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.

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.