On the Pharm: Hernandez gets look in center field

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On the Pharm: Hernandez gets look in center field

READING, Pa. -- “Now batting: Centerfielder, Cesar Hernandez.”

The public address announcer at FirstEnergy Stadium introduced the 23-year-old hundreds of times during the prospect's 102-game stint with Reading last year, but never quite like this. It used to be “second baseman, Cesar Hernandez,” but those days may be in the past.

On Monday night, Hernandez should have been on his way to Reno, Nev., to take part in the Triple A All-Star Game. He was elected to the game after batting .306 with 28 RBIs and 45 runs scored with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The Phillies' organization, however, had other ideas for their Venezuela-born prospect.

About a month ago, the Phillies decided to experiment with Hernandez, who had been the IronPigs' starting second baseman for all but a brief nine-game call-up with the Phillies from May 29 to June 8. Hernandez regularly began taking fly balls in center field during batting practice and he advanced far enough to start five games last week.

It may be perfect timing given the injury to Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere (see story).

"Well, we feel like it's an option, and again, we don't know if that's what we're going to do, but we're going to look at it as quickly as we can," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said. "This didn't start a few days ago. We've been doing this kind of behind the scenes for a while. Cesar Hernandez can help us on the major-league team. It may not be in an every-day role, it may be off the bench at some point in time, but he can run, he can steal a base, he's a switch-hitter, he can bunt -- he can do a lot of things. If he can play the outfield, it just gives us more options, because, honestly, it's a piece we don't have."

The Phillies are trying to find out if and where Hernandez has a future within the organization. Scouts love his bat and already think that part of his game is almost major-league ready. He's a career .293 hitter in seven minor-league seasons and was 7 for 28 (.250) with the Phillies earlier this year. However, he’s had some issues defensively. He’s already committed nine errors at second base this year and 83 in his minor-league career. After moving to the outfield with Lehigh Valley, Hernandez committed one error in 12 chances.

"We've got to figure out exactly how he can best help us in the major leagues because we do feel like he can help us up there," Jordan said. "We started talking about this, we started shagging some balls in center and we got our outfielder coordinator in there and started getting into it a little bit.

"We feel like the best way to get a good read is just doing it over and over and over consecutive nights. He's going to be fine, given enough time -- he could be a good centerfielder."

On Monday night, Hernandez played nine innings in center field, committed a fielding error in the fifth inning and made three put-outs. He also went 2 for 4 at the plate with a double, walk and an RBI.

"Cesar's come a long way. I had him two years ago in the Florida State League and we were fortunate enough to put him on the roster and it's paid off for us," Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. "He's become a better ball player in all facets of his game. He's stealing more bases now, he's hitting the ball with more authority than he did, obviously just getting older and learning his swing -- all those things help. He's becoming a baseball player right now and slowly learning center field."

Hernandez’s time with Reading will be short-lived. He’s expected to play two more games in center for the Fightin Phils before rejoining the IronPigs when they begin the second half of their Triple A season on Thursday. In the meantime, he’ll continue to fine-tune his defensive skills in hopes of earning a chance to make a new name for himself as an outfielder in the Phillies' system. 

And he’ll need to, because when Hernandez made his 2013 debut with Reading on Monday, he was the only player without a name on the back of his jersey.

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.