Coveted Lee wants to stay and win with Phillies

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Coveted Lee wants to stay and win with Phillies

NEW YORK – Cliff Lee was a very popular interview subject at All-Star festivities Monday.

Lee knew he would be. It’s July. He has a history as a hired gun. Teams want him. One of those teams is his current one, the Phillies. If that changes, contenders will pounce like wild dogs on red-pinstriped meat.

“It’s the nature of the business,” Lee said of the trade speculation that has followed him for the last year. “Until you have a full no-trade clause, you have no choice. It’s a business and each team has the prerogative to do what it wants.”

For the record, Lee has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to 20 teams.

“My job is to perform and give a team a chance to win -- for whatever team I’m with,” he said. “Right now it’s the Phillies and I hope it’s the Phillies for the rest of my career.

“You can sit here and what-if all kinds of things. I just know I’m a Phillie right now and that’s where my allegiance is, and I’ll continue to try to help them win. That’s where my focus is.”

Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is on record as saying he wants to hang on to Lee for a possible second-half surge. Beyond that, Amaro says the Phillies are in business to win, and if they don’t make the postseason this year, they will look to rebound in 2014, and the best way to rebound is having Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation.

But here’s the thing about Amaro and the rest of the people that run the Phillies: They are human beings. Sometimes human beings change their minds. You can bet that Amaro’s ears are open to callers who ask about Lee and Chase Utley. If he’s blown away by the return -- and considers the Phillies a long shot to make the playoffs -- he could consider dealing those players. If he’s not blown away, no one will ever know he took the call in the first place.

There’s one sure way for Lee not be traded:

Keep on winning.

The Phils won seven of 10 on their last homestand to get to .500. They are 6 1/2 back in the NL East and 5 1/2 back in the wild card.

They aren’t trading Lee as long as they have a chance to overtake second-place Washington and catch Atlanta. The Phils must continue to run down both clubs when play resumes Friday. The Phils play three at the Mets, three at the Cardinals and three at the Tigers before an off day on July 29. By that time, Phils management will either be in the game all the way or looking to ship out players.

“We’ve actually played very well lately,” Lee said. “We’re winning series and that’s what you want. Lucky for us the Braves haven’t run away with it. As bad as we’ve played we’re within striking distance.

“As far as trades, you’ll have to talk to Ruben about that, but I think we’re in it. I have no other option but to look at it like we’re in it, and we’re going to catch up with the Braves, and we’re going to win the division and win the World Series. There’s no other way to look at it.”

Lee gets credit for thinking positively.

The Phillies in some ways control their own destiny as they have 13 games remaining with Atlanta and nine remaining with Washington. They also have 16 games left with the Mets and Marlins.

But these next nine games are crucial. They can’t afford a slow start to the second half in this weekend’s trip to Citi Field to face the Mets, and they have to play well against St. Louis and Detroit, two first-place clubs, next week.

“Hopefully we can continue what we’ve been doing last few weeks and make up some ground,” Lee said.

The Phillies have needs in the bullpen and in center field, where Ben Revere is out for up to two months with a broken foot (see story).

Amaro has said he’s looking to add to those areas, but there’s a feeling around baseball that he wants to see how his team reacts over the next week or so before he does.

Becoming buyers would show the team that management believes in it.

“I guess it would be bad to say I don’t care what management thinks about that but that’s kind of true,” Lee said. “It really doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about our team. It’s more about what we think amongst ourselves and us coming together as a team, competing hard and pulling for each other and picking each other up. And if we do that nothing else matters because we’ll win.

“It’s the front office’s job to field the best possible team they can. I’m pretty certain they’re trying to do that. My job is to pitch. I’m going to do that. If they trade guys or add guys I’m going to have to deal with that and we’re going to have to make the best of that no matter which direction they go.”

Lee, who turns 35 next month, is having a brilliant season. He is 10-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 19 starts. His WHIP is 0.995, the fifth-best in the NL. He has pitched 138 2/3 innings, third-most in the league and has 125 strikeouts and just 21 walks.

These are the reasons he is at his fourth All-Star Game, answering questions about possibly being a hired gun and saying he wants to remain a Phillie and make a run with that team.

“I’d rather not be here and be in first place by eight or 10 games and playing better baseball, but I can’t control that,” Lee said. “But it is gratifying knowing I’ve done my job at a high level and given the team a chance to win every time I’ve taken the mound, and I feel honored to be here.”

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."