Phillies Mailbag: J.P. Crawford's debut, ABs for Altherr, Franco expectations

Phillies Mailbag: J.P. Crawford's debut, ABs for Altherr, Franco expectations

Ahh, the final weekend before opening day.

Time to open up the ol' bag of mail for your pressing Phillies questions:

An interesting question. There were pretty high expectations last season for Aaron Altherr before he suffered the wrist injury early in spring training. Because wrist injuries tend to affect a hitter's swing, we can just act like 2016 never happened -- Altherr came back late in the season and played every day, but hit just .197 in 227 plate appearances.

But this is the same big, fast, athletic, powerful outfielder who slugged .489 in 2015 with 20 extra-base hits in just 161 PAs. He had a strong spring, hitting .297 with four home runs.

Marshall Harris and I asked Pete Mackanin about Altherr on the Measured Takes podcast Thursday and Mackanin's answer was simply that if Altherr hits, he'll play.

I think there will be ample opportunity for Altherr even though he enters the season as the Phillies' fourth outfielder. He could face a tough lefty instead of Michael Saunders. He could play left field with Howie Kendrick moving to second base when Cesar Hernandez needs a day off.

As for Stassi, I think his best chance at playing time will come at first base because he's a plus defender and bats from the opposite side of Tommy Joseph. It would be a good idea for the Phillies to get Stassi some starts against hard-throwing righties.

I think J.P. Crawford will be up this season, yes. The Phillies have to protect him on the 40-man roster after the season anyway, so he's likely to debut in September, if not before.

If Freddy Galvis goes down with an injury at any point, you'll probably see Crawford unless he's just in a bad funk at Triple A. 

But if/when Crawford comes up for good, I don't expect the Phillies to move him away from shortstop. He's a perennial top prospect and a lot of that value is tied to his premium defensive position. It's where the Phillies want him long term, so why mess around and move him somewhere else and potentially affect his growth?

Galvis is an elite defensive shortstop who deserves to play shortstop. Cesar Hernandez is a better hitter at second base. So if everything pans out -- Crawford makes it up, Hernandez doesn't take steps back -- either Hernandez or Galvis would probably have to be traded. Hernandez would have more value because his skills are more evident, but there are a lot of teams that could use Galvis. Shortstop is a thin position league-wide, and this guy hit 20 homers with Gold Glove defense last season. Yes, his .274 on-base percentage was as bad as it gets, but the defense and power are still more than most shortstops offer.

I don't see how they couldn't. Remember that at this time last year, Cameron Rupp and Tommy Joseph were unproven and Ryan Howard was clearly near the end, so Franco was the Phillies' only real power threat.

Franco started out hot, but by May 1 his batting average was around .250 and his on-base percentage around .300, and he barely inched up from that point forward. He swung out of his shoes a lot, gave away at-bats and, at times, didn't seem to be concentrating.

Good.

Last season showed Franco he has a lot of work to do. At an offensive position, it's not enough to have a .310 on-base percentage even if you're hitting 25 homers.

Mackanin likes the way Franco used the middle of the field this spring, and said that if he had that approach more last season, he could have turned more hanging sliders into extra-base hits.

With a well-respected veteran like Kendrick batting before him, Franco just seems less likely to give away at-bats. He'll have someone to answer to. With Saunders batting fourth or fifth, pitchers won't be able to shy away from Franco with runners in scoring position because there's just as much a chance for a homer from the two guys batting after him.

I'm not saying that the presence of Kendrick and Saunders alone will push Franco to reach his potential, but it will help. 

As far as Herrera ... I think he's pretty much immune to his surroundings, in a good way. He's such an energetic player and can do so much with the bat that he seems like he'd hit .290 whether he was leading off for a bad team or batting second or sixth for a good team.

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, both struggling mightily through the first month of the season, will get Saturday night off when the Phillies take on the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

Joseph is hitting .190 with one homer and 18 strikeouts in 18 games, while Rupp is batting .180 with one homer and 20 strikeouts through 15 games. Last season, Joseph had 21 home runs and Rupp 16.

Brock Stassi will spell Joseph at first base and bat seventh. Andrew Knapp takes over for Rupp behind the plate and will bat eighth.

Daniel Nava also receives a start, playing left field. The first-year Phillie is hitting .346 with a pair of homers and as many walks as strikeouts (seven).

Zach Eflin takes the mound in a meaningful start for the right-hander (see story). He opposes resurgent Dodgers righty Brandon McCarthy (see game notes).

Here are tonight's lineups:

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Daniel Nava, LF
7. Brock Stassi, 1B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Zach Eflin, P

Dodgers
1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
4. Yasmani Grandal, C
5. Yasiel Puig, RF
6. Cody Bellinger, LF
7. Chase Utley, 2B
8. Chris Taylor, 3B
9. Brandon McCarthy, P

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.