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.

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.