Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies (14-24) at Pirates (18-23)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Losers of 15 of their last 18 games, the Phillies head to Pittsburgh for a winnable three-game set vs. the unremarkable Pirates.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes to get the Phillies, and himself, back on track vs. 25-year old Trevor Williams, making his fourth career start. 

Here are five things to watch for tonight’s game:

1. Righting the ship
The Phillies send Hellickson to the mound to stop the bleeding, for himself and the team. Hellickson looked like a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his five March?April starts, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, allowing just six earned runs. 

As good as Hellickson was in April, he has been equally bad in May. In three May starts, the righty hasn’t gone more than five innings, while racking up a 7.90 ERA for the month. The Phillies’ de facto ace allowed as many runs on May 2 vs. the Cubs as he did in five March/April starts. 

When Hellickson was on fire in the opening month of the season, he wasn’t striking out many batters — just 11 in five games. What made Hellickson so successful was his ability to induce weak contact and let the defense take care of the rest. That’s not a very sustainable attack and we've seen the proof in May. Hellickson is getting bruised by batters this month. Hitters have a .234 average off Hellickson on groundballs, but the righty is giving up more hard-hit line drives recently. Batters are hitting .522 on line drives off Hellickson, leading to a drastic increase in home runs from April — two in five starts — to May — seven in three starts.

To be fair, Hellickson has faced probably the two best lineups in baseball in his last three starts — at the Cubs and twice vs. the Nationals. That will change tonight vs. the Pirates, who have scored the fourth-fewest runs in all of baseball.

With the bullpen's recent struggles (see: the Rangers series), the Phillies need Hellickson to revert to his April form tonight. With a depleted bullpen, the Phillies recalled Adam Morgan from Triple A Friday to replace Nick Pivetta on the 25-man roster. Morgan will likely be sent down when Aaron Nola returns after missing a month with a lower back strain Sunday.

2.  Bad teams going in different directions
The Phillies have lost six straight series en route to a 3-15 record in their last 18. That may change this weekend in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are in a familiar position for Phillies fans — caught somewhere in the vast wasteland of not-so-distant contention in recent years, and a team that needs to retool in the coming seasons. 

The Pirates’ season received a death blow in mid-April when outfielder Starling Marte — arguably the Pirates’ best player — was dealt an 80-game suspension for PED use.

The Pirates don’t score many runs, but their bright spot has been pitching. Pirates’ pitching ranks 12th in earned runs, fourth in walks allowed and 10th in home runs allowed. Those aren’t great numbers, but compare them to the Phillies’ numbers, and things begin to look a bit different. Phils’ pitching ranks 29th in ERA and batting average against and 30th in home runs. Yikes.

3. McCutchen on the decline
If you haven’t paid attention to the Pirates in a while — and honestly, why would you? — you might still think of Andrew McCutchen as the Pirates’ perennial MVP-candidate centerfielder. Now 30 years old, McCutchen is on the downside of his career. Since his monster 2012 season (.327, 31 home runs, 96 RBIs), McCutchen’s numbers have dropped in every season since, with a particular dropoff over the past two seasons. Now in right field, the former All-Star is hitting just .220, with almost as many strikeouts (29) as hits (33). Sadly, like his pop, even the dreadlocks are gone.

4. Don't forget Tommy Joseph
While Aaron Altherr has gotten much of the attention for his outstanding play in May, Tommy Joseph has matched him every step of the way. Joseph is hitting .383 in May — 30 percentage points higher than Altherr —with five homers, 11 RBIs and seven walks this month. After a disastrous opening month of the season, Joseph has put to rest any talk of the Phillies’ calling up Rhys Hoskins from the minors, and deservedly so.

5. This and that
• Friday will be just Hellickson's second-career start at PNC Park. Hellickson went 5 1/3 innings while giving up one run for the Diamondbacks in 2015.

• The Phillies have never faced Williams, who has a 7.88 ERA in two starts this season.

• The Pirates are 12-16 since Marte's suspension. 

Why Phillies got 3 young lottery tickets for Pat Neshek and his 1.12 ERA

Why Phillies got 3 young lottery tickets for Pat Neshek and his 1.12 ERA

Pat Neshek was by far the Phillies' best trade chip, but it wasn't at all surprising to see their return in Wednesday night's deal consist of three very young lottery tickets.

First off, as good as Neshek is, he's a two-month rental. He might pitch a grand total of 18 innings for the Rockies before hitting free agency. Yes, he has a 1.12 ERA, but his situation wasn't anywhere close to Andrew Miller's or Aroldis Chapman's last summer.

