Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

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Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

After a week that felt like an early All-Star break, the Phillies (13-13) are back on the field Friday night to open a three-game home series against the Washington Nationals (16-12).

The Phils were off Monday, delayed by rain on Tuesday, rained out on Wednesday and off Thursday. It’s been an uneventful week that has derailed some of their momentum from the West Coast road trip, where they won six of their final eight games.

The benefit of all the down time, though, is the Phils' ability to set up the rotation the way they want. They’ll start Cliff Lee on Friday, A.J. Burnett on Saturday and Cole Hamels on Sunday, which is probably the way it would go in a playoff series. Division games are important whether it's May or September, and if maximizing the starting pitching production allows the Phils to win this series, it could be very important in a few months.

1. Lee’s sixth start
Lee (3-2, 3.29) allowed eight runs in the Phillies' season opener in Texas, but because that game was March 31, his ERA for the month of April was 1.75.

It’s a new month now and Lee will begin it by taking on the Nationals, against whom he’s 6-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 11 starts. Lee’s allowed 78 hits and struck out 78 in 78 1/3 innings against Washington and has surrendered an uncharacteristically high 11 home runs. He’s been taken deep three times by Danny Espinosa, who is a .368 career hitter against him.

Lee has limited the walks this year, as he always does. He enters Friday night with 40 strikeouts and just four bases on balls. But he’s given up 52 hits and righties are batting .333 off him in 129 at-bats.

2. Watered-down Nats
Bryce Harper is out until July after undergoing thumb surgery, and the oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman isn’t close to returning from a thumb injury of his own. That leaves the Nats without two of their top three hitters.

The Nats have some outfield depth to replace Harper with Nate McLouth and former Phillie Kevin Frandsen, who has played some left field. Expect to see the right-handed Frandsen in the lineup Friday.

Zimmerman’s absence has shifted Anthony Rendon from second base to third base and provided Espinosa the opportunity to reclaim a starting job.

Both have hit well. Rendon leads the Nats with a .316 batting average and 10 doubles and is tied for the team lead with four home runs. Espinosa has hit .288 with an .828 OPS.

3. Dealing with Strasburg
The Phillies draw Stephen Strasburg (2-2, 4.24) for the first game of the series.

Strasburg allowed 10 runs (seven earned) in 10 1/3 innings in his first two starts, but in three of his last four outings he’s gone at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer.

Strasburg is second in baseball with 53 strikeouts, trailing only Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, who has 55. Between those two, Matt Harvey, Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Wheeler, Nate Eovaldi and Mets super-prospect Noah Syndergaard, the Phils will have their hands full for a very long time against young, team-controlled starting pitching.

Strasburg has owned the Phillies in six starts. His 2-1 record and 2.65 ERA are decent but don’t tell the whole story. The Phillies have hit .186 against him with five walks and 42 strikeouts. As MLB veteran-turned-MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa put it Wednesday night, “When you face Strasburg, you drive to the stadium knowing you’ll punch out at least once and probably twice.”

Strasburg’s velocity has never been what it was his rookie season, when it averaged 97.3 mph. In fact, it’s down this season from his 95.7 mph career average to 94.2. But it’s still an elite heater made better by his nasty curveball and 88 mph changeup.

Ben Revere and Tony Gwynn, Jr. are each 2 for 3 off Strasburg, and Carlos Ruiz is 3 for 8 with a homer and a double. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, however, are a combined 3 for 27 (.111) with eight strikeouts. Oddly enough, Ryan Howard has never struck out against Strasburg.

4. Brown beyond due
It was May 2013 when Domonic Brown finally broke out. He hit .303 with 12 home runs last May, which was really the only month of his career he’s looked like the prospect he was hyped up to be.

Brown has done very little so far this season. He enters the Nats series hitting .253 with a .314 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage. He has just four extra-base hits on the season -- a homer and three doubles.

With Marlon Byrd striking out more than ever and the Phils getting next to nothing from third base, Brown needs to be the player who produces for the bottom of the Phillies' order.

5. Stay away from Werth
In 28 career at-bats against Lee, Jayson Werth has hit .357 with a double, a triple, two homers and a 1.023 OPS.

Against the Phillies last year at Citizens Bank Park, Werth hit .342/.409/.579 with three homers and eight RBIs in 10 games.

In his last eight games overall this season, Werth has hit .371 with three doubles and a homer.

In other words, let anybody else beat you Friday night.

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Five more thoughts as baseball's winter meetings wrap up:

1. What now for McCutchen?
The hottest name as the winter meetings began this week was Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' perennial All-Star centerfielder who had a .404 on-base percentage from 2012-15 with four straight top-five MVP finishes before falling off a cliff in 2016.

