Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Unlike some of his fellow Phillies prospects, Nick Williams did not play winter ball this year.

The 2016 season was his first in the organization and when it was over …

“I needed to get away, you know, breathe and stop worrying about everything,” the 23-year-old outfielder said in a soul-baring interview Tuesday at Phillies camp.

Williams was one of the big guns, a must-have hitter, in the July 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers.

The Phillies got four other prospects in the deal, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson.

They all played in the majors with the Phillies last year.

Williams did not.

He did not earn a look in the majors because, well, he could not conquer the opponent in Triple A.

That opponent was himself.

“This is a humbling game,” Williams said. “You need to respect it and go out and have fun.

“Last season I feel like I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun because I was thinking, ‘Big leagues, big leagues, big leagues.’ I was taking a lot of the fun away from it because I was putting too much pressure on myself. My approach was, ‘With this pitch, I can get to the big leagues,’ and that’s totally wrong.”

The pressure that Williams put on himself hampered his performance in the final weeks of the season. Over his final 31 games, he hit just .161 with a .180 on-base percentage. He struck out 45 times over that span and walked just once as his on-base percentage for the season tumbled to .287.

“I think it was all because I was trying too hard,” Williams said. “I felt like all my troubles went into the same thing and I became overaggressive.”

Williams used the offseason as a time to put some physical strength on his 6-3, 200-pound frame, reflect on his 2016 season and contemplate how he can get better in 2017. During his time of reflection, he came to conclusion that his problems in 2016 were self-inflicted. That includes the two times he was benched for not hustling.

“All of the guys that I was traded with ended up in the big leagues except me,” Williams offered. “But I realize that they were ready and I wasn’t.

“Last year was a huge learning experience for me — new organization, going to Triple A — and I did some dumb things, some immature things.

“I got benched for not running out a ball. I look back and I might have thought it was harsh, but it was my fault. I should have run the ball out. That’s what I call not respecting the game. It sucked, but I had to take the punishment. I did it. It was my fault.

“That’s why I think it was good for me to just go home and breathe. I had a lot of time to think about all the things I did right and all the things I did wrong and I know what I need to improve on.”

Despite Williams’ poor finish last year, the Phillies remain high on his potential and still believe he can be an impact bat in the majors. He did hit .303 with a .354 on-base percentage, 17 homers, 55 RBIs and a .845 OPS as a 21-year-old in Double A in 2015. He did hit .258 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs as a 22-year-old first-time Triple A player in 2016.

“On July 29, Nick was hitting about .290 with a .320 on-base and a .460 slugging percentage as a 22-year-old in Triple A,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If the season had ended right there, Nick Williams would be all over Top 100 prospects lists, all over the Internet and, frankly, he may have already reached the big leagues.

“That doesn’t mean that August didn’t happen, because it did — he really struggled in August. But what this kid did for the first four months of the minor-league season last year was very impressive, particularly given his age and where he was doing it.

“Obviously he needs to prove that what happened in August is not a trend and get back to doing what he did for the first four months, but this is a talented kid on both sides of the ball. He can run, he can throw, he can hit with power, he will need to, hopefully, improve his walk rate and his plate discipline, but we’re still very keen on his future. I think he’s got a bright future.”

Like many others in camp, Williams is a bit of a project for new hitting coach Matt Stairs. One of Stairs’ goals is to improve the team’s on-base percentage by stressing the concept of having a plan at the plate and not giving away at-bats.

“I gave away a ton of at-bats last year by being overaggressive,” Williams said.

A year ago, there was legitimate hope within the organization that Williams might be ready to hold down a corner outfield job by the start of this season. That has not happened and the team has had to plug those spots with veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Both are on short-term contracts, so a spot might open right back up for Williams in April 2018.

It’s up to him to prove he’s ready by putting together a consistent and productive season at Triple A.

And armed with the lessons he learned about himself last season, he might just do that.

“I want to get to the big leagues as fast as I can,” Williams said. “But I know I need to be a complete player. I believe I can be that consistent player, be a good all-around player and a good teammate, but I know I have to take it one day at a time.

“What can I do today? That’s got to be my approach.”

Instant Replay: Reds 5, Phillies 2

Instant Replay: Reds 5, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola struggled and the Phillies' offense slumbered in a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies had just one hit through eight innings and three overall in losing for the 21st time in the last 26 games. They scored both of their runs in the ninth inning.

Over their last six games, five of which have been losses, the Phillies have been held to three hits four times.

The Phillies have scored just nine runs in their last six games.

Nola came off the disabled list and pitched seven innings of one-run ball Sunday in Pittsburgh. He failed to build on that outing against a Cincinnati club that entered the game with nine losses in its previous 12 games.

