Papelbon blows it for Phils in tough loss to Texas

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Papelbon blows it for Phils in tough loss to Texas

BOX SCORE

ARLINGTON, Tex. – After being beaten down by all the losing in 2013, Jonathan Papelbon came back this season with a new, positive, upbeat attitude.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, he has the same tired fastball, and the team still has the same haunting questions at the closer position.

Three outs were all that stood between Papelbon and his first save of the new season Wednesday night. More importantly, three outs were all that stood between the Phillies and a season-opening series win against the Texas Rangers.

Once upon a time, Papelbon would have stuffed those three outs into his back pocket and the Phillies would have boarded their charter flight to Chicago in the highest of spirits.

Instead, that flight to Chicago must have been miserable.

Papelbon couldn’t get the three outs the team needed. In his first save chance of the new season, he failed to protect a two-run lead in the ninth inning. The Rangers rallied for three runs against Papelbon and danced off the field with a 4-3 win, their second walk-off victory against the Phillies’ bullpen in 24 hours (see Instant Replay).

“That was a tough one,” Carlos Ruiz sighed in the somber losing clubhouse, moments after Papelbon walked in the winning run with the bases loaded.

It was a tough loss and an alarming one, as well, because the Phillies are counting on the highly-paid Papelbon -- $13 million this season and next –- to nail down wins. However, when he was called on to nail down this one, he looked no better than the guy he was last year when he blew seven saves and had a career-worst 81 percent save percentage while striking out a career-low 8.3 batters per nine innings.

Papelbon faced seven batters in the game and retired just one. He allowed four hits and walked two. His best fastball was between 90 and 92 mph. In his prime, it was 95.

After the game, the 33-year-old closer blamed his problems on a mechanical flaw.

“I was definitely flying open a little and coming out of my delivery,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a disappointment.”

Without the pop he once had, Papelbon now has to mix pitches and, for the first time in his career, concede to some contact. In this game, he relied on his low-octane fastball and left it up in the strike zone, where hitters feasted.

“They were on his fastball and he was elevating it,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “He can’t rely on contact up in the zone. He needs his secondary pitches and he needs to be down.”

Papelbon allowed hits to three of the first four batters he faced in the ninth. The third hit was an infield squibber by Jim Adduci that scored a run and put runners on the corners with one out.

With the pressure building and the Phils’ lead down to one, pitching coach Bob McClure visited Papelbon and told him to get a ground ball. Papelbon did get Leonys Martin to hit a ground ball to the first-base side of the second base bag, but it got by Chase Utley, who was playing about three steps off the grass because his priority was to cut the tying run at the plate. The middle infield would have only gone for a double play on a sharply hit ball right at the second baseman or shortstop. The Phillies call that “Three Depth.” The defense is called from the bench.

Papelbon did not appear to be thrilled with the defensive call. In fact, he threw his arms up in the air when Martin’s hit traveled into center field, driving in the tying run.

“Obviously I don’t know whether that’s called from the bench or by the middle infielders,” Papelbon said. “But less than two outs, I’m thinking ground ball and I’m thinking let’s get this double play and go home.

“Obviously I’m not going to second-guess my teammates or my coach. Whatever they decide, I’ve got to run with it and go with it and do my best to do my job. But it’s just one of those weird innings, man.”

Sandberg did his best not to look worried about Papelbon. He mentioned how he was pleased with the offense during the series. He praised reliever Mario Hollands for bouncing back after taking the loss Tuesday night and pitching a scoreless eighth inning Wednesday night.

But when the conversation turned back to Papelbon and whether he thought his closer was trending downward, all Sandberg could say was, “We’ll see how it goes.”

So far, it doesn’t look good.

The Phillies are 1-2 and they have the same old haunting questions at the closer position.

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have completed the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $7.5 million contract (see story). The deal could be announced Tuesday and will require the club removing a player from the already-full 40-man roster.

Benoit is one of three additions that the Phils have made to their bullpen this offseason — the club traded for veteran right-hander Pat Neshek and picked up lefty David Rollins on waivers — and more will likely come, probably on minor-league contracts, before the team reports to spring training.

Now that the bullpen has been addressed, let’s take a look at what could be next for the Phillies this winter.

• The addition of Benoit could create enough back-end bullpen depth that GM Matt Klentak could look to trade either Jeanmar Gomez or Hector Neris. Gomez saved 37 games in 2016, but struggled down the stretch. Neris showed great promise in recording a 2.58 ERA and striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings in 79 games in 2016. The hard-throwing righty is young (27), talented and inexpensive so the Phils would have to be overwhelmed by an offer to move him. Last year, Klentak moved a young closer in Ken Giles for a significant return from Houston, so he has history in making these types of moves.

• In addition to more potential comings and goings in the bullpen, the Phils will look to add a backup infielder and maybe a backup catcher in the coming weeks. Andres Blanco could return as that extra infielder. A.J. Ellis could return as the catcher. But nothing is firm. In fact, Klentak hinted Monday that he’d be comfortable bringing Andrew Knapp up from Triple A to be the backup catcher next season.

