Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' bench

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Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' bench

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Fla. on Feb. 13. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and story lines of camp.

Day 1 – Ryne Sandberg’s first camp as manager

Today – The Bench

Ryne Sandberg is an old-school National League man. His ideal brand of baseball includes 25 men and no designated hitter.

So it was no surprise that when Sandberg took over as Phillies manager in August he talked about being committed to using his entire roster.

“I like to utilize the bench,” he said. “It’s important for getting through the season. It allows you to get your regulars rest and that helps maximize their performance throughout the season. It also keeps your reserves sharp and into it so they are always ready to contribute. It’s a benefit to the whole team.”

This spring, Sandberg must construct a bench that will produce results. Generally, the Phillies have been a team that carries five bench players -- a backup catcher, two extra infielders and two extra outfielders. There will be some competition for jobs on the bench in spring training, but not a lot.

Though the Phillies are bringing a number of catchers to camp, including Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph and Lou Marson, veteran Wil Nieves was signed to be the backup. Carlos Ruiz is 35 and has played more than 121 games just once in his career, so Nieves will see time behind the plate during the regular season.

There will be plenty of reserve infield candidates in camp, including Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and Cesar Hernandez. All three are on the 40-man roster. Veterans Reid Brignac and Ronny Cedeno will also be in camp. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are both 35, so it’s important that Sandberg gets them rest. Defensively, Galvis excels at both positions as well as third base, and Sandberg has already indicated that he envisions the 24-year-old Venezuelan playing a key role on the team. Frandsen, who spent all of last season with the club, might have the upper hand on the second backup spot, but his $900,000 contract does not become fully guaranteed until opening day.

Outfield will be the most interesting bench-related area to watch in spring training.

Desperate for a left-handed bat to come off the bench, the team reached back into its past and signed veteran Bobby Abreu to a minor-league contract last month. Abreu, who turns 40 in March, did not play in the majors last year, but swung a productive bat this winter in Venezuela. The Phils are bringing him in for a tryout to see if he can be the part-time lefty hitter (and occasional outfielder) they need.

Sandberg and team officials need to get a read on Abreu in camp and decide whether they think he has anything left. He will get significant playing time. The Phils have to inform Abreu whether he has made the opening day roster by March 26 or he can opt out of his contract.

The hunch here is that Abreu will make the club. The Phils have an obvious need for a lefty bat and he’s a smart, poised veteran who won’t be fazed by the pressures of a tryout. On top of it all, he should be relatively sharp after having played all winter. Heck, Abreu could be in the opening day lineup because the Phils open with an interleague game at Texas and they will face a right-hander in Yu Darvish. Abreu could be the designated hitter.

If Abreu succeeds in making the club, Darin Ruf could be the odd man out and sent to Triple A. John Mayberry Jr. is back and his $1.59 million contract is guaranteed. That probably makes him a lock to make the club, though he could still be traded. There could be room for a third extra outfielder during the first week of the season if team officials decide to go with a six-man bullpen in the first week of the season. All that will shake out in Clearwater.

Tony Gwynn Jr. and Clete Thomas will also be in camp as non-roster outfield candidates. Both have significant big-league time and both can play center field. Team officials still have their eyes open for a reserve who can play center field. That search will continue inside and outside the organization throughout spring training.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

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

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”