McCutchen hit 40 points worse last season as his bat and legs slowed and his approach deteriorated at times, perhaps out of frustration. There's been some speculation he was playing hurt.

The Nationals were the team most connected to McCutchen, but after failing to work out an agreement with the Pirates and losing out to the Red Sox for Chris Sale, Washington ultimately ended up trading for White Sox CF Adam Eaton.

So, what now for Cutch? It seems unlikely at this point he'd return to the Pirates ... would be kind of awkward. He knows his days there are numbered given Pittsburgh's payroll situation, and he hasn't yet accrued 10-and-5 rights. 

But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday that the intent now is to keep McCutchen.

And McCutchen tweeted this, implying his lips are sealed after weeks of rumors.

If McCutchen does eventually end up elsewhere, I don't think it will be the Phillies. There are certainly things to like, and I do believe McCutchen will bounce back in 2017, but at this point in the Phillies' rebuild and at this point in McCutchen's career, he's not the player to alter the organizational course for. 

2. Shrewd Sale
The Sale trade played out exactly as it should have — the team with the leverage scanned the market, found a few potential deals and got maximum value for one of baseball's five best starting pitchers.

In many trades of superstars, you can look at the return package and quickly conclude which team got the better end. Those opinions aren't always proven true — prospects fail, veterans get hurt — but winners and losers are usually identifiable.

In the Sale trade, there was no clear winner or loser. 

Sale is an ace, a pitcher you'd likely rather have start Game 1 of a playoff series than David Price. He's the ideal complement to Price, though in my opinion Sale is more of 1A to Price's 1B. 

Price has exceptional stuff and command but no deception. He has a one-step delivery that doesn't throw a hitter off balance. Sale has maybe the most deceiving delivery of any major-league starter — it's all elbows and knees coming at you, especially if you're a lefty — to go along with elite stuff and usually above-average command. 

They're both lefties but they offer much different looks for a hitter.

The centerpiece of the White Sox return, Yoan Moncada, is considered by many the best prospect in baseball — a big, athletic infielder who's settled in at 3B. He's got all the tools and the type of fluidity in his game that has enticed scouts as long as scouts have existed. 

Michael Kopech is the prototypical young flamethrower, a 6-foot-3 righty who throws a triple-digit fastball with a plus breaking ball. You look at Kopech and see some Noah Syndergaard-like, Justin Verlander-like potential.

Sale should make the Red Sox about five wins better each of the next three seasons. In terms of World Series odds, the Red Sox may enter 2017 on an even plane with the Cubs. 

And two or three years from now, Moncada and Kopech could be two of the top young players in baseball. This trade made a lot more sense for the White Sox than acquiring Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. Both are intriguing prospects, but the Moncada-Kopech duo has more talent and upside.

The conversations between the White Sox and Nationals regarding Sale ultimately led Chicago to acquire Giolito as part of the package for Eaton. 

The White Sox have done very well this offseason in acquiring three, maybe four top prospects. Moncada is a big-time building block, and the return for Eaton of Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning gives Chicago three right-handers with enormous upside.

3. No clue what the Marlins are thinking
For the better part of two weeks, the Marlins had been linked to Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, the two best closers on the market and probably the two best closers in baseball. 

Chapman agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees, by far the largest ever for a closer.

ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday night that Marlins owner/money man Jeffrey Loria had given his front office the go-ahead to sign either closer. Right now, that leaves just Jansen.

The question is why? The Marlins are not an elite closer away from winning the NL East. Adding Jansen will not catapult this team ahead of the Nationals or likely the Mets. The Marlins might not even be an elite closer away from a wild-card spot. 

Miami is still trying to pick up the pieces after the death of Jose Fernandez. The tragic loss has left them with a middling rotation, which right now includes Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jeff Locke. 

That rotation isn't leading you to October, not unless Giancarlo Stanton actually plays a full season and the Fish avoid regression from guys like Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Martin Prado.

Great New York Post columnist Joel Sherman also questioned Miami's approach this week, opining that the Marlins would be better off buying two lesser free-agent relievers like Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler at the one-year cost of either Chapman or Jansen. It would make sense since Miami already has three good relievers in A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps.

4. Brian Cashman's had quite a few months
The Yankees will not enter 2017 as the AL East favorite, but GM Brian Cashman has positioned them so well for the future, better than pretty much anyone could have expected back in July.

When the Yankees traded Andrew Miller to the Indians before the trade deadline, they picked up a top outfield power prospect in Clint Frazier and an intriguing young pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield. When they dealt Chapman to the Cubs, they picked up Gleyber Torres, one of the most well-thought-of shortstop prospects in baseball. (New York also added outfielder Billy McKinney, who could end up being a serviceable .280/.360/.430 type of player.)