Starting pitching report
Nola, who entered the game having given up just one home run in 23 innings this season, gave up a pair of long balls in the first two innings as the Reds jumped out to a 3-0 lead. In all, the right-hander gave up six hits and five runs over six innings.

Nola is 2-2 with a 4.34 ERA in five starts.

Cincinnati right-hander Tim Adleman's 20th big-league start was the best of his career. The right-hander pitched eight shutout innings and allowed just four baserunners on one hit, two walks and a hit batsman. He struck out four.

Adleman entered the game with a 6.19 ERA this season.

Bullpen report
Mark Leiter Jr. pitched two scoreless innings and struck out three for the Phillies.

Asher Wojciechowski lost the shutout in the ninth. Raisel Iglesias came on for the final two outs. He struck out Maikel Franco, the potential tying run, hacking wildly at a full-count breaking ball to end the game.

At the plate
Andres Blanco, the Phillies' No. 2 hitter, singled in the first inning. The Phillies did not have another hit until there was one out in the ninth.

Aaron Altherr doubled in the ninth to break up the Reds' shutout bid.

Odubel Herrera batted leadoff and ran his slump to 0 for 13 before doubling in the ninth. He hit a ball hard earlier in the game, too, but Cincinnati leftfielder Adam Duvall made a nice diving catch.

For Cincinnati, Duvall and Scott Schebler took Nola deep. Jose Peraza had a two-run single against Nola in the sixth inning. He has a 12-game hitting streak.

In the field
Cincinnati catcher Devin Mesoraco made a terrific play in starting a 2-4-3 double play to end the seventh inning.

Minor matters
Second base prospect Jesmuel Valentin had season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in Philadelphia on Friday. Valentin, who was playing at Triple A Lehigh Valley, is looking at a recovery time of four to five months. He should be ready to play winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Valentin went down to the final days of camp in a bid to make the Phillies' opening day roster in spring training (see story).

Up next
The series continues in a 4:05 p.m. start Saturday. Jerad Eickhoff (0-5, 4.70) pitches against Bronson Arroyo (3-4, 6.75).

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

After an 0-for-5 day at the plate, Odubel Herrera isn't heading to the bench a day later.

He's leading off. 

Pete Mackanin chose to move the slumping centerfielder atop the lineup card for Friday's series opener against the Reds despite Herrera's striking out in all five plate appearances Thursday.

"I think he's a .290-plus hitter as a leadoff man and I'm not going to sit him," Mackanin said pregame. "He needs to battle his way out. You figure you're the leadoff hitter once a game. After that, it's wide open."

While he hasn't batted leadoff this season, Herrera spent the majority of his time in that spot last season. In 76 games there, he batted .285 with a .359 OBP and .417 slugging percentage. 

The leadoff hitter this season has been Cesar Hernandez, who has a day off with a groin pull he's dealt with the last 10 days. Herrera primarily has been the No. 3 hitter this season and his average is down to .226 with 49 strikeouts to just 11 walks. 

Mackanin hopes the leadoff role can help change Herrera's approach at the plate.

"He was drawing a lot of walks at leadoff, so whether he has that mindset or not, I'm not sure," the manager said. "I just want to get him as many at-bats as possible. We need to get him going. We need him and [Maikel] Franco to get going."

May specifically has been tough on Herrera. He has four hits in his last 36 at-bats and has seven strikeouts in his last two games. He has just seven hits in 22 games this month. 

"I think he's at the point where he's grinding and sometimes when you grind, sometimes there's that feeling where you get lost," Mackanin said. "I've been in situations as a hitter where I've gone up to the plate saying, 'I don't care where it is. I'm going up there and just hacking.' Because you start thinking and that's not working.

"And you look for a pitch and then all of a sudden you say I'm going to take a pitch to get a look at and it's strike one. Then he throws you a nasty slider and that's strike two and your plan is out the window. So I've gone up to the plate myself saying, 'I'm just looking down the middle and swinging. I'm not thinking.'"

When asked, Mackanin said the team had not discussed demoting Herrera or Franco to the minors to take pressure off the duo.

While Herrera tries to hit his way back into a groove, Howie Kendrick is in the midst of working his way back to the majors. He was hit by pitch twice in a rehab appearance Thursday but is back in the lineup Friday in left field. 

Mackanin said Kendrick needed four days minimum in his rehab assignment and will therefore play Friday and Saturday before the team sees how he feels.

The manager also said the team would give more playing time to backup catcher Andrew Knapp. He started consecutive games for the first time on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

"I'm going to try and see him as much as possible and keep him as sharp as possible instead of once a week," Mackanin said. "That's tough to hit, once a week. It's tough to hit twice a week if you don't hit back-to-back. There's no ulterior motive."