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.”

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

The Phillies made a couple quiet additions as the winter meetings ended, signing veteran outfielder Daniel Nava and lefty reliever Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts.

Nava, 34 in February, is a left-handed hitter who can play the outfield corners and first base. He came up with the Red Sox and became a fan favorite in Boston in 2010 as a 27-year-old rookie. Some Phillies fans will remember him for hitting a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first major-league plate appearance.

Nava had a few decent years in Boston, the best of which was 2013, when he had 536 plate appearances and hit .303/.385/.445 with 29 doubles, 12 homers and 66 RBIs. 

Nava's numbers and opportunities have dropped every year since. He was designated for assignment by Boston in 2015, latched on with the Rays, signed the next year with the Angels and was traded late in the season to the Royals.

Over the last two seasons, Nava has hit just .208, albeit with an on-base percentage 99 points higher because of his 30 walks and 10 hit by pitches.

Burnett, 34, has spent five of the last seven seasons in the Nationals' bullpen. He had a 2.85 ERA in 283 appearances from 2009-12 and parlayed that success into a two-year, $7.25 million contract with the Angels. However, he barely pitched in 2013 and 2014 for the Halos because of an elbow tear. He returned to the Nats last season and allowed two runs in 5⅔ innings.

Burnett, perhaps more so than Nava, has a chance to fill a role with the Phillies if he can stay healthy. He's shown he can get outs at the highest level, posting a 2.38 ERA in 2012 with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.14 ERA with 8.9 K/9 in 2010. That was a long time ago now, and Burnett's fastball has dipped from averaging 90-91 mph to 88.

According to Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, Burnett will receive a $1.25 million salary if he makes the team and can earn another $1.75 million in incentives based on his number of appearances.

Burnett has an opt-out date of March 26, meaning he can become a free agent a week before the regular season begins if it looks to him like he isn't in the Phils' plans.

Nava's chances at cracking the opening-day roster seem longer because the Phillies are expected to make more depth signings between now and the start of camp. They've prioritized finding some offense in the corner outfield and that could come in the form of more minor-league deals, a guaranteed contract or trade. One potential fit I examined last week was Mariners outfielder Seth Smith, a hitter more proven than Nava (see story).

These minor-league deals were commonplace for Phillies general manager Matt Klentak last offseason, when the only free agent he signed to a major-league deal was reliever David Hernandez. 

Last season, three players who were signed to minor-league deals with invites to spring training made the team on opening day: outfielder Cedric Hunter, utilityman Emmanuel Burriss and reliever James Russell.

Others, such as former closers Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey, failed to make the team out of camp. Bailey eventually earned a call-up; the other two didn't.

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Five more thoughts as baseball's winter meetings wrap up:

1. What now for McCutchen?
The hottest name as the winter meetings began this week was Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' perennial All-Star centerfielder who had a .404 on-base percentage from 2012-15 with four straight top-five MVP finishes before falling off a cliff in 2016.

McCutchen hit 40 points worse last season as his bat and legs slowed and his approach deteriorated at times, perhaps out of frustration. There's been some speculation he was playing hurt.

The Nationals were the team most connected to McCutchen, but after failing to work out an agreement with the Pirates and losing out to the Red Sox for Chris Sale, Washington ultimately ended up trading for White Sox CF Adam Eaton.

So, what now for Cutch? It seems unlikely at this point he'd return to the Pirates ... would be kind of awkward. He knows his days there are numbered given Pittsburgh's payroll situation, and he hasn't yet accrued 10-and-5 rights. 

But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday that the intent now is to keep McCutchen.

And McCutchen tweeted this, implying his lips are sealed after weeks of rumors.

If McCutchen does eventually end up elsewhere, I don't think it will be the Phillies. There are certainly things to like, and I do believe McCutchen will bounce back in 2017, but at this point in the Phillies' rebuild and at this point in McCutchen's career, he's not the player to alter the organizational course for. 

2. Shrewd Sale
The Sale trade played out exactly as it should have — the team with the leverage scanned the market, found a few potential deals and got maximum value for one of baseball's five best starting pitchers.

In many trades of superstars, you can look at the return package and quickly conclude which team got the better end. Those opinions aren't always proven true — prospects fail, veterans get hurt — but winners and losers are usually identifiable.

In the Sale trade, there was no clear winner or loser. 

Sale is an ace, a pitcher you'd likely rather have start Game 1 of a playoff series than David Price. He's the ideal complement to Price, though in my opinion Sale is more of 1A to Price's 1B. 

Price has exceptional stuff and command but no deception. He has a one-step delivery that doesn't throw a hitter off balance. Sale has maybe the most deceiving delivery of any major-league starter — it's all elbows and knees coming at you, especially if you're a lefty — to go along with elite stuff and usually above-average command. 

They're both lefties but they offer much different looks for a hitter.

The centerpiece of the White Sox return, Yoan Moncada, is considered by many the best prospect in baseball — a big, athletic infielder who's settled in at 3B. He's got all the tools and the type of fluidity in his game that has enticed scouts as long as scouts have existed. 