For Neshek and their other trade candidates, the Phillies are seeking young prospects who won't yet complicate their 40-man roster situation. The Phils already have a crowded 40-man roster picture and will have to add J.P. Crawford and Rhys Hoskins to it this winter to prevent them from being selected by another team in the Rule 5 draft.

A quick refresher course on the 40-man roster and Rule 5 draft eligibility:

• If a player is 18 or younger when signed, he must be added to the 40-man roster within five years to avoid the Rule 5 draft. (Crawford was 18 years old when he was drafted in 2013, so this is the fifth and final year for him.)

• If a player is 19 or older when signed, he must be added to the 40-man roster within four years to avoid the Rule 5 draft. (Hoskins was 21 when he was drafted in 2014, so this is the fourth and final year for him.)

If the Phillies want to take a look at reliever Jesen Therrien soon, they'll have to add him to the 40-man roster. If they want to check out starting pitcher Tom Eshelman next season, that's another addition. Same goes for outfielder Andrew Pullin. Plus, any free agents or veteran players they acquire via trade this offseason would have to be added to the 40. 

So it was the Phillies' intent to not add even more names to a growing list. Had they added a player closer to the majors in the Neshek trade, it could have cost them another prospect they like. This cluttered picture is why someone like Mark Appel is a non-tender candidate after the season (i.e. he could be cut). 

For Neshek, the Phillies acquired three players all in Single A. Two of them are 20 years old and the other is 23.

Alejandro Requena
The 20-year-old right-hander was 17 when he signed with the Rockies in between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He does not need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until after the 2018 season.

Requena was 8-3 with a 2.85 ERA in 19 starts this season at Class A Asheville, which is a hitter-friendly park. He's walked just 2.0 batters per nine innings since turning pro.

J.D. Hammer
First off, great name, we can all agree on that. 

Hammer, 23, was 21 years old when he signed out of Marshall University in 2016. He does not need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until after the 2019 season.

Hammer, a reliever, dominated at Class A Asheville, posting a 1.20 ERA with 47 strikeouts and five walks in 30 innings. That earned him a promotion to High A Lancaster — the Lancaster in California, not Pennsylvania.

All told, Hammer has a 2.36 ERA with 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings this season.

Jose Gomez
The 20-year-old infield prospect signed as a teenager in 2013, so he'd have to be added to the 40-man roster after this season.

Gomez hit .324 in 351 plate appearances with Asheville this season and has hit .316 since turning pro.

He's another lottery ticket, basically a younger version of Jesmuel Valentin, the utility infielder the Phillies acquired from the Dodgers for Roberto Hernandez in August 2014.

For Phillies, emulating Astros' ascent requires much more than high picks

For Phillies, emulating Astros' ascent requires much more than high picks

The Astros were proponents of The Process before it was couth to be.

From 2011-13, Houston lost an average of 108 games per year. The Astros picked first overall in 2012, '13 and '14, then second overall in 2015.

And even without hitting on all four picks — they did, after all, take Mark Appel first overall over Kris Bryant — the Astros have in the span just of a few years shifted from AL doormat to the envy of the league.

A.J. Hinch's club left South Philadelphia this week with a 67-34 record and on pace to win 108 games, six more than their franchise record. The Astros have a relentless offense that has scored six-plus runs in 52 of 101 games, and they have power, speed and plate selection up and down the lineup.

Pete Mackanin, Matt Klentak and some Phillies players can't be blamed if they looked longingly at the visiting clubhouse this week and fantasized about the future. 

But replicating Houston's model isn't as simple as finishing with the worst record in the league several years in a row. It would also require making the right picks after the first round and finding under-appreciated role players along the way.

All the right moves
Jose Altuve, the AL's leading MVP candidate who's hitting .365, was an undrafted free agent signed out of Venezuela in 2007 for the grand total of $15,000.

Dallas Keuchel, on the DL but 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA, was a seventh-round pick. 

Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez were both second-round picks; McCullers is the Astros' No. 2 starter and Velasquez was the trade bait that landed them a closer, Ken Giles.

Ten other teams could have drafted George Springer. 

Marwin Gonzalez, who plays all over the diamond and is hitting .321 with a .984 OPS, was acquired for a pitcher who's now in the Mexican League. 

Brad Peacock, 8-1 with a 2.51 ERA, was traded to Houston for well-traveled infielder Jed Lowrie. 

These guys didn't make it to the Astros' organization with the pedigree of a Carlos Correa.

Houston built this juggernaut piece by piece and brought in veterans like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Evan Gattis, Carlos Beltran and Nori Aoki once the timing was appropriate. 

