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.

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.