Countdown to Clearwater: There are decisions to make on the bench

Countdown to Clearwater: There are decisions to make on the bench

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.

Day 7: The bench

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has called Andres Blanco the best utility man he’s ever been around.
 
So it was not surprising that the team re-signed the 32-year-old supersub in December. Blanco carries an infielder’s glove, an outfielder’s glove, a first baseman’s mitt and even a catcher’s mitt in his equipment bag, and there’s a chance he could use all of them off the Phillies’ bench in 2017.
 
Who will join Blanco in a reserve role?
 
That is one of the questions that Mackanin and the front office will ponder in spring training.
 
Heading into camp, Blanco is a lock to hold down one of the expected five bench jobs, and Aaron Altherr has the inside track to be the first outfielder off the bench.
 
That leaves three openings.
 
The competition could be pretty good as a handful of young guys and a sprinkling of experienced veterans try to win spots on the opening day roster.
 
Perhaps the most fascinating decision that the team’s brass faces is what to do at backup catcher. Coming into camp, there are several candidates to be Cameron Rupp’s backup, most notably homegrown Andrew Knapp and major-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan. Though he has never played in the majors, Knapp is on the 40-man roster. The latter two are in camp on minor-league deals. Longtime farmhand Logan Moore will also be in camp. He’s an excellent defender and could also get a look.
 
At the winter meetings, both Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak acknowledged the possibility of carrying Knapp as the backup. Knapp was the Phils’ second-round pick in the 2013 draft, he’s 25, a switch-hitter, and he played a full season at Triple A last year. He can also play first base and the Phillies could use someone to occasionally pick up Tommy Joseph against a right-handed pitcher.
 
From a developmental standpoint, it would probably not be ideal to carry Knapp as a part-time player. But playing time might still be an issue if he went back to Triple A as the developmental blueprint calls for a pair of top prospects, Jorge Alfaro and Rhys Hoskins, to start at catcher and first base, respectively.
 
Not long after saying at the winter meetings that he’d be comfortable with a rookie backup catcher, Klentak signed big-league veteran Holaday, and he recently added Hanigan so the Phils are covered if they decided they want more experience in the role.
 
Rookie or veteran? The team will have to make a philosophical call here. Knapp’s ability to switch-hit and play multiple positions could help him, but he will need to display readiness at the plate and behind it to win a spot.
 
Odubel Herrera is set in center field, and newcomers Howie Kendrick and Micahel Saunders will be on the corners. Altherr should be a good fourth man because defense is a strength and he can play all three outfield positions.
 
So who’s the fifth outfielder? And will there be a sixth?
 
There are plenty of candidates, led by recent signing Chris Coghlan, the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year. His left-handed bat and versatility — he’s played six positions in his career — could be attractive. Switch-hitting Daniel Nava will also get a look, as will Tyler Goeddel, who, as a Rule 5 player, spent all of last season in the majors and remains on the 40-man roster.
 
Though long shots, Andrew Pullin and Brock Stassi could also be intriguing, out-of-the-box candidates for a spot on the bench. Both are in camp as non-roster invites. Stassi is a good defensive first baseman and can play outfield. Pullin is an outfielder. Most importantly, both hit left-handed and have strong minor-league track records with the bat. Phillies pinch-hitters ranked 26th in batting average (.157) and 29th in on-base percentage (.221) last season and improvement is sought there.
 
It’s possible that the team could carry an extra middle infielder in addition to Blanco. Veteran Pedro Florimon could get a shot at that job.

Next: Day 8 — A look at what Pete Mackanin’s batting order might look like

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

uspresswire-cardinals-paul-dejong.jpg
USA Today Images

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.