Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hector Neris racked up 102 strikeouts, the second-most ever by a Phillies reliever, during his breakout 2016 season.

The right-hander did it basically with a two-pitch mix — a power fastball and a darting splitter that manager Pete Mackanin likes to call “an invisible pitch.”

After last season, Neris reflected on his success, which included a 2.58 ERA over 80⅓ innings, the third-most among NL relievers.

Neris determined that he would need to diversify his pitch repertoire if he’s going to continue to have success.

So during winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, he dusted off his seldom-used slider and threw it more. He’s polishing it up in this camp and plans to use it in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and during the regular season.

“I think it’s something that can make me better,” Neris said. “I’ve never had the confidence in it that I had in my other pitches, but I’m working hard on it. It will give me a third option for the hitter to think about.”

Neris threw a slider 2.9 percent of the time in 2016, according to MLB Statcast. He threw more than 49 percent splitters and 46 percent fastballs.

“In the big leagues you have to respect the hitter,” Neris said. “The hitters know me now and they know I throw fastballs and splitters. I need to have that third pitch for them to respect. When I throw it, I want them to say, ‘What is that?’”

Neris’ splitter darts down and in to a right-hander hitter. The slider will break the other way.

Neris has talked about different grips on the pitch with guest spring-training instructor Larry Andersen, who threw a million sliders in his career.

“He threw some nasty ones today,” Andersen said after Tuesday’s workout. “The pitch will help him.”

McLaren to WBC
Bullpen coach John McLaren will leave camp on Wednesday and travel to Japan as Team China assembles for the World Baseball Classic. McLaren will manage that club. He also skippered the club in 2013.

Asked if he spoke more than seven words of Chinese, McLaren quipped, “That would be pushing it. I’m still trying to conquer English.”

Team China will provide a translator for McLaren, though there is a universal element to baseball communication.

“This is my third time going to the WBC,” McLaren said. “I love it.”

Almost game time
The Phillies will play their annual exhibition game against the University of Tampa on Thursday. The Phils are expected to play many of the young players that will make up their Triple A Lehigh Valley roster. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr., who pitched at Double A Reading last season, will come over from minor-league camp to make the start. Pitching coach Bob McClure said he expected to get several projected big-league relievers work in the game.

Alec Asher will start the Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees on Friday in Tampa and Adam Morgan will start Saturday’s games against the Yankees in Clearwater.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors, and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26, and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35, and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate, and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017, “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the "man" in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.