Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

philsnats.png

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.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."