Phillies president Andy MacPhail: 'Let’s stay on track'

Phillies president Andy MacPhail: 'Let’s stay on track'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Dressed in red gym shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with the words Train to Reign, two dozen Phillies pitchers and catchers went through one final informal workout on the green lawns of Carpenter Complex on Monday.

Stuff gets real, as they say, Tuesday morning when pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout of spring training.

Not long ago, this day was accompanied by the electric buzz of high expectations and World Series hopes. The Phillies hope those days return soon, but for now, they remain an active construction site as they enter Season 3 of a rebuild.

There have been signs of progress in the reconstruction. Most tangibly, the team improved by eight wins, finishing with 71, last season.

Another sign of growth can be seen in the improved depth in the team’s starting pitching ranks.

When the rebuild started, the starting pitching depth was in bad shape. A series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects has improved it greatly.

That depth will be on display as camp officially begins Tuesday. The Phillies have 15 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster and 10 of them have come to the organization in trades since the rebuild started after the 2014 season.

As the rebuild continues, pitching will remain a focus.

Club president Andy MacPhail made that much clear in a state of the team meeting with reporters on Monday.

“After improving the pitching, the next thing we should do is improve the pitching, and then after that, we should improve the pitching,” MacPhail said.

The Phillies are a big-market team with large revenues. MacPhail is confident that the team can attract big bats through free agency. His goal remains building with a foundation of arms.

“My experience has been that you can find the hitters,” he said, citing Klentak’s offseason additions of Howie Kendrick (trade) and Michael Saunders (free-agent signing). “Particularly in our ballpark. And we have resources. When you have to sign pitchers through free agency — they’re fragile, they’re expensive. There are times when you’re going to have to do it, but the more you can avoid it, the more you should. To me, it’s about pitching.”

The Phillies brought back veteran Jeremy Hellickson and traded for another, Clay Buchholz, to lead a still developing starting staff that will include Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola in 2017 — with promising arms like Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Nick Pivetta knocking on the door.

The rotation will certainly be respectable. It should keep the Phillies in a lot of games for six or so innings most nights.

It’s not difficult to envision the Phillies making the next step and improving on those 71 wins in 2017.

Manager Pete Mackanin believes the team can push .500.

And MacPhail?

“I've been around too long to get involved with that,” he said with a laugh. “I'm focused not so much on a number for next year. I'd like to see improvement. That can demonstrate itself in a lot of ways. So I'm looking for improvement — measurable, meaningful improvement. That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that's my goal for 2017.

“The fans and the media are pretty sophisticated. They're going to know improvement when they see it. I wouldn't put a number by it. Sometimes you can move the win number up but not really have a good year. We're trying to create a foundation for a baseball franchise. The more players that demonstrate on our current team that they belong and are part of the future and the more players that percolate up from our system that demonstrate they can be part of our future, that's a good year.”

Phillies management and ownership has repeatedly said that it will spend significant money on free agents once the team develops a solid core of players. Mackanin made that clear this winter when he said: “Over the last couple of years it’s been, as I call it, an experiment. We’re trying to find out who’s going to fit in and bide time until we’re going to spend a little bit of money and make our move.”

The Phillies spent over $65 million in acquiring (through trades and signings) and retaining veterans this winter. No, it wasn't the $125 million they spent on Cliff Lee a few winters ago, but those days will come again, possibly in two years when a mega free-agent class featuring Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hits the market.

“We could have had a year where we let our payroll slip way down,” MacPhail said. “Quite frankly our ownership doesn’t have a great appetite for that. One year with the worst record in baseball (2015) was enough for them.”

It’s not out of the question that the Phillies make a splash even before the free-agent class of 2018 hits the market. Some of the talent in that projected class could become available in trades as soon as this July.

The Phillies will have their antennae up for these types of deals and they’ve added enough young talent that they could swing one of them.

“We know that as teams fall out of contention, they are going to be looking at opportunities to get the maximum amount for their playing talent and often that comes as a result of a trade maybe a year or two prior to free agency,” MacPhail said. “Our goal is to be ready for that eventuality, identify those teams that might find themselves in that situation and be ready to move if the opportunity presents itself.”

MacPhail’s final comment on the eve of spring training 2017 captured the goal of the season:

“Let’s stay on track,” he said.

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

BOX SCORE

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Phillies showed a little power in their 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night.

Tommy Joseph provided some of it.

