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.

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Diamondbacks 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Diamondbacks 1

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX — Mark Leiter Jr.'s first big-league start was a memorable one. The 26-year-old right-hander from Tom's River, New Jersey, pitched six shutout innings to lead the Phillies to a 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night.

The win was the Phillies' second in a row and just their third in the last 16 games. It came against an Arizona club that entered the day in second place in the NL West. The D-backs are 46-28 and have the best home offense in the majors, averaging 6.48 runs per game in their ballpark.

But Leiter, called up to replace injured Jerad Eickhoff, held off that lineup for his first big-league win. He also had his first big-league hit.

The Phillies are 24-48, worst in the majors.

Starting pitching report
Leiter held one of baseball's best offenses scoreless for six innings. He gave up three hits, walked just one and struck out five. The right-hander had one trouble spot. It came in the fourth when he allowed a one-out double to David Peralta then walked Paul Goldschmidt to put runners on first and second. Leiter then retired Jake Lamb and Chris Owings to get out of the inning. He punched his glove with excitement as he left the field. Leiter retired the final six batters he faced and left with a 1-0 lead.

Arizona's Patrick Corbin pitched one-run ball over 6 2/3 innings.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to protect a one-run lead. Neshek, the subject of some controversy in recent days (see story), has allowed just two runs in 29 2/3 innings this season.

Joaquin Benoit allowed a run in the eighth, but got the final two outs with the tying run at third.

Hector Neris pitched a scoreless ninth inning.

Arizona's bullpen gave up five runs in the final two innings.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis tripled with one out in the first inning and scored on a groundout.

Maikel Franco put the Phils up, 2-0, on a solo homer in the top of the eighth. He got the green light on 3-0 and hammered a liner over the right-field wall.

The Phillies were clinging to a 2-1 lead when they erupted for four runs in the top of the ninth, highlighted by Tommy Joseph's two-run homer. Cameron Rupp and Howie Kendrick (pinch-hitter) also had important hits in the ninth.

The D-backs got on the board on an infield single by Rey Fuentes and a triple by Daniel Descalso in the eighth.

In the field
Odubel Herrera had an adventurous night in center field. He misplayed a ball into a double in the third inning then promptly gunned down the runner at third as he tried to advance on a fly ball.

Galvis made a tremendous snag on a hard liner by Peralta for the second out of the eighth inning. Galvis made the play up on the grass with the potential tying run on third.

Health check
Kendrick was scratched from the starting lineup with left hamstring tightness. Andres Blanco started at second base. Kendrick had a pinch-hit double in the ninth.

Up next
The series continues Saturday night with Ben Lively (1-1, 3.33) pitching against Arizona lefty Robbie Ray (7-3, 2.87).

For Pat Neshek and Pete Mackanin, goal is same: Contribute without risking injury

For Pat Neshek and Pete Mackanin, goal is same: Contribute without risking injury

PHOENIX -- Pete Mackanin and Pat Neshek talked on Friday.

"We're good," Mackanin said. "If there was some miscommunication, I'll put it on me."

"Yeah," Neshek confirmed. "I think it's just miscommunication. There's really no story. We laughed about it. We were like, 'This is kind of a stupid issue.' There's really nothing."

A mini-drama evolved over Neshek's availability to pitch the last few days. On Wednesday, the right-handed reliever was a no-go in a close game. Afterward Mackanin said he checked in with Neshek before the game and the pitcher had indicated he was sore. Neshek took some issue with that, saying he was told by Mackanin that he was getting a day off even before his condition was discussed.

In Thursday's 5-1 win over St. Louis, Neshek got two outs on five pitches in the eighth inning. It was his seventh appearance in 11 games. After the game, reporters asked Mackanin if he considered having Neshek, the team's best reliever, stay on for the ninth inning. Mackanin said he had but Neshek told him after the inning that he'd had enough. After the game, Neshek said the conversation never occurred, which was technically true because he had spoken to pitching coach Bob McClure, not Mackanin.

While the events of the last few days have been kind of silly, they have underscored something everyone already knew: The Phillies are going to be careful with Neshek and watch his workload closely. And Neshek is going to do the same. As he said Friday, he's a Tommy John surgery survivor and will protect himself.

Entering Friday, Neshek had allowed just 18 hits and two runs in 28 2/3 innings, many in high-leverage situations. That excellent work could make him an attractive trade chip for the Phillies in the coming weeks. This has put Mackanin on a tightrope as he looks to get contributions from Neshek without jeopardizing the 36-year-old pitcher's health and trade value.

Does that make Neshek just a one-inning reliever?

"I wouldn’t say he is," Mackanin said. "You know what? Let’s put it this way: I don’t want to upset or lose something that’s really working for us. If I push him, I’d hate for him to come up with something wrong with his arm. Last year, I don’t think he pitched a lot of full innings. He was pretty much a situational right-hander. I’m more cautious with him than he would be with himself."

Neshek pitched just 47 innings with Houston last year, mostly in medium- and low-leverage situations. The Astros were a contending team with a good bullpen. These Phillies are the worst team in the majors with a poor bullpen. Because of that, Neshek has been asked to pitch in more high-leverage situations and there could be a temptation to overextend him, to ask him to go more than an inning.

"I could do that," Neshek said Friday.

"I don't know about tonight," he added with a laugh.

"When you have a good bullpen, you usually don't need guys to do that kind of stuff," Neshek added. "I mean, a lot of guys, you know, kind of have been struggling here, so you're going to have to pick it up if that’s the case. But I mean, when you have a bullpen that's fully functional you'll never see that. In Houston we never had that problem, so I never did that. In St. Louis, a couple times we had that problem. But, I mean when you’re pitching middle relief you'll see a lot of 1 1/3 and stuff like that. … It's not an issue, man. If it's the playoffs, yeah, you're going out two innings. When you're down 30 games in the standings and I'm tired. … Yeah, I've been through Tommy John surgery. It's not any fun and I don't ever want to have to go through that again, so I'm going to protect myself."