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.”

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

Phillies 6, Yankees 5: Maikel Franco, Rhys Hoskins, Brock Stassi shine with bats

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin assembled what will probably end up being his opening day lineup for Saturday’s spring home opener against the Yankees.

He liked what he saw.

Especially from cleanup man Maikel Franco.

Franco’s big challenge in becoming a more complete player is to improve his selectivity at the plate. The 24-year-old third baseman looked pretty good in that area in three at-bats.

Franco fell behind 0-2 in his first at-bat then battled back to a full count before popping out in the second inning.

He smacked a homer to left on a 2-2 slider in the fourth and then in the sixth, he stroked a first-pitch gapper to left-center that went for an inside-the-park homer. The ball got stuck under the padding on the outfield wall and the umpire did not rule it a ground-rule double.

“Hey, you see my speed?” the not-so-fleet-footed Franco said with a laugh after coming out of the game. “It’s like Cesar’s (Hernandez) speed.”

Mackanin liked the totality of Franco’s at-bats, not just the results.

“He had two long, deep-count at-bats,” Mackanin said. “He worked the count deep and that was good to see.”

There are many miles to go before opening day, and Franco still has many miles to cover before he’s the complete player he wants to be and the selective hitter the front office wants to build around.

Franco vowed to keep working on it under new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

“He told me my focus should be when I stay to the middle of the field, I'll have a lot of success,” Franco said. “I am trying to work on it and put focus on it. I talked to (Howie) Kendrick about hitting and he's helped me. I'm going to stay on it every single day. I'm trying to do my job, trying to do the best I can.

“When I stay in the middle, when I try to hit the ball up the middle, something is going to happen. That's what I want to do, what I want to keep doing.”

Franco hit .255 with 25 homers and 88 RBIs last season, but his on-base percentage was just .306.

He was asked whether he had any personal goals for the season.

“The first thing is to try to be healthy,” he said. “I just want to play in 162 games. Other than that, I'll just do everything I can do.

“Every single day I want to do my best and not try to force the situation. I think I can do better than last year. This year should be very good and much better than last year.”

The game 
The Phillies won it, 6-5, on a walk-off RBI single by Brock Stassi in the bottom of the ninth inning. The hit scored Rhys Hoskins, who had doubled. Hoskins drove a homer to deep center earlier in the game.

Hoskins, who turns 24 in March, has 55 homers and 206 RBIs the last two seasons. He will move to Triple A this season and play first base.

Stassi is a candidate to win a job on the bench (see story). He hasn’t hurt himself in the first two games. He homered Friday and had the game-winning hit Saturday.

“I’m feeling pretty good early on,” he said. “Gotta keep it going.”

Pitching in
Adam Morgan pitched two scoreless innings. Prospect Ricardo Pinto pitched a scoreless inning. It’s not out of the question that he transitions to the bullpen at some point this season.

Mark Appel showed his big stuff with three strikeouts in two innings of work, but his control problems also surfaced as he threw a wild pitch that resulted in two runs.

Up next
Probable opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson makes his spring debut Sunday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

Here is the Phillies’ posted lineup for that game:

1. Cameron Perkins CF
2. J.P. Crawford SS
3. Daniel Nava LF
4. Cameron Rupp DH 
5. Andres Blanco 2B
6. Dylan Cozens RF
7. Ryan Hanigan C
8. Brock Stassi 1B
9. Taylor Featherston 3B

Right-hander Joe Biagini will start for Toronto.

Jerad Eickhoff will start for the Phillies against Tampa Bay on Monday. Clay Buchholz will start against Baltimore on Tuesday. Both of those games are in Clearwater.