Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

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

 

BOX SCORE

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 1-2-3 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."