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.

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

Pete Mackanin hints that Jeremy Hellickson will be Phillies’ opening-day starter

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Monday said he was not ready to name an opening day starter “because anything can happen in the spring.”

But Mackanin dropped a strong hint that veteran Jeremy Hellickson will get the nod for the second straight year when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on April 3.

“He’s probably got the best chance to be our opening-day starter,” Mackanin said after Monday’s workout. “I’m not going to definitely announce it because anything can happen in the spring. He was last year. I’m not making the announcement that he will be, but there’s a good chance he might be.”

Jerad Eickhoff, who led the Phillies' starting staff in innings (197⅓) and ERA (3.65) last season, is another candidate for the start, but it sounds as if he will slot in behind Hellickson.

On paper, the Phillies’ opening week rotation — barring something unforeseen — could be Hellickson, Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Of course, as Mackanin said, “anything can happen in the spring,” so all of this is early-camp guess work.

Hellickson, who turns 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season. He returned when the club extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017. Hellickson accepted the Phillies’ one-year offer after considering free agency.

“He feels great,” Mackanin said. “He’s in a great frame of mind. I’m sure he would like to have gotten a five-year, $100 million contract from someone, but he’s real happy to be here and we’re happy to have him.”

Eflin takes the mound
Right-hander Zach Eflin returned to a bullpen mound Monday after being slowed last week by a bout of knee inflammation. He threw 40 pitches and reported no problems.

Eflin had double knee surgery in the fall so the Phils will take it slow with him. He projects to be in the Triple A rotation.

Looking good
Phillies pitchers continued to throw “live” batting practice Monday. Mackanin roamed four fields and got a look at all the arms. He liked what he saw of Pat Neshek, the submarine right-handed reliever that the Phils acquired from Houston in an offseason trade.

“I was watching Neshek throw live BP,” Mackanin said. “Not only does he have good movement on his fastball and a real nice sharp-breaking slider, but he threw some outrageous changeups that seemed to stop halfway to the plate. So I’m looking forward to seeing him compete in games.”

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozen baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot of attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coghlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could affect Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95 (mph), it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game-calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good, long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”

Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.