Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

A few Phillies thoughts between NFL playoff games:
 
Jerad Eickhoff was in town the other day putting smiles on the faces of some special kids at CSN Philly’s annual Shining Star Awards dinner, which benefits the March of Dimes.
 
Before the event, Eickhoff was a guest on Philly Sports Talk and he was asked about the possibility of being the Phillies' opening day starter April 3 in Cincinnati. The right-hander said all the right things, noting that there were several worthy candidates and that the decision ultimately would be made by manager Pete Mackanin, and he was right on all counts.
 
In the big picture, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who gets the ball on opening day. The goal of every starter is to stay healthy for a full season and if he does that he’ll end up with 33 starts and ample opportunity to pitch himself to the top of the rotation.
 
Still, starting on opening day is a big honor, even if a lot of folks won’t remember who got the ball for the opener much beyond Memorial Day.
 
The 2017 Phillies have two legitimate candidates for opening day starter: Jeremy Hellickson and Eickhoff. 

Hellickson got the nod last year and did nothing to suggest he does not deserve the honor again this year. The veteran right-hander pitched 189 innings over 32 starts and was a pro’s pro from the moment he stepped foot in the clubhouse.
 
But with all due respect to Hellickson, this early vote for the opening day assignment goes to Eickhoff for a number of reasons.
 
First of all, he’s earned it with his performance. He led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) in 2017. He delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure constantly stress to the staff the importance of throwing strikes. Eickhoff responded in 2016. His ratio of 1.92 walks per nine innings was the fourth-best mark among National League starters in 2016.

In addition, he's earned it with his conduct and example. The guy approaches his craft with a maturity, dedication, work ethic and seriousness that is reminiscent of Roy Halladay.

All of this leads us to another reason that Eickhoff should get the opening day nod: The Phillies are a building team and Eickhoff, 26 years old and under team control for five more seasons, is going to be around for a while. Hellickson will likely depart for free agency after this season. Ditto Clay Buchholz. Awarding Eickhoff the opening day start would be a show of faith in the pitcher, a message that management believes he can be a rock and a leader in the rotation now and in the future. 
 
And as for the notion that holding Eickhoff back until the second or third game of the season would help keep him away from opposing teams’ top pitchers and get him better matchups and possibly more run support. Well, Eickhoff already knows what it’s like to face top rivals and keep his team in the game. Last year, he matched up against Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and twice against both Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke. Late in the season, he faced NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer twice and lefty stud Chris Sale once. He pitched 19 innings in those three starts and allowed six runs. Pretty solid.
 
It’s certainly not the most important decision that Mackanin & Co. will face between now and April, but when it comes to opening day starter, well, we like Eick.
 
• Spring training is less than a month away, but the Phillies’ offseason roster construction remains in progress. You can pretty much bank on the club adding a bat, likely a left-handed-hitting outfielder, in the coming days.
 
Brandon Moss and Michael Saunders, both free-agent outfielders, remain the most likely targets, with Moss probably the best fit because of his ability to help out at first base.
 
The Phillies have had longstanding interest in Jay Bruce, who is on the Mets’ trading block, but sources say the price for him is two prospects. The rebuilding Phillies are committed to hanging on to their prospects. Moss or Saunders would cost just money, making them better fits on a short-term deal.

• The Phillies will officially open their new developmental academy in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. The club has leased four different facilities since ramping up efforts in the DR in 1994. The new facility, built on 45 acres in Boca Chica, is co-owned by the Phillies and Minnesota Twins. The two teams have separate baseball facilities and dormitories for up to 78 players. The clubs share kitchen, dining and field maintenance costs.
 
Read more about the new facility here.
  
• Agreeing at the midpoint and avoiding a hearing is always the goal when a player and his team exchange salary figures during the arbitration process. Cesar Hernandez submitted a figure of $2.8 million and the Phillies came in at $2 million. Shake hands at $2.4 million and move on.
 
• We mentioned this recently, but it’s worth repeating because it’s so remarkable. At home in 2016, the Phillies recorded a team batting average of .230 and a team on-base percentage of .291. Those marks were the club’s worst in more than a century of official record keeping.
 
• Phillies prospect Carlos Tocci is a strong candidate for the rookie of the year award in the Venezuelan winter league. The 21-year-old outfielder hit .323 with a .403 on-base percentage in 59 games for the Aragua ballclub.
 
Odubel Herrera was rookie of the year and batting champion in the Venezuelan league two years ago.
 
• And finally, Phillies chairman David Montgomery was among the honorees at the 14th annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation In the Spirit of the Game awards dinner Saturday night in Beverly Hills, California.
 