“I don’t think we need a veteran backup catcher,” Klentak said. “If it works out, we’re open-minded to that. But Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A. He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and (Jorge) Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

• One of the biggest remaining issues facing Phillies management this winter centers around the outfield and the offense. Basically, Klentak and his advisers are weighing the merits of adding another veteran hitter — the club already traded for Howie Kendrick — to improve the offense or giving a significant playing opportunity to a promising youngster and potential future core piece such as Roman Quinn in what currently projects to be one opening in the outfield.

“That topic is the one that we have spent the most time discussing, not just here but this offseason, about striking the right balance between adding a veteran bat or veteran free agent to this team to make our team better, but again, not taking playing time away from players that need the playing time.

“That’s part of the dynamic that we have to consider there. Roman Quinn came up at the end of the year and, at times, looked like a legitimate major-league contributor. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that he hasn’t logged a single at-bat at Triple A yet.

“This doesn’t have an obvious answer. We are continuing to talk about trade acquisitions and talk to agents for free agents to see if the right opportunity exists to blend all those factors together. But what we do not want to do is bring in so many veterans that we are denying opportunities to our young players.”

This brings us to a situation that could potentially satisfy the team’s desire to improve the offense without taking away a playing opportunity from Quinn.

J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is an outfield bat that the Phillies like. They like his production and the fact that he’s signed for just 2017. In other words, he wouldn’t block a young prospect’s pathway to the majors, at least for long.

Martinez, owed $11.75 million, which is very affordable for the Phillies, is a serious trade candidate for the cost-cutting Tigers and the Phillies have spoken to Tigers officials, dating to the early part of the offseason.

According to sources, the Phillies and Tigers could be a trade fit if the Tigers were to deal second baseman Ian Kinsler. If the Tigers move Kinsler, they could look to move Martinez to the Phillies for second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Phillies officials have said they are in no hurry to deal Hernandez, but the team does have depth at second with a pair of prospects (Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin) on the way and a ready-made stopgap in Kendrick at the position. 

So keep an eye on Kinsler. If he moves, the Phillies could pursue the veteran bat that would make their offense better. And it would not cost Quinn an opportunity as he could play left field with Kendrick moving to second.

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens honored with Joe Bauman Award

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Phillies prospect Dylan Cozens stopped by the winter meetings on Monday and left with a little something extra in his wallet.

Cozens was honored with the Joe Bauman Award, given annually to minor league baseball’s home run king. The award came with an $8,000 check — $200 for each homer he hit in 2016.

“That will make shopping this holiday season a lot easier,” Cozens joked.

Cozens, a left-handed-hitting rightfielder, hit .276 with 40 home runs and 125 RBIs for the Double A Reading Fightin Phils. He was named Eastern League MVP. During his acceptance speech at Monday’s awards luncheon, Cozens thanked his Reading teammate, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, for pushing him to his power heights. Hoskins also had a huge season with the bat. He hit 38 homers and had 116 RBIs on his way to becoming the Eastern League’s Rookie of the Year. Night after night in Reading, Cozens and Hoskins staged a friendly power competition. At the end of the season, they shared the Paul Owens Award, given annually to the Phillies’ minor-league player of the year.

Cozens, 22, recently finished a 25-game hitch in the Dominican winter league. Despite hitting just .165 for the Aguilas club, he had four home runs — all against lefty pitching, which has been a nemesis.

Cozens, a 6-6, 250-pound behemoth, made some off-the-field news in the DR when he was involved in a pregame fight with teammate Boog Powell, a Seattle Mariners prospect. Cozens downplayed the incident.

“Just a little boys-being-boys type thing,” he said. “I feel like it was blown out of proportion like almost everything is these days. But, after it happened we became good friends. It was more the level of respect there and I’d say we’re still friends, so it’s good.”

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said the incident was in the past and would have no long-range ramifications for Cozens.

“There is no concern,” Klentak said. “Dylan is an intense kid and he plays the game really hard. That is a good thing. If you’ve watched that, you can see that in his at-bats and when he runs the bases and is running around in the outfield. That’s just his style of play. That aggressive nature at times can boil over. You hope that it doesn’t boil over into altercations with teammates. But we have no long-term concerns with that at all.”

Cozens was recently added to the 40-man roster and will be in big-league spring training camp. Though he projects to open the 2017 season at Triple A, he’s conceding nothing.

“I’m just going to go out there and try to get better, turn some heads and make people notice and hopefully get called up as soon as possible,” he said. 

Plate discipline and strike-zone management are the areas in which Cozens needs the most improvement. He struck out 186 times and walked 61 times in 134 games in 2016. Phillies officials would like to see the strikeouts come down.
 
“I’m learning how to take my walks more often, having better strike-zone judgment, maybe not chase after as many pitches,” Cozens said. “I want to be aggressive, but if they don’t want to pitch to me, just take a walk. I feel like I did not do a good job of that and it’s something I can improve on next year.”