Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

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Phillies-Nationals: 5 things you need to know

Phillies (1-2) vs. Nationals (1-2)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After dropping the first series of the season to the Boston Red Sox, the Phillies remain home to take on another stacked team in the Washington Nationals.

The Nats entered the season with 6/1 odds (per Bovada) to win the World Series, the shortest in baseball. But Washington didn’t have such a hot series against the Mets, scoring just six runs total in three games.

Of course, the Phillies’ starting pitching isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Mets’, so this series is shaping up to be quite a challenge.

Here are five game notes to get you set for the series opener:

Murderer’s row
The Phillies begin an absolutely brutal 10-game stretch tonight. They’ll face Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer this weekend.

Then they go to New York to face the reigning Rookie of the Year in Jacob deGrom, then Matt Harvey and Jon Niese.

After that, the Phils head to Washington, where they’ll oppose Fister, Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.

The number of aces and No. 2 starters in the NL East is yet another reason the Phillies should be rebuilding. This division is the toughest in baseball when it comes to starting pitching, and even if the Phillies had .500-like talent, it would be hard to avoid a losing season going up against horses like these.

J-Will on the hill
Jerome Williams was a pleasant surprise for the Phils last season, going 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in nine starts after signing in early August.

It was an unlikely career resurgence for a pitcher who had a 9.90 ERA with the Rangers and a 6.04 ERA with the Astros in 2014 before latching onto the back end of the Phils’ rotation.

Can he carry those strong final two months into 2015?

If the spring was any indication, that answer is probably no. Williams went 0-4 in Grapefruit League play with a 7.40 ERA and 1.84 WHIP. His opponents hit .368 with five home runs in 20 2/3 innings.

The Phillies know Williams doesn’t have upside and they know it will be challenging for him to piece together an ERA below 4.50, but if he can provide them six innings and four runs or fewer, that would represent an adequate season debut.

Defensive woes
Both of these infields struggled to field the ball on Thursday night.

Ryan Howard had issues scooping throws in the fifth inning against the Red Sox. One was on a poor throw from Freddy Galvis, the other from Cody Asche after Asche had made an impressive diving stop down the third-base line.

No runs were scored in that inning, but it was a perfect example of why groundballers won’t be as successful with this team as they could be elsewhere. A.J. Burnett didn’t pitch well overall last season, but he was a case in point.

As for the Nats, Ian Desmond committed his third error already this season against the Mets, which led to three unearned runs for Stephen Strasburg. Nationals pitchers could feel some frustration early this season with a middle infield of Desmond and Dan Uggla.

The book on Gio
Gonzalez is a stifling lefty who has always limited hits, but will struggle when his control is off.

Since joining the Nats in 2012, Gonzalez is 42-26 with a 3.25 ERA in 91 starts. He’s faced the Phillies 12 times over that span, going 6-4 with a 3.05 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 22 walks in 73 2/3 innings.

The Phillies’ two veteran lefties, Howard and Chase Utley, have both struggled mightily against Gonzalez. Utley is 3 for 17 and Howard is 0 for 11 with six strikeouts.

You might see Darin Ruf get the start at first base for Howard, especially since a few Phillies outfielders have hit Gonzalez well. Ruf is 6 for 16 off Gonzalez with two homers.

Jeff Francoeur is 5 for 14 with two doubles and a homer against the southpaw. And two of the Phillies’ left-handed hitting outfielders have had success — Grady Sizemore is 7 for 14 with two doubles and a triple, and Ben Revere is 8 for 19.

Sold on the Nats?
I’m not. Washington will almost certainly win the NL East, it has too much talent not to. But beyond that, I don’t see this Nats offense as having enough to advance deep into October, especially with Rendon on the DL and Adam LaRoche on the south side of Chicago.

If Washington is to win it all this season, Bryce Harper will need to carry the Nats on his back. He is a .272 career hitter that gets treated like he’s a perennial MVP candidate. This Nats team doesn’t have a ton of power, so a .290/30-home run season from Harper will be necessary for Washington to beat teams like the Cardinals and Dodgers in the playoffs.

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."