term, youth-based rebuild of the club. The implication was pretty clear: Yeah, the Phillies would get a hitter in the offseason, but two? Not at the expense of blocking the path of a young player who would need the chance to show he has staying power and impact potential.

Klentak struck quickly and added a veteran hitter, Howie Kendrick, in a November trade with the Dodgers.

A month later, the winter meetings arrived. Mackanin gave the Kendrick addition a public thumbs-up and once again expressed his desire to add another hitter.

Klentak, meanwhile, remained on the fence, citing his responsibility to balance the future with the present.

Two weeks into the New Year, the Phillies signed left-handed-hitting outfielder Michael Saunders, an all-star with the Toronto Blue Jays last season.

Mackanin got his wish.

But so, too, did Klentak.

Saunders, 30, came on short-term contract — one year with a club option. He won’t be a long-term blockade to a young player and he should help the Phillies have a more productive offense in 2017. Lord knows they need one after finishing last in the majors with 610 runs and a .685 OPS last season, and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301.)

“We had been monitoring both the free-agent and trade market for a hitter and ultimately felt that signing Michael Saunders made sense for us,” Klentak said. “He’s a player who has shown at times to be an impactful middle-of-the-order bat with athleticism and upside who is still relatively young. And he comes on a short-term deal with the flexibility of a club option.”

Saunders hit .253 with 24 homers, 57 RBIs and an .815 OPS in Toronto’s thundering lineup last season. He lines up to start in right field for the Phillies. The Phils had considered going with rookie Roman Quinn at the position but ultimately decided on a more proven bat while giving the speedy Quinn some development time at Triple A.

Quinn will still get a bunch of playing time in big-league camp as the team prepares him for a full-time jump that could come later this season.

“Roman is coming into camp with a chance to compete and be on the big-league club,” Klentak said. “What we saw in September was a really exciting player with a lot of promise who has a chance to be an impactful big-leaguer. But we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for him developmentally. He’s never had an at-bat at the Triple A level and we don’t believe some additional time in the minor leagues will stunt his development.”

In addition to Quinn, the Phillies plan to take a good look at shortstop J.P. Crawford in spring training. He will play a lot as starter Freddy Galvis competes for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. Crawford, ultimately, will open at Triple A in a prospect-studded lineup.

Saunders, a Canadian, has decided to skip the WBC so he can adjust to life with his new club. That will afford Mackanin time to figure out where to hit him in the lineup. The early guess is that Saunders would bat fifth, behind Maikel Franco.

The Phillies landed upon a leadoff man last season when Cesar Hernandez reached base at a .413 clip in the second half.

So now that we have a place to start, let’s take a peek at what Mackanin might ultimately decide on for his lineup:

2B Cesar Hernandez (S)
LF Howie Kendrick
CF Odubel Herrera (L)
3B Maikel Franco
RF Michael Saunders (L)
1B Tommy Joseph
C Cameron Rupp
SS Freddy Galvis (S)

Of course, this is just a guess. This lineup would give the Phils some on-base strength in the top-third and some pop in the middle — and even at the bottom. Galvis had 20 homers last season, but his on-base percentage was just .274, the worst in baseball. He needs to get on base more, even if it requires sacrificing some home runs.

Franco, 24, also needs to improve his plate discipline.

Mackanin believes that the addition of Kendrick and Saunders will take some pressure off Franco. No longer will he think he has to be the man in the Phillies’ lineup and that could help him be The Man and push 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Last year, he had 25 homers and 88 RBIs.

“I think there were times last year when Franco felt like he had to carry the team, and he didn’t have to do that,” Mackanin said. “Hopefully Kendrick and Saunders will help in that respect.

“Franco just needs to continue to progress and mature as a player and understand the need to just relax, know the situation, know the pitchers, know the score, the inning, and hit accordingly, and I think he’ll do that.

“Saunders will definitely help in all of that because he gives us more balance in our lineup. I’m hoping all our young guys learn something by watching the approach that Kendrick and Saunders take into every at-bat. A good bat is a good bat and I’m happy to have them both.”

Next: Day 9 — Will Pete Mackanin's contract be extended? 

Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

Dodgers go boom, boom, boom to burst Phillies' bubble

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES — For eight innings, it was a wonderful night for the Phillies.

Brock Stassi, the storybook kid, belted a three-run home run. Rookie Andrew Knapp had three hits, including his first big-league home run to give the Phils a three-run lead in the eighth inning, much to the delight of his family and friends whose cheers could be heard rising from deep within the sellout crowd of 53,110. Zach Eflin pitched superbly over seven-walk free innings and even the boys in the dugout had a little fun goofing on Tommy Joseph as he watched the game oblivious to the fact that he had a perfectly formed bubblegum sphere stuck to the top of his cap.

For the Phillies, there were plenty of reasons to be giddy.

And then the bubble burst, turning their happy little night into a crushing, oh-the-humanity, 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers (see Instant Replay).

"It's one of the worst losses I've ever been associated with, the way we lost," manager Pete Mackanin, looking shellshocked, said moments after it ended.

Trailing 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the game in the blink of an eye when Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner hit consecutive solo home runs off closer-but-don't-call-him-closer Hector Neris.

Puig's homer was a laser into the left-field seats, capping an eight-pitch at-bat. Bellinger's was a shot off the right-field foul pole that electrified the huge crowd. Turner's was a pinch-hit shot to left.

