Matt Klentak's latest walk on the balance beam nets pitcher Clay Buchholz

Associated Press

Matt Klentak's latest walk on the balance beam nets pitcher Clay Buchholz

The Phillies’ acquisition of veteran starting pitcher Clay Buchholz on Tuesday offers the latest example of the balance that the club is trying to strike between the present and the future.

Buchholz is a 32-year-old right-hander who experienced the highs of a no-hitter, two All-Star selections and two World Series championships, as well as the lows of frequent injury and being bounced from the starting rotation, during a 10-year run in Boston. The Phillies got him for Josh Tobias, a 24-year-old infielder with below average defensive ability but good on-base skills who played at the Single A level in 2016 (see story). Deep in star-quality starting pitching and concerned about baseball’s competitive balance tax, the Red Sox were looking for a place to dump Buchholz’s $13.5 million salary and Philadelphia has become the place to do that. A year ago, the Phillies gave up very little because they were willing to take on the salaries of Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. Ditto for Pat Neshek this offseason.

The deep-pocketed Phillies were willing to add Hellickson, Morton, Neshek and now Buchholz because they all had just one year remaining on their contracts, a reality that fit nicely on Matt Klentak’s balance beam. All could help the Phillies win a few more games in the short term, you know, save the team from embarrassing itself with another 99-loss season, while not clogging the path for young talent that had already arrived from the minors or was getting ready to.

Hellickson, with his 32 starts, 189 innings and 3.71 ERA clearly helped last season. An early-season injury prevented Morton from aiding the cause. Neshek and Buchholz — and others — get their chance to impact the present in 2017.

And they might just get to impact the future, as well.

By acquiring Neshek, Buchholz and outfielder Howie Kendrick — he came earlier this offseason — the Phillies have set themselves up for a potentially busy month of July. Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick can all be free agents at the end of the season and that makes them possible trade chips for the Phillies — provided they have performed well, and that’s no given considering all three are coming off down seasons that put them on the trading block in the first place — and trade chips are valuable for a rebuilding team.

You can add Joaquin Benoit, a recent free-agent signing, and Hellickson, back on a one-year deal after eschewing free agency, to that list, as well.

Klentak didn’t BS anyone on Tuesday. He acknowledged that Buchholz — and others — could be trade chips in July, thus helping the Phillies of the future. But he also acknowledged the attractiveness of them helping in the present, as well.

“We’re trying to make our team as competitive as we can and the hope is that we will be playing meaningful games when we get to the end of July,” he said. “But it certainly isn’t lost on us that if the standings are looking the other way at the end of July, we have a lot of meaningful players in the last years of their contracts — not just pitchers, but a number of players that could be trade chips.”

The Phillies scored just 610 runs last season, the lowest total in the majors by a whopping margin of 39 runs. Sticking to their plan of a methodical rebuild, they have not done enough to improve their offense this winter to be thought of as a potential playoff contender. Getting young talent that fits into the rebuild in return for their veteran short-timers would be ideal for this team given its current state and mission. But the ideal doesn’t always work out. Hellickson is proof of that. The Phillies didn’t get an attractive trade offer for him last summer and he didn’t reject their free-agent qualifying offer, which would have netted them a valuable first-round draft pick. So he’s back to help again in the short term, and maybe in the future if he pitches well and some team sees him as a potential difference-maker. There are many variables in this strategy of collecting assets in hopes of turning them into other assets. But the logic is there.

Still, it comes at a cost. Klentak has said many times this winter — especially when answering the question: Why aren’t you getting another hitter? — that he does not want to block the opportunities of playing time and growth for a young player by bringing in too many place-holding veterans. But, in some regards, that is just what he’s done with the addition of Buchholz, who will line up with Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez in the top four spots of the rotation with a host of others — Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan — vying for one opening in spring training. It’s difficult to imagine Nola, if healthy, not being the guy. But one has to wonder if the Buchholz move might have some connection to Nola. He was shut down in July with an elbow strain. The Phillies say he’s fine and will be ready to go in spring training. But he’s yet to test his elbow by throwing a pitch in competitive anger (he did throw in the bullpen this fall) and until that happens, he’s a question mark. Eflin, coming off double knee surgery for chronic tendinitis, is also a question mark until he faces hitters in a competitive situation.

“Nothing specific,” Klentak answered when asked if the acquisition of Buchholz reflected a concern about the health of Nola or another pitcher.

“If everyone is healthy and pitching well, then it is possible that it may block somebody’s growth. But, realistically, going into spring training we value the depth.”

In other words, you can never have enough pitching.

And if a pitcher’s growth is blocked, it won’t be fatal and it won’t last long. There will be innings that need to be filled at Triple A and Clay Buchholz is probably just here for a pit stop. 

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez



This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a scoreless ninth inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double off him that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."