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.

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez elected to baseball's Hall of Fame

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez elected to baseball's Hall of Fame

NEW YORK -- Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez were elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday, earning the honor as Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero fell just short.

Steroids-tainted stars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were passed over for the fifth straight year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But they received a majority of votes for the first time and could be in position to gain election in coming years.

Bagwell , on the ballot for the seventh time after falling 15 votes short last year, received 381 of 442 votes for 86.2 percent. Players needed 75 percent, which came to 332 votes this year.

"Anxiety was very, very high," Bagwell said. "I wrote it on a ball tonight. It was kind of cool."

In his 10th and final year of eligibility, Raines was on 380 ballots (86 percent). Rodriguez received 336 votes (76 percent) to join Johnny Bench in 1989 as the only catchers elected on the first ballot.

Hoffman was five votes shy and Guerrero 15 short.

Edgar Martinez was next at 58.6 percent, followed by Clemens at 54.1 percent, Bonds at 53.8 percent, Mike Mussina at 51.8 percent, Curt Schilling at 45 percent, Lee Smith at 34.2 percent and Manny Ramirez at 23.8 percent.

Players will be inducted July 30 during ceremonies at Cooperstown along with former Commissioner Bud Selig and retired Kansas City and Atlanta executive John Schuerholz, both elected last month by a veterans committee.

Bagwell was a four-time All-Star who spent his entire career with Houston, finishing with a .297 batting average, 401 homers and 1,401 RBIs.

Raines, fifth in career stolen bases, was a seven-time All-Star and the 1986 NL batting champion. He spent 13 of 23 big league seasons with the Montreal Expos, who left Canada to become the Washington Nationals for the 2005 season, and joins Andre Dawson and Gary Carter as the only players to enter the Hall representing the Expos.

Raines hit .294 with a .385 on-base percentage, playing during a time when Rickey Henderson was the sport's dominant speedster.

Rodriguez, a 14-time All-Star who hit .296 with 311 homers and 1,332 RBIs, was never disciplined for PEDs but former Texas teammate Jose Canseco alleged in a 2005 book that he injected the catcher with steroids. Asked whether he was on the list of players who allegedly tested positive for steroids during baseball's 2003 survey, Rodriguez said in 2009: "Only God knows."

Bonds, a seven-time MVP who holds the season and career home run records, received 36.2 percent in his initial appearance, in 2013, and jumped from 44.3 percent last year. Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, rose from 45.2 percent last year.

Bonds was indicted on charges he lied to a grand jury in 2003 when he denied using PEDs, but a jury failed to reach a verdict on three counts he made false statements and convicted him on one obstruction of justice count, finding he gave an evasive answer. The conviction was overturned appeal in 2015.

Clemens was acquitted on one count of obstruction of Congress, three counts of making false statements to Congress and two counts of perjury, all stemming from his denials of drug use.

A 12-time All-Star on the ballot for the first time, Ramirez was twice suspended for violating baseball's drug agreement. He helped the Boston Red Sox win World Series titles in 2004 and `07, the first for the franchise since 1918, and hit .312 with 555 home runs and 1,831 RBIs in 19 big league seasons.

Several notable players will join them in the competition for votes in upcoming years: Chipper Jones and Jim Thome in 2018, Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay in 2019, and Derek Jeter in 2020.

Lee Smith, who had 478 saves, got 34 percent in his final time on the ballot. Jorge Posada, Tim Wakefield and Magglio Ordonez were among the players who got under 5 percent and fell off future ballots.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season.