It's time for the Phillies to start planning ahead

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It's time for the Phillies to start planning ahead

In nine years as manager of the Phillies, it’s rare that one will ever hear Charlie Manuel call out a player for a mistake by name.

Oh, Manuel will express disappointment with a player -- or tout great play -- behind the scenes. But the Phillies skipper is known for defending his guys. That’s just his style. Manuel is unfailingly positive, and it’s a trait that has endeared him to players across baseball.

However, after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park, Manuel was at a loss for words to the point that he couldn’t come up with a positive spin for the way the fifth inning ended. After John Mayberry Jr. reached on an error to lead off the inning, followed by a five-pitch walk for Carlos Ruiz, it looked as if the Phillies were in business.

But pinch-hitter John McDonald couldn’t get a bunt down, Michael Young struck out and then, inexplicably, Mayberry was picked off second base with Chase Utley waiting for the 2-1 pitch.

Picked off second base with Utley at the plate in a hitter's count? How does that happen?

“You’ll have to talk to him about that because I can’t explain to you how the guy can be holding him on, how he can have a short lead that he doesn’t have what you call a lead at all, and he gets picked off,” Manuel offered. “I’m not throwing him under any bus or nothing like that. That’s what I saw.”

Truth is, Manuel has seen a lot of weirdness like Mayberry’s blunder. Phillies baserunners have been picked off second base five times this season. Two of those pickoffs came as the second out in the ninth inning and twice the pickoff ended innings. Even more odd is the fact that the Phillies have been picked off all the other bases just once this year.

Wonder why the Phillies are having trouble scoring runs this season? Look no further than the lack of focus and concentration. And no, it hasn’t been young players like Darin Ruf or Cody Asche that have been caught napping. Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Kyle Kendrick, Delmon Young and Mayberry, all veterans, have had the lapses on the bases.

When the margin for error is so small, the Phillies have seemingly run toward trouble. It’s enough to make a manager go crazy.

“That becomes inexcusable,” Manuel said. “When you’re playing like we are now, you’ve got to really be concentrating on staying focused and playing the game right and cutting down and eliminating mistakes. But at the same time, the more that you see mistakes and the more you see somebody keep making mistakes over and over and over and over, that might tell you what kind of player that he is. If I’m going to be responsible, I think other people have to be responsible too, especially the ones that play the game.”

It’s enough to make one wonder how much longer Manuel can continue to watch the Phillies run themselves out of innings and swing at pitchers’ pitches to make outs at times when they are threatening to score. Moreover, how much more of Mayberry, McDonald, Michael Martinez and Delmon Young do we need to see?

With Ruf (left field) and Asche (third base) settled into their positions and All-Star Domonic Brown headed back to the lineup this week, perhaps Manuel will lobby for some wholesale changes to the roster. At Triple A Lehigh Valley, the team has been experimenting with prospect Cesar Hernandez in center field. Infielder Freddy Galvis has also spent some time in the outfield and veteran Josh Fields is an outfielder sporting a .297 batting average and .343 on-base percentage.

At Double A Reading, veteran minor leaguer Jim Murphy has 19 homers and 42 extra-base hits, while outfielder Albert Cartwright has 20 stolen bases, 24 extra-base hits and a .330 on-base percentage.

What’s the hold up? Why is the front office so attached to players like Mayberry, Martinez, McDonald and Delmon Young? Why not get the up-and-comers some experience until Brown, Ryan Howard, Ben Revere and Roy Halladay return?

When the veterans can’t get the job done and the team is going in the tank, maybe it’s time to make some changes. After Sunday’s game it sounded like Manuel was ready for the kids to get a chance.

With 13 losses in the last 14 games and a 17–game deficit in the standings, now is the time to start planning ahead.

“I wish I could sit here and tell you’re we’re way better than that, but that’s what I’m trying to see if they are better than that,” Manuel offered. “You’re looking to see how good players are, I know I am.”

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.