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.

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

BOX SCORE

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phillies officials have a big personnel powwow on Sunday and one of the matters that will be discussed is who gets the final two bullpen jobs.

With evaluation time dwindling, the Phils used Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox as an opportunity to look at Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez, all candidates to win a job in the bullpen.

"They all got a lot of work," manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies played to a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.

The right-hander Asher worked three innings and gave up three hits and two runs.

The lefty Morgan worked three innings and allowed a solo homer.

The lefty Rodriguez worked two innings, gave up a hit and struck out three.

"To hold the Red Sox to three runs is pretty nice, especially in this ballpark," Mackanin said. "They had their guys in there and we held them down."

Morgan has allowed just one run over six innings his last two outings.

"He has changed speeds well last two times out," Mackanin said. "That's how he needs to pitch."

The Phillies have five spots set in their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos. They are all right-handers. The final two spots will likely come down to Morgan, Asher, Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, who are all on the 40-man roster. That is an important consideration because the Phils would like to keep their 40-man roster subtractions to a minimum. There is an outside chance they could go with an eight-man bullpen, though that might be tough in the National League, where a full bench comes in handy. That will be discussed Sunday.

The makeup of the bench will also be discussed Sunday. Andrew Knapp's place on the 40-man roster will help his chance of being the backup catcher. Veteran catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday both can opt of their contracts in the next few days if they are not going to make the club. Utility man Chris Coghlan also has an opt-out coming. Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi are also candidates for what looks like two remaining spots on the bench. Nava does not have an opt-out until June. Stassi is under control and would have to accept an assignment to the minors if he does not make the club.

Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp. He is on the 40-man roster. The question is whether the team wants to carry the 22-year-old as an extra man or get him regular reps at second base in Triple A. Valentin is 11 for 31 (.355) this spring. He hit his fifth double on Saturday.

"He swings the bat really well from the right side," Mackanin said. "He's got some work to do from the left side. He's got good actions and instincts. In a short period of time, he's made a good impression on me and I think he can be a major-league player."

The game
The Phillies had 12 hits but scored just three runs. They have scored just 10 runs over the last four games.

"We just can't accumulate a lot of runs," Mackanin said.

The Phils were last in the majors with 610 runs last season.

The Phillies tied the game in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Coghlan.

Mackanin tried to suicide-squeeze home the go-ahead run, but Roman Quinn popped up the bunt.

Colton Murray preserved the tie with a clean bottom of the ninth.

Former Phillie Kyle Kendrick pitched six innings of two-run ball for Boston. He walked none and struck out six. Kendrick projects to open the season at Triple A, but is No. 6 on the Red Sox's starting pitching depth chart and is likely to see big-league at some point this season.

Up next
The Phillies host the Pirates on Sunday. Clay Buchholz will make the start against right-hander Josh Lindblom, who spent time with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade in 2012.