Vince Velasquez provided a lot of it.

Joseph crushed a two-run home run to left field and also lined a double off the center-field wall on his way to a four-hit game. The double came off his bat at 109 miles per hour. The homer was his third of the spring.

Meanwhile, Velasquez showed off his big fastball in striking out seven Blue Jays over five innings of work. Vinny Velo's final pitch of the night was a 97-mph dart past a swinging Jose Bautista.

"That pitch felt really good coming out of my hand," Velasquez said. "Sometimes my fastball slips a little bit and I yank it, but this one I got right behind and threw it right through the catcher."

Velasquez actually struck out the side in that fifth inning against three pretty good hitters in Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Bautista.

"That last inning, he really let it go," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Pitch economy remains an area that Velasquez needs to improve on. He threw 87 pitches. But he was pleased with the way he attacked hitters in that final inning of work.

"I didn't attack in one inning," he said. "But in that last inning, I stopped fiddling around and trusted my stuff. I need to do that the whole time."

Velasquez gave up just one run, a homer to Martin. He allowed five hits and walked two.

Velasquez had a busy night. He drove home a run with a ground out against Aaron Sanchez. He also walked against Sanchez and scored a run on a dash home from third base after Freddy Galvis got hung up between first and second. Galvis waved Velasquez home. After crossing home plate, Velasquez, rather humorously, almost ran into the netted backstop.

"I just had momentum. I got excited," he said. "As soon as I saw Tulo (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) make eye contact with Freddy, I booked it. He's going to think, 'Pitchers can't run,' so I showed off my athleticism."

After the outing, Velasquez pronounced himself ready for the regular season.

"I'm good to go," he said.

He made five Grapefruit League starts and gave up eight runs in 19 2/3 innings. He walked nine and struck out 25.

"It's been a strong, healthy, successful spring training," he said.

Velasquez will likely start the home opener on April 7. He will need to get some work in this weekend. The Phillies leave Florida on Friday. He could stay behind for a day and pitch at the minor-league complex if needed.

Offense clicks
The Phillies had 12 hits. They had 15 in Sunday's 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays again on Tuesday night. That game will be in Clearwater. Aaron Nola will start against Marco Estrada.

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pathway for Andrew Knapp to make the Phillies' opening day roster as the backup catcher was cleared way back in November when he was added to the 40-man roster.

The job all but became Knapp's on Monday when the team released two veteran catchers who were not on the 40-man roster. When Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were let go, Knapp became one of just two catchers in camp, the other being starter Cameron Rupp (see story).

So it's pretty obvious that the 25-year-old Knapp will open the season with the big club -- even though nothing will become official until rosters are filed with the commissioner's office this weekend.

"Obviously there are four or five days left," Knapp said. "I'm just going to keep trying to make good impressions and try to win a job. I'm keeping my head down, trying not to think about it too much."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round draft pick of Cal-Berkeley in 2013. He has never played in the majors.

"It would be a dream come true," he said. "Everyone hopes to get called up at some point but to make a team on opening day would be pretty special and it would be the best moment in my career so far."

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin acknowledged that Knapp would probably make the club.

Mackanin would like to have the rest of his roster in order over the next day or two.

"As soon as possible," he said. "Because the last four or five games I'd like to play almost as if it were a season -- using the bullpen that way, using the bench in a certain way, seeing what it looks like, our bench guys, all our hitters. We just don't want to make a bad decision so we're just going to string it out as long as we can."

Roster questions must still be answered on the bench and in the bullpen.

How does the bench shape up? Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp are set. The Phils are expected to go with a five-man bench so that leaves two openings. There are four players vying for those spots: Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin has impressed, but at 22 years old, he would benefit from playing every day at Triple A.

Mackanin praised Stassi's work on Monday. If Stassi makes the club, the final spot would come down to Coghlan and Nava.

"Stassi has obviously made a great impression, mainly because, not necessarily because of his results, but the fact that he had a lot of quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "It looks like he can handle making adjustments to the different pitchers and different situations. He seemed to handle left-handers well. He made a good impression, as has Coughlan. Nava has also been consistent throughout the spring."

Stassi, Coghlan and Nava are all non-roster players so the Phils would have to clear 40-man roster space to add any of them.

Two spots remain open in the bullpen. Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Alec Asher and Cesar Ramos are the candidates. All but Ramos is on the 40-man roster.

How will this all shake out?

More answers are probably coming Tuesday.