Manuel unsure if Phils can make second-half run

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Manuel unsure if Phils can make second-half run

PITTSBURGH – Have some doubts that the Phillies can make a second-half run?

So does their manager.

“The question to me is whether we are capable of running off a winning streak,” Charlie Manuel said Tuesday afternoon.

“Are we capable? Can we put together 12 out of 16 [wins]? It’s not impossible, but at the same time I would question that.”

Manuel spoke before the Phillies opened a three-game series at PNC Park against the Pirates, whose 51-31 record is the best in the majors.

The Phillies are teetering on the brink, 9½ games behind the Braves in the NL East and eight games out in the wild-card race. Since their only day over .500 this year -- they were 31-30 on June 6 -- the Phillies are 9-14. 

Can the Phillies get back into the race? They’ve averaged 49 wins in the second half in eight seasons under Manuel. But it might take a lot more than 49 to reach the postseason.

“We’re going to have to play like hell,” Manuel said. “We have to play right, fundamentally well. We have to hit, we have to pitch and catch the ball. But I’ve been saying that two years now, and I’m still saying the same thing.”

Asked what the Phillies should go after at the trade deadline, Manuel was blunt.

“I think we need anybody who can help us improve. If there is any way we can improve, whether it’s a pitcher or a hitter or whatever, any players who can help us improve.”

Meanwhile, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said there’s plenty of people to blame for the Phillies’ recent struggles.

Including himself.

“These guys get paid to play,” he said Tuesday afternoon in the Phillies’ dugout. “They need to do their jobs. I think it’s all of us taking part of it. It’s all of us that are a part of it. It’s a team effort. We all have to be better, including me. ...

“Guys have to start playing better. Only way we can win is if they start playing better. Hitting better, pitching better, running the bases better. Playing better defense.”

The Reds are in the No. 2 wild-card spot, on pace for 92 wins. For the Phillies to catch them, they would have to go 52-26. That’s .667 baseball.

“We can’t let ourselves get too far behind,” he said. “It’s just too much of a haul. It’s the point where we’ve got to start making some hay.”

Under Manuel, the Phillies have played .605 baseball in the second half, second best in the majors since 2005.

“[We’ve been] very, very good in the second half,” Amaro said. “They’ve had an uncanny ability to be able to do that, so we’ll see.

“We haven’t played well enough, that I can tell you. Not to this point, there’s no question about that. I think they’re a better club than they’ve shown so far, but maybe they’re not. ...

“What’s been disappointing for us this year is the fact that we’ve generally had most of our guys on the field for most of the time. Not the whole time. We lost Chase [Utley], we’ve lost Doc [Roy Halladay].

“I felt like we’d be playing a little bit better baseball overall and we haven’t.”

The trade deadline is July 31, and Amaro said these next few weeks will determine what direction the Phillies take.

“Every single day, it’s an assessment of what’s best for the club, what might be best for the club,” he said.

“Right now, we’re putting ourselves in a position to be prepared for anything. Whether we have to go right, left, up or down, we have to be prepared for everything.”

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."