Montgomery received the Allan H. “Bud” Selig Executive Leadership Award. Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Bo Jackson, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and a host of legendary scouts were among the other honorees at the event.
 
It was nice to see an organization dedicated to scouting recognize Montgomery, who served as Phillies president from 1997 to 2014. As leader of the Phillies, Montgomery always realized the importance of scouts in building a successful organization, and in his typical style built personal relationships with every member of his club’s scouting staff, right down to the area guys who drive around baseball’s backstreets in search of young talent. Winning the 2008 World Series was the highlight of Montgomery’s time as club president and that team was built on the back of good scouting.
 
So congratulations to one of the classiest and most respected men in the game on a most fitting honor.

MLB Notes: Marlins sending David Phelps to Mariners

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MLB Notes: Marlins sending David Phelps to Mariners

MIAMI -- A person familiar with the negotiations tells The Associated Press that the Miami Marlins have traded right-handed reliever David Phelps to the Seattle Mariners for four prospects, including highly regarded outfielder Brayan Hernandez.

The person confirmed the deal to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because the teams have not announced the trade.

Phelps is 2-4 with a 3.45 ERA in 44 games and 47 innings this season. He's a six-year veteran with 64 career starts.

Hernandez, a 19-year-old Venezuelan, is batting .259 in 31 games in the minors this year.

The Mariners entered Thursday three games back in the AL wild-card race. The Marlins are out of playoff contention and looking to upgrade a farm system widely ranked among the worst in the majors (see full story).

Giants: Sandoval reportedly to sign with Giants on minor-league deal
SAN FRANCISCO -- A person with knowledge of his plans tells The Associated Press that Pablo Sandoval plans to sign a minor league contract to return to the San Francisco Giants.

The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because the agreement had not been announced.

Sandoval technically will not be free to agree to a deal with a team until 1 p.m. Eastern Friday.

The Boston Red Sox released Sandoval on Wednesday when the third baseman didn't report after being designated for assignment last week.

It officially ended the Boston tenure for the slugger, who never was healthy enough to live up to the expectations that came with the $95 million free agent contract he signed in 2014.

With the Red Sox unable to find a team willing to take on part of his salary, the 2012 World Series MVP with the San Francisco Giants moved on after a total of 161 games, 575 at-bats, 136 hits and 14 homers for Boston -- but not a single one of them in the postseason (see full story).

Mets: After foul ball catch, Gov. Christie says booing comes with job
NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Days after catching boos after snagging a foul ball at a Mets game, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he's never seen a politician cheered at a sporting event except for President George W. Bush after 9/11.

Christie said Thursday he knew he needed to give the ball he caught during Tuesday night's game to a kid or he'd get even more criticism.

The Republican says that booing comes with the job and noted that TV cameras didn't capture the 10 to 12 people taking pictures with him between innings.

Christie was sitting in the third row, near the New York dugout. In the third inning, St. Louis rookie Paul DeJong lifted a high foul that bounced in the stands. Christie reached out with his left hand and snagged it.

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

It took the better part of three months but J.P. Crawford is finally on a hot streak. 

Whether it's a result of warmer weather, the ups and downs of a long baseball season, motivation from the national outlets which have soured on him, or all of the above, Crawford is finally hitting the ball with authority.

This week's Future Phillies Report begins with him:

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
Crawford has hit .262 in July with a .357 on-base percentage, but the most impressive part of his month has been the power. Ten of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases (two doubles, two triples and six homers). Crawford is pulling the ball more and generating loft with his swing.

It's an interesting development given the recent criticism from Baseball America's John Manuel and ESPN's Keith Law that Crawford has gotten homer-happy of late. Law wrote in a chat that accompanied his midseason prospect rankings that Crawford had lost his great control of the strike zone because of it.

But the J.P. staples are still there — his on-base percentage is 113 points higher than his batting average this season, and he has 52 walks with 59 strikeouts. 

Crawford has never been a big power guy. These eight home runs are three shy of his career high set in 2014. As Manuel noted on Jim Salisbury's "At the Yard" podcast last week, a player needs to show some pop in order for major-league pitchers to respect his bat and stay away from the middle of the plate. If he doesn't, or if he can't, then that walk total won't be as high once he debuts.

For now, though, Crawford seems to be in a good place, and the Phillies are hoping it continues for another month or so. He still has enough time to turn his 2017 season around and make a push toward next year's opening-day roster.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (Class A Lakewood)
Sanchez is gaining more and more steam nationally as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Law wrote on Wednesday, after seeing Sanchez pitch last week, that he has "perhaps the best" fastball of any starting pitcher in the minors.