Michael Kopech is the prototypical young flamethrower, a 6-foot-3 righty who throws a triple-digit fastball with a plus breaking ball. You look at Kopech and see some Noah Syndergaard-like, Justin Verlander-like potential.

Sale should make the Red Sox about five wins better each of the next three seasons. In terms of World Series odds, the Red Sox may enter 2017 on an even plane with the Cubs. 

And two or three years from now, Moncada and Kopech could be two of the top young players in baseball. This trade made a lot more sense for the White Sox than acquiring Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. Both are intriguing prospects, but the Moncada-Kopech duo has more talent and upside.

The conversations between the White Sox and Nationals regarding Sale ultimately led Chicago to acquire Giolito as part of the package for Eaton. 

The White Sox have done very well this offseason in acquiring three, maybe four top prospects. Moncada is a big-time building block, and the return for Eaton of Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning gives Chicago three right-handers with enormous upside.

3. No clue what the Marlins are thinking
For the better part of two weeks, the Marlins had been linked to Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, the two best closers on the market and probably the two best closers in baseball. 

Chapman agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees, by far the largest ever for a closer.

ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday night that Marlins owner/money man Jeffrey Loria had given his front office the go-ahead to sign either closer. Right now, that leaves just Jansen.

The question is why? The Marlins are not an elite closer away from winning the NL East. Adding Jansen will not catapult this team ahead of the Nationals or likely the Mets. The Marlins might not even be an elite closer away from a wild-card spot. 

Miami is still trying to pick up the pieces after the death of Jose Fernandez. The tragic loss has left them with a middling rotation, which right now includes Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jeff Locke. 

That rotation isn't leading you to October, not unless Giancarlo Stanton actually plays a full season and the Fish avoid regression from guys like Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Martin Prado.

Great New York Post columnist Joel Sherman also questioned Miami's approach this week, opining that the Marlins would be better off buying two lesser free-agent relievers like Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler at the one-year cost of either Chapman or Jansen. It would make sense since Miami already has three good relievers in A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps.

4. Brian Cashman's had quite a few months
The Yankees will not enter 2017 as the AL East favorite, but GM Brian Cashman has positioned them so well for the future, better than pretty much anyone could have expected back in July.

When the Yankees traded Andrew Miller to the Indians before the trade deadline, they picked up a top outfield power prospect in Clint Frazier and an intriguing young pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield. When they dealt Chapman to the Cubs, they picked up Gleyber Torres, one of the most well-thought-of shortstop prospects in baseball. (New York also added outfielder Billy McKinney, who could end up being a serviceable .280/.360/.430 type of player.)

And after it all, after transitioning the Yankees from an old, directionless team, Cashman ends up with all those prospects and Chapman.

In recent years there have been several opportunities for a team to re-sign a star player months after trading him for prospects. 

Some thought the Red Sox would do it with Jon Lester after trading him to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. 

When the Phillies were considering trading Cole Hamels the first time, before he signed his $144 million extension, the possibility existed Ruben Amaro Jr. would trade him and then try to re-sign him that offseason. 

It almost happened with the Yankees and Carlos Beltran this offseason, before Beltran chose the Astros. 

There have been more examples, but this is the first time I can recall the team selling high on the player, getting the prospects and then also getting the player back. 

Great work by Cashman and the Yankees, who now have an infusion of young talent and still the best eight-ninth inning combination in the American League with Dellin Betances and Chapman.

5. Rockies must trade for pitching
The five-year, $70 million contract Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies this week was a stunner because they didn't seem to need more offense. They play in the game's best hitter's park and already have an annual MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, an underrated stud in Charlie Blackmon, last year's batting champ in D.J. LeMahieu, emerging stars David Dahl and Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has 65 homers and 197 RBIs the last two seasons.

And yet the Rockies added Desmond to the second-largest contract in their franchise's history, behind only that futile six-figure deal for Mike Hampton.

They're also reportedly interested in last year's home run champ, Mark Trumbo. With or without Trumbo, the Rockies right now have the deepest lineup in the NL, one that should still thrive away from Coors Field.

But they've also backed themselves into a corner here of needing to trade one of these talented position players for a top-of-the-rotation arm. 

MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Thursday that the Rockies and Blue Jays began discussing a potential trade involving Blackmon and 25-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays, as of yet, do not seem inclined to make the deal. Stroman won't reach free agency until after the 2020 season, whereas Blackmon's contract expires after 2018. The difference in cost and years of control seems to be too much for the Jays.

Blackmon, who last year hit .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, is the most logical trade candidate for the Rockies because he's starting to get expensive. But the Jays' unwillingness to make that Stroman deal could mean that moving even a player as talented as Blackmon for equal value could prove difficult for the Rox.

Looking around the league, a team like the Indians could be a fit for Blackmon since they have an enviable group of starting pitchers in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Carrasco for Blackmon would seem even, but we shall see.