And after it all, after transitioning the Yankees from an old, directionless team, Cashman ends up with all those prospects and Chapman.

In recent years there have been several opportunities for a team to re-sign a star player months after trading him for prospects. 

Some thought the Red Sox would do it with Jon Lester after trading him to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. 

When the Phillies were considering trading Cole Hamels the first time, before he signed his $144 million extension, the possibility existed Ruben Amaro Jr. would trade him and then try to re-sign him that offseason. 

It almost happened with the Yankees and Carlos Beltran this offseason, before Beltran chose the Astros. 

There have been more examples, but this is the first time I can recall the team selling high on the player, getting the prospects and then also getting the player back. 

Great work by Cashman and the Yankees, who now have an infusion of young talent and still the best eight-ninth inning combination in the American League with Dellin Betances and Chapman.

5. Rockies must trade for pitching
The five-year, $70 million contract Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies this week was a stunner because they didn't seem to need more offense. They play in the game's best hitter's park and already have an annual MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, an underrated stud in Charlie Blackmon, last year's batting champ in D.J. LeMahieu, emerging stars David Dahl and Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has 65 homers and 197 RBIs the last two seasons.

And yet the Rockies added Desmond to the second-largest contract in their franchise's history, behind only that futile six-figure deal for Mike Hampton.

They're also reportedly interested in last year's home run champ, Mark Trumbo. With or without Trumbo, the Rockies right now have the deepest lineup in the NL, one that should still thrive away from Coors Field.

But they've also backed themselves into a corner here of needing to trade one of these talented position players for a top-of-the-rotation arm. 

MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Thursday that the Rockies and Blue Jays began discussing a potential trade involving Blackmon and 25-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays, as of yet, do not seem inclined to make the deal. Stroman won't reach free agency until after the 2020 season, whereas Blackmon's contract expires after 2018. The difference in cost and years of control seems to be too much for the Jays.

Blackmon, who last year hit .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, is the most logical trade candidate for the Rockies because he's starting to get expensive. But the Jays' unwillingness to make that Stroman deal could mean that moving even a player as talented as Blackmon for equal value could prove difficult for the Rox.

Looking around the league, a team like the Indians could be a fit for Blackmon since they have an enviable group of starting pitchers in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Carrasco for Blackmon would seem even, but we shall see.

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The winter meetings ended Thursday morning with the Phillies sitting out the Rule 5 draft. The Phillies’ roster was at the 40-man limit and that prohibited the team from making a pick.

The Phils did lose one player in the draft as reliever Hoby Milner was selected by the Cleveland Indians. 

Milner, who turns 26 in January, is a left-hander who recently switched to a side-arm delivery. He had a 2.49 ERA in 49 games at Double A and Triple A in 2016.

Milner was eligible for the draft because he was not protected on the 40-man roster last month. The Indians selected him for $50,000. He must stay in the big leagues all season or be offered back to the Phillies for $25,000.

Andrew Pullin was a player the Phillies feared losing, but they hung on to the lefty-hitting outfielder. Pullin, 23, hit .322 with a .885 OPS between Single A and Double A in 2016. A late-season elbow injury prevented Pullin from playing in the Arizona Fall League and factored into the Phillies’ decision to leave him unprotected.

The Phillies selected one player, infielder Jorge Flores, in the minor-league phase of the draft. Flores had been in the Toronto system.

The Phils lost one player, 25-year-old pitcher Jairo Munoz, to Tampa Bay in the minor-league phase. Munoz pitched in the low minors in 2016.

With the winter meetings behind them, Phillies officials will head back to Citizens Bank Park to complete the construction of their 2017 roster. So far this winter, the Phils have re-signed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and added outfielder Howie Kendrick and relievers Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and David Rollins.

Remaining on the Phillies’ to-do list is adding a backup infielder – Andres Blanco could return – and deciding whether to pursue a veteran hitter to play a corner outfield spot or give an opportunity to a young tandem such as Roman Quinn and Aaron Altherr. 

General manager Matt Klentak spoke often during the week about that balance he is trying to strike between improving the 2017 club while keeping intact long-range goals.

“Successfully balancing the present and the future is the single greatest challenge that a baseball operations department faces,” Klentak said. “We’ve talked about it all offseason. The decisions that we are making right now about giving playing time to a young player that has cut his teeth in Triple A and needs that opportunity to take the next step as opposed to a shorter-term solution from the outside – that’s one of the main challenges that we’ve run into this offseason.”

Time will tell which way the Phillies go on this matter.