The Phillies have been very cautious with Sanchez, who turns 19 on July 29. He has yet to throw more than 80 pitches in any game this season, and his six innings last Wednesday matched his season high.

He's having a stellar year against Single A competition — .199 opponents' batting average, 54 strikeouts, six walks, one home run allowed in 56⅓ innings.

Sanchez still has some things to work on, notably his breaking ball. Even a pitcher with the best of fastballs needs to be able to throw his slider or curveball effectively for strikes to succeed in the majors. 

As Sanchez progresses through the Phillies' minor-league system, these pristine strikeout-walk numbers may regress. His control is excellent and his command is advanced but no 19-year-old has mastered fastball command. In the South Atlantic League, he's been able to keep hitters off balance even when he makes mistakes.

Baseball America ranked Sanchez 47th in its Midseason Top 100, a spot behind Mickey Moniak.

RHP Adonis Medina (Class A Lakewood)
From one young Dominican right-hander to another, Medina is having a very impressive year for the BlueClaws. In 15 starts, he has a 3.32 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 81⅓ innings.

Medina has never before missed bats at this clip. It's his fourth year in the Phillies' system, and from 2014-16 he struck out 6.0 batters per nine innings. This season, he's struck out 10.7 per nine.

Medina, 20, gets his fastball up to the mid-90s and has shown an impressive curveball and changeup this season. 

The Phillies feel good about that young pitching staff at Lakewood, which also includes Nick Fanti, who was involved in his second no-hitter of the season earlier this week.

2B Scott Kingery (AAA)
Kingery has hit safely in 16 of 19 games since being promoted to Lehigh Valley and has reached base in 18 of 19. 

He's swung and missed more often with the IronPigs — his strikeout rate is 23.5 percent at Triple A compared to 16 percent at Double A. But he's still playing well and sparking his team's lineup. 

In his 19 games at Triple A, Kingery has four homers, three doubles and seven steals in as many attempts. Overall this season, he's hit .306/.364/.579 with 21 doubles, 22 homers, 54 RBIs, 26 steals in 29 attempts and 74 runs scored.

And he's done all of this while playing excellent second-base defense. Kingery's speed, defense and contact ability should make him a starting second baseman in the majors soon. His floor seems to be Cesar Hernandez with a bit less plate selection but better defense and baserunning. His ceiling is all of that with the added element of power.

1B Rhys Hoskins (AAA)
For the first time this season, Hoskins is in a cold spell. He's just 9 for 54 with three extra-base hits in July and down to a still-impressive .281/.376/.550 on the season.

Hoskins' call-up will likely occur soon, but the Phillies will first want to him to get back to swinging well and comfortably working deep counts. 

The organization knows it can't keep both Hoskins and Tommy Joseph because both look like everyday first basemen and neither can play another position. The problem is, it doesn't look like the Phils will be able to trade Joseph for much ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

The only two potential contenders who could use a first baseman were the Yankees and Mariners, but the right-handed heavy Yankees never made a ton of sense for Joseph and can be crossed off after Tuesday's acquisition of Todd Frazier. The Yankees will likely use Frazier and Chase Headley at the infield corners.

The Phils would be wise to hold on to Joseph and try to trade him this winter when more teams are likely to express interest. Even if that's the case, though, they can still call up Hoskins and play him regularly. Joseph is not some seasoned veteran the Phillies should feel locked in to starting. He's a league-average offensive first baseman with a below-average glove. He has some value, but it shouldn't come at the expense of finding out what you have in Hoskins.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
It's a shame Cozens is back to striking out so much because Aaron Altherr's hamstring injury might have created an opportunity for him. Altherr is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks, but the Phillies will likely stem the tide with Daniel Nava and Cameron Perkins before welcoming Howie Kendrick back.

In Cozens' last 100 at-bats, he's hit .230 with six homers and 45 strikeouts. Overall, he's whiffed 126 times in 386 plate appearances. That's an even higher strikeout rate than he had last season when he punched out 186 times.

Opinions of Cozens are mixed. Some question whether he'll make enough contact to ever be a valuable player. Some question his attitude. Most question his defense.

Cozens has 62 homers in 972 plate appearances the last two seasons at Double A and Triple A, but his value is tied almost entirely to that raw power. Will a front office that clearly values consistency, a solid hit tool and thoughtful approach at the plate be able to live with Cozens' streakiness?

He turned 23 at the end of May so he's still not yet at that non-prospect age. But Cozens requires further seasoning and is no lock to be in the majors next spring.

C Jorge Alfaro (AAA)
These final two months are crucial for Alfaro, who has had a down year at Triple A. Through 75 games, he's hit .246/.300/.360 with six homers, 40 RBIs, 16 walks and 96 strikeouts.

Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season — he's out of options after this year — so the need for him to show improvement and more consistency has heightened. 

Over his last seven games, Alfaro is 4 for 27 with no extra-base hits, one walk and 12 strikeouts. The Phillies would be right to wonder whether weeks like that will be frequent once he's in the majors. It's tough to live with a starting catcher who doesn't walk, strikes out a lot, isn't hitting for power and isn't a great receiver.

That last part is very important. Catchers are no longer judged mostly by their throwing arm but instead their ability to frame pitches and block balls in the dirt. Alfaro can also be a bit jumpy behind the plate; teams seek stillness from their catcher as soon as the target is set.

Alfaro has a long way to go, but he has the tools and the upside. He just hasn't squared the ball up enough this season, fouling off or swinging through hittable pitches. The Phillies won't enter the offseason feeling confident about their catching situation, short term, if he has a second half like his first.

OF Adam Haseley (Short-Season Class A Williamsport)
The Phillies' first-round pick has had a hot start to his pro career, hitting .342/.437/.479 with seven extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

Haseley's teammates at Williamsport rave about his work ethic, and there are believers in the Phillies' organization that he will someday be a 25-home run guy.

Haseley's intensity and focus have stuck out to Williamsport manager (and former MLB catcher) Pat Borders, who noted how locked-in and committed to his plan Haseley is during batting practice. 

Haseley's lone home run with Williamsport was an opposite-field shot down the left-field line. He uses the opposite field quite a bit. Borders remarked that once Haseley starts pulling the ball with authority, he'll be a real problem.

"The sky's the limit for him because he can repeat his swing so well and drive the ball," Borders said on this week's Phillies Clubhouse, which will air after Postgame Live Saturday night. "He hit a home run to straight left field the other day, which is a remarkable feat for anybody hitting the ball the other way but especially for somebody his age (21). He's not a super big kid but he's got power going the other way. When he learns to pull the ball with power also, he's going to be a dangerous, dangerous hitter."

OF Mickey Moniak (Class A Lakewood)
Moniak has had some growing pains in his first full pro season. Through 355 plate appearances, he's hit .263/.317/.379 with 22 walks and 72 strikeouts.

He's struggled with breaking balls, struggled against lefties and hasn't hit for much power. He was picked off last night, the sixth time he's been caught stealing in 15 attempts.

Perhaps Moniak wasn't as advanced as the Phillies thought when they selected him first overall in 2016. But that doesn't mean the shine has worn off — he's still just 19 years old. 

One interesting note from Manuel last week was that some scouts have opined that as Moniak has gained muscle, he's lost some of the quick-twitch ability that had made him such a polished, gap-to-gap hitter.

LF Cornelius Randolph (High-A Clearwater)
Randolph is in the midst of his best month in the Phillies' organization. The 2015 first-round pick has hit .397 over his last 18 games with five doubles, a triple, three homers and 15 walks.

He's hitting .258/.358/.407 this season with nine homers and 38 RBIs. The Phillies are happy to see the double-digit power because Randolph, whose value is tied entirely to his bat, entered 2017 with three home runs in 503 pro plate appearances.

At 20 years old, Randolph is nearly three years younger than the Florida State League average. The Phillies were aggressive in moving him up to Clearwater this season, but he's made the necessary adjustments as the season has gone on.

RHP Jesen Therrien (AAA)
Therrien could soon be up in the majors after the expected trades of Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. The 24-year-old relief prospect has had success at both Double A and Triple A this season, posting a combined 1.49 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 62 strikeouts and just seven walks in 54⅓ innings.

The Neshek and Benoit trades would create an opening for Therrien to slide in as a seventh-inning guy. In that scenario, the Phils would likely use Luis Garcia in the eighth and Hector Neris in the ninth. 

It would be nice for the Phils to promote at least one legitimate relief prospect before the season ends so they enter the offseason feeling somewhat comfortable about their future bullpen. Therrien's progress could, in a way, cancel out the steps back taken by Edubray Ramos.

Other tidbits
Zach Eflin pitched well Wednesday night, allowing one run over seven innings for the IronPigs. He missed nearly all of June with a sore elbow but has a 2.22 ERA in five games since returning.

Jake Thompson continues to struggle. He followed a seven-inning start on July 6 by lasting just 4⅔ innings his last time out. He walked four and threw 101 pitches. In 17 starts at Triple A this season, Thompson is 3-11 with a 5.59 ERA and 1.60 WHIP.

Mark Appel was placed on the DL last week with more shoulder problems.

• In 24 games since his promotion to Triple A, outfielder Andrew Pullin has hit .198 with six doubles and two homers.