Phillies-Reds 5 things: Deeper Phils lineup has soft test to open 2017

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Deeper Phils lineup has soft test to open 2017

Phillies (0-0) at Reds (0-0)
4:10 p.m. on CSN (and streaming live on CSNPhilly.com)

After 37 exhibition games in a spring training that seemed like it would never end, the Phillies are at Great American Ballpark Monday and this one counts.

The Phils open in Cincinnati for the second straight season against a Reds team that lost 94 games last year and could do the same again in 2017.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have their new-look lineup after finishing last season as the majors' worst offensive team. 

Let's take a look at the season opener, Game 1 of 162:

1. Deeper lineup
Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were not massive additions, but they're competent offensive players who add a few elements the 2016 Phillies lacked.

Kendrick is coming off a down season in L.A. He hit .255/.326/.366 in 543 plate appearances, numbers substantially worse than what he put up the previous 10 seasons. Over the previous decade, Kendrick hit .293/.333/.423.

If he's the 2006-15 Howie Kendrick, he'll improve the top of the Phillies' order by being a traditional two-hole hitter. Kendrick can do the little, cliche but valuable things like put the ball in play with a man in scoring position and less than two outs, or go the other way when the situation calls for it. He can also hit -- and if he does, Phillies fans are going to fall in love with that batting stance.

Saunders comes in to add protection in the middle of the order and give the Phillies a left-handed bat with pop to split up the righties. He figures to slot in fifth or sixth on any given night.

The Saunders signing, like the trade for Kendrick, was an extremely low risk with a chance for a decent reward. Saunders hit 24 homers, 32 doubles and three triples last season, even though he slumped during the second half and wasn't good with runners in scoring position. Even if Saunders comes here and has another below-average year with RISP, those extra-base hits still play.

The Phillies scored 610 runs last season, 39 fewer than any other team. That's 3.77 per game. 

The major-league team smack-dab in the middle last year scored 724. For the Phillies to go from worst to even middle of the pack, they'd have to score about 115 more runs -- or about five more per week.

2. Year 3 for Herrera

Odubel Herrera was rewarded by the Phillies in December with a five-year, $30.5 million contract that buys out all three of his arbitration years and his first would-be year of free agency.

That deal was a major sign of confidence for a player the Rangers had given away just two years earlier, and the Phillies feel good about it because it's team friendly if Herrera maintains his current level.

In 1,193 plate appearances his first two seasons, Herrera hit .291 with a .353 on-base percentage. He stole 25 bases and hit 15 home runs last season after stealing 16 and hitting eight as a rookie. His OBP was 17 points higher, largely because of an impressively patient month of April when Herrera walked 23 times and had a .462 OBP.

He's legitimately good. Pete Mackanin thinks Herrera has batting-title potential and he's not wrong -- Herrera has speed, he sprays the ball all over the place, beats out infield hits, and most of the time he can control an at-bat and get himself into a favorable count.

And he has 20-homer potential. Of the 15 he hit last season, more than a few were no-doubters. 

3. Year 3 for Franco
Herrera is looking to kick things up a notch. Franco has even more to prove. 

The Phillies' 24-year-old third baseman entered last season with high and perhaps unfair expectations. He had hit .280 with a .810 OPS, 14 homers, 22 doubles and 50 RBIs in 80 games in 2015. The ensuing spring, Mackanin, Mike Schmidt, and others around the Phillies gushed about him. 

Franco hit bombs in Clearwater, and he started out 2016 hot, but by May 1 he was hitting .258 with a .310 on-base percentage and he hit almost exactly that the next 129 games.

That's not good enough, even if Franco hit 25 homers and drove in 88. The Phillies are looking for him to become a complete hitter, a more selective and disciplined hitter who isn't pull-pull-pull, all-or-nothing.

4. Hellickson vs. Feldman
Jeremy Hellickson gets the opening day nod in Cincy for the Phillies for the second year in a row. Last year, he was rock solid in the opener, allowing an unearned run on three hits over six innings with no walks and six strikeouts.

In many ways, it was a sign of things to come for Hellickson. He was efficient, he commanded the strike zone, fooled hitters with changeups and allowed fewer hits than innings pitched.

That was the first of 16 starts in which Hellickson allowed two runs or less. The Phillies won 13 of them. With a better offense and a deeper bullpen that now includes Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek in addition to Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, they should have a similar winning percentage if Hellickson can replicate that consistency.

This is a good matchup for Hellickson against a bad Reds team that returns Joey Votto (.434 OBP in 2017), Adam Duvall (33 HR) and Billy Hamilton (171 steals last three seasons, career .297 OBP) but has little else.

