Phillies offseason targets: Downs, Lopez

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Phillies offseason targets: Downs, Lopez

Over the next several weeks we’ll unveil a list of potential free agents and trade targets the Phillies could pursue this offseason, one in which they’ll need to plug holes behind the plate, in the corner outfield and, most importantly, on the pitching staff.

From 2011 to the middle of 2013, Antonio Bastardo was perhaps the Phillies' most reliable bullpen arm. The sometimes-erratic and always-overpowering left-hander made 177 appearances over that span, posting a 3.12 ERA, 11 saves, 11.7 strikeouts per nine and a 1.140 WHIP.

Then, on Aug. 5, Bastardo was handed a 50-game suspension for implication in the Biogenesis scandal, news which basically blindsided the Phillies.

Thus Bastardo remains an uncertainty going into next year. While Jake Diekman made strides in his sophomore season, finding a reliable left-handed reliever is high on the offseason to-do list. Considering Jonathan Papelbon's struggles in 2013 and Mike Adams' injury issues, a guy who can also pitch the eighth inning and possibly close a few games would also be a huge plus.

We already looked at right-handed relievers Edward Mujica and Joaquin Benoit (see story). Today, we'll look at two free-agent lefty relievers:

Scott Downs
Age: 38
2011-13 stats: 11-8, 2.27 ERA, 185 games, 10 saves, 1.248 WHIP
Most recent contract: Three years, $15 million with Angels

Since moving to the bullpen full-time in 2007, Downs has been one of the game's most reliable relief men, boasting a 2.33 ERA in 447 appearances over that span.

Only twice in seven years has he posted a plus-3.00 ERA, and only twice has he appeared in fewer than 60 games. Both occurred in 2009 (3.09 ERA, 48 appearances) and 2012 (3.15, 57).

Downs was traded from the Angels to the Braves at the deadline last season and unraveled down the stretch, allowing five runs and 13 hits over just three innings in his final 10 games of the season. He did not make the Braves' postseason roster.

But before his September struggles, Downs was in the midst of yet another solid season. Overall, he went 4-4 with a 2.49 ERA, 1.477 WHIP and 37 strikeouts to 19 walks in 43.1 innings.

Getting left-handers out is Downs' specialty; he's just mediocre against righties. Since 2011, left-handed batters have a .202 average against him with just one homer, while right-handers have hit .263 with six long balls.

Downs can close if necessary, as he did in 2012 when he briefly served as the Halos' closer and saved nine games.

Downs made $5 million last year, and despite his late-season slump, is still likely in line for a multiyear deal for a similar amount. At $3-4 million per season, Downs would be worth the risk for the Phillies, but depending on the market he could command as high as $5 million.

Javier Lopez
Age: 36
2011-13 stats: 12-4, 2.38 ERA, 209 games, nine saves, 1.255 WHIP
Most recent contract: Two years, $8.5 million with Giants

Two years younger and even stealthier against lefties, Lopez is arguably the best southpaw reliever on the open market.

Lopez is coming off a career year in 2013, when he posted a 1.83 ERA in 69 appearances, striking out 37 and walking 12 in 39.1 innings. He also led the league in stranding inherited base runners, allowing just 10.5 percent to score.

His sidearm delivery helps him mow down left-handers, who have hit just .170 against him since 2011. But he's pretty much a lefty-only specialist, as right-handers have batted .315 off him over that same span.

Since 2010, he's been extremely consistent with a 2.37 ERA over 286 appearances, but his walk rate has been a tad concerning, as he's handed out 3.5 free passes per nine. His control improved last season, for his best rate (2.7 per nine) since his rookie year in 2003.

Although Lopez has the ability and confidence to pitch the eighth or ninth, he seldom throws an entire inning. Just 11 of his 69 appearances last season were for one full inning or longer.

According to MLB.com, there's mutual interest between Lopez and the Giants for a return to San Francisco, where he pitched on World Series-winning teams in 2010 and 2012. Phillies fans should recall the stellar NLCS he pitched in 2010, when he allowed just one run and one hit over 4.1 innings in five games and got the victory in the decisive Game 6.

If he does not stay with the Giants, a "significant number" of clubs are reportedly interested. The Phillies should be one of them, although he could demand a lucrative deal for a reliever, and they've already got Papelbon on the book for $13 million, Adams for $7 million and Bastardo eligible for arbitration.

Lopez made $4.25 million in 2013. On the open market, two or three years at around $5-6 million annually seems likely.

Tomorrow: Corey Seidman takes a look at free-agent outfielder Curtis Granderson.

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. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”