"Those weren't windblown home runs," Mackanin said. "They were bombs. It's tough to take. I'm not real happy with the outcome."

Mackanin removed Neris after a one-out single by Austin Barnes. Lefty Joely Rodriguez came in and got an out, then allowed a two-out single to Corey Seager, bringing No. 3 hitter Adrian Gonzalez to the plate.

With the crowd roaring and the count 1-1, Gonzalez fouled off four straight pitches before hitting a bouncing ball to the left of third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco moved to the ball, but it hit off the end of his glove and bounced wildly as Barnes raced home from second with the winning run.

Gonzalez was awarded an RBI infield hit. But it could have been scored an error.

"I thought [Franco] should have caught it," Mackanin said. "I think he should have [made the play]."

Franco said he could not dive for the ball because it was bouncing so much.

"I was running hard for the ball, but it hit off the tip of my glove," Franco said. "I tried to go out there and do my best on that play. But, you know, I can't get that. I did everything I can on that play."

Really, the game was lost when Neris could not hold the lead. Once the ball started flying out of the park and the crowd started going wild, there was no holding back the Dodgers. They went boom, boom, boom and it was only a matter of time before the Phillies hit the canvas.

In both the macro and micro sense, the Phillies have a problem in the ninth inning.

In the macro, they have blown four saves in the ninth inning, two resulting in painful walk-off losses. The team ERA in the ninth is an appalling 8.83. Neris is the third pitcher to be used as closer (even though Mackanin is reluctant to use the term) and the season isn't even a month old yet.

"I'd like to have a lights-out closer, but we don't have one right now," Mackanin said. "We'll continue to look at it."

In the micro, Neris is still probably best suited for the closer's job, but he needs to make some fixes. Two of the three homers he gave up came on fastballs. Mackanin wants to see more splitters. That pitch helped Neris strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season.

"One thing about Neris is for some reason he's getting away from his split," Mackanin said. "He wants to throw more fastballs and that's not going to work.

"I think Neris is capable of being a closer, but for some reason he's just not throwing his split as often as he did and that's his out pitch, the pitch that makes him who he is, who he was, and he's gotten away from it and throwing more fastballs. We'll have a talk with him and get it straightened out."

Neris said pitch selection wasn't his problem in the ninth inning.

"It wasn't because they were fastballs," he said. "It was the location.

"It was just a bad day. Everyone has one."

But this bad?

"What a way to lose," Mackanin groaned. "A real letdown."

Best of MLB: Ivan Nova tosses 3-hitter as Pirates shut out Marlins

Best of MLB: Ivan Nova tosses 3-hitter as Pirates shut out Marlins

MIAMI -- Ivan Nova pitched a three-hitter and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 4-0 on Saturday night.

John Jaso homered and drove in two runs, Jordy Mercer knocked in a run, and Gregory Polanco had two doubles for the Pirates, who have won three straight.

Nova (3-2) struck out seven and did not walk a batter in the 95-pitch masterpiece. He retired 11 in a row at one point.

Nova continued his impressive start to the season, which includes walking just one batter over 27 innings as he lowered his ERA to 1.50 while tossing his second complete game and the eighth of his career.

Dan Strailey (1-2) nearly matched Nova through five innings allowing only one run before running into trouble in the sixth when he allowed a base hit followed by three consecutive walks including Francisco Cervelli with the bases loaded ending his outing (see full recap).

Conforto's 2 home runs power Mets past Nationals
WASHINGTON -- Michael Conforto hit two home runs and slumping Jose Reyes also connected, leading the New York Mets over the Washington Nationals 5-3 Saturday.

The banged-up Mets had lost six in a row when they began this series at Nationals Park against the team with the best record in the majors. Behind their power and bullpen, the Mets beat Washington for the second straight day.

Conforto's two-run homer in the fifth gave the Mets a 3-1 lead and his sixth home run of the season made it 4-2 in the eighth. It was Conforto's second multihomer game in the majors -- as a rookie, he did it in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series against Kansas City.

Hansel Robles (4-0) came in to start the sixth and retired five of the six batters he faced, striking out four. Jerry Blevins then took over and fanned Bryce Harper.

Jeurys Familia, pulled Friday night in the ninth inning while Washington tried to rally, retired three straight hitters to earn his first save of the season.

Stephen Strasburg (2-1) gave up three runs in seven innings (see full recap).

Gardner busts out, Yanks hit 4 more HRs to rout Orioles
NEW YORK -- Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge and the thundering New York Yankees picked up right where they left off the previous night, steamrolling past the Baltimore Orioles 12-4 on Saturday for their fourth straight victory.

Gardner homered twice from the leadoff spot and had his first four RBIs of the season. Austin Romine, the No. 9 batter, also went deep and knocked in five runs. Judge, not to be outdone, clocked his latest colossal homer and scored four times as New York won its 14th in 17 games to boost the American League's best record to 15-7.

Michael Pineda (3-1) did not allow an earned run in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight, and the Yankees knocked Baltimore out of first place in the AL East for the first time this season.

Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez (1-1) was tagged for a season-high seven runs -- six earned -- and five hits with three walks.

In a series-opening slugfest Friday night, the Yankees hit five homers and rallied from eight runs down for a 14-11 victory capped by Matt Holliday's three-run shot in the 10th inning (see full recap).