Hellickson should be able to take advantage of guys like Jose Peraza, Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler and Zack Cozart with his veteran repertoire that includes an elite changeup. Hellickson's opponents hit .168 last season against his changeup, the second-best mark in the National League behind only Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs (.133).

The Reds, who have probably the worst rotation in the majors, are going with 34-year-old right-hander Scott Feldman. He's a sinker-cutter-curveball guy who rarely tops 91 mph. 

Feldman signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Astros before 2014 and ended up going 18-20 with a 3.64 ERA there. He spent most of last season as a reliever.

Feldman is your typical fifth starter, a pitcher with a 4.40 career ERA who doesn't strike many hitters out (5.6 per nine) and allows about a .270 batting average and a homer per game.

Kendrick has hit Feldman well, going 12 for 28 with a double and a homer. Saunders is 3 for 14 with a homer, seven RBIs and seven strikeouts. The only other Phillies hitter to face him is Daniel Nava, who's 6 for 16 with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• The forecast calls for rain. A lot of rain. As of Sunday night, the rain was supposed to start pretty heavy around 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., slow down a bit and then pick back up around 8 p.m. This one might not get played.

• Jim Salisbury, Marshall Harris and I made a bunch of off-beat projections for the Phillies' season. Check it out here.

• Jeanmar Gomez enters the season as the Phillies' closer but who knows who's filling that role by mid-May. Gomez, never a closer before 2016, had a 2.97 ERA and 34 saves in 38 chances entering last September. Then he gave up 17 earned in eight innings in the final month and his ERA ballooned to 4.85. 

Mackanin is going with Gomez for now because he did an admirable job for most of the season, and because it would be tough to go back to Gomez as closer if he picked someone else out camp and that guy failed.

But with Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, the Phillies have a pretty good back-end of their bullpen, three different pitchers who offer three different looks. Neris has the big fastball-elite splitter combo, Benoit has a very good fastball and changeup still, and Neshek has one of the funkiest right-handed deliveries in baseball.

• Joey Votto is ridiculous. Do you realize that last year from June 1-on, he hit .378 with a .482 on-base percentage? That's Barry Bonds-like, and it was a sample of 465 plate appearances. Votto's a perennial MVP candidate trapped on a horrible team, but it's tough to feel bad for a guy who will have made more than $273 million by the time his contract expires.

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies (15-28) vs. Rockies (30-17)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' nightmarish skid continued Tuesday as they dropped a second straight game to a Rockies rookie starting pitcher.

They've been outscored 16-3 in the first two games of this four-game series against a Colorado club that has the best record in the NL and more road wins (17) than the Phillies have total wins.

Let's take a look at Game 3:

1. Hellickson good to go
The Phillies got a scare last Friday night when Jeremy Hellickson hurt his lower back during his seventh-inning at-bat, but they avoided disaster when it was diagnosed as mere stiffness as opposed to something more serious like a strained oblique.

Hellickson said that night and again the next morning that he felt fine and wouldn't miss a start. The Phillies are thankful for that given the inefficiencies of their rotation, which has just 16 quality starts in 43 games, third-fewest in the majors.

Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) was locked in last weekend against a weak Pirates lineup but this is much more of a challenge. Don't expect him to set down 16 of 17 batters the way he did in Pittsburgh.

The Phillies are 8-1 when Hellickson pitches this season and 7-27 when anyone else does. The only loss in a Hellickson start came against the Cubs on May 2, the first of a three-start skid in which Hellickson allowed 12 runs in 13⅔ innings. Of those 12 runs, 11 scored via home runs. He allowed seven homers in those three starts after giving up just two in his first five.

The Rockies present a lot of challenges and one of them is that they've been the second-best team in the majors this season against the changeup, which is Hellickson's go-to pitch. Only the Marlins (.312) have a higher batting average vs. changeups than the Rockies (.286).

(For reference, the Phillies are 28th in baseball against changeups with a .201 batting average.)

Then again, not all changeups are the same, and Hellickson did limit the Marlins to one run on seven hits over six innings when he faced them April 27.

Current Rockies are just 10 for 56 (.179) off Hellickson. Ian Desmond has the only homer (2 for 5, HR, double).

2. Blackmon the Destroyer
Charlie Blackmon, good lord.

The guy has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. Over that span — Aug. 12, 2016 through last night — Blackmon has more homers at CBP than any Phillie.

Think about how ridiculous that is. Aaron Altherr and Ryan Howard are next with six homers in 15 and 17 games, respectively. Then comes Freddy Galvis with five in 26 games.

3. Fading fast
At 15-28, the Phillies are on pace to finish 57-105. They've dropped 19 of 23 and now have the second-worst record in the majors, ahead of only the 16-31 Padres.

The offense has been completely devoid of life lately. It's not like these guys are going out and playing with zero energy, but