That would be the Phillies' final piece of the rebuild. But first, they'd need to somehow develop or obtain game-changers like Altuve, Correa, Springer and Keuchel — an extremely difficult task that also involves luck — and swing a few under-the-radar trades themselves.

"Players come from everywhere," Hinch told CSNPhilly this week. "And we've got a lot of different stories on our team. It's one of the more interesting teams I've been around just because guys have gotten here in different ways, guys have experienced different things in the big leagues. 

"We certainly have some high-profile guys that were high picks, but we've also got pretty good players that were signed for $15,000 or less. That blend of everything has turned a really good team over the last couple of seasons into an even better one."

Luhnow and Hinkie
Back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series given their collection of young talent. At the time it seemed a bit far-fetched, but Houston has exploded this season from an 85-win team to a 100-plus win team.

General manager Jeff Luhnow enacted The Process in a similar way to the Sixers and just like the Sixers, his club is now reaping the rewards. 

"The plan was to collect as much young talent as possible, become relevant and stay relevant," Luhnow told CSNPhilly this week. "This was about the timeframe that we thought we'd be competing for a division title.

"It's similar in a lot of ways (to the Sixers' process) and I know [Sam Hinkie], he used to be in Houston. He and I have talked a lot about what he was doing here and what I was doing there — there are a lot of analogies. You have to be patient to wait for the results to manifest themselves. Sometimes you get a good roll of the dice, sometimes you don't."

Luhnow has also made his own luck by pulling a lot of the right strings with transactions in recent years. Even when the 'Stros have given up talented young pieces like Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, they've brought back players like Mike Fiers who have aided their cause. Fiers wasn't some huge name on the trade market two summers ago, but he's been very good with the Astros this season (excluding last night), posting a 3.71 ERA in 20 starts with a strikeout per inning.

The final stage
Let's not misunderstand what Houston has been able to do. Bottoming out allowed them to bring in top young talent in the draft, but without the secondary moves, they're not in a position to run away with the American League West. 

"We thought we had a good team and were positioned well to not only add guys like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann but to grow our own guys like Altuve and Springer," Hinch said. "The emergence of Keuchel and McCullers, the additions of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. We were built towards having a complete team and then we add the right veterans on and off the field and it's really taken off. 

"It's hard to predict how seasons are going to go, but the left-handedness we needed was answered, the veteran presence in the clubhouse was answered, the lineup configuration, how tough we are to strike out, how good we are at hitting the ball out of the ballpark. All things that you hope for but I don't think you ever anticipate winning how many games we have within the first 100 games."

The Phillies are still a few years away from sprinkling the right veterans into a young clubhouse. That's the finishing touch, the cherry on top of the player development sundae. 

Unlike the Astros, the Phillies don't have transformative players like Altuve, Springer and Correa. Instead, they have a bunch of young players at various positions who have a chance to all grow and hit the next level simultaneously. In that way, these Phillies are closer to the Royals teams with Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and others than they are the Astros.

"I think in the future there will be changes made," Mackanin said this week. "We've got the trade deadline coming up and I'm interested to see how that goes. 

"There are some players here that I think have a chance to be part of the future. We've seen a lot of good things from a lot of the pitchers, (Aaron) Nola primarily, and Luis Garcia has stepped it up. He's shown that he can be more consistent. Not just those two in particular, but there are two examples of guys. 

"Make the right trades, make the right moves, sign the right people, trade the right people and get something back for it. And develop the people here."

Reasons for optimism
The Phillies' win-loss total obviously doesn't show any kind of progress being made, but there are several pretty clear positive individual developments. Nola looks better than ever. Odubel Herrera is hitting .331 since June 1 and well on his way to finishing between .290 and .300 again. Aaron Altherr has grown from a fourth outfielder to starting outfielder. Nick Williams looks like a keeper. Scott Kingery and Sixto Sanchez have high ceilings; Rhys Hoskins, Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak have high floors. J.P. Crawford's bat has heated up and maybe he'll be an impact player after all. We'll get an extended look next season at Jorge Alfaro.

The 2017 Astros are a near-best-case scenario of how a rebuild can turn out and it would be silly now to say the 2020 Phillies could reach that level. Matt Klentak has a ton of work still to do. 

But keep in mind that these days, teams don't necessarily follow a linear path. The Astros are going to have a 20-plus win jump between last season and this season. The Rays won 97 games in 2008 after winning 66 the year before. The Pirates leaped from 79 wins to 94 between 2013 and '14. The Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 in '15. 

"It's a matter of time," Mackanin said. "It's not going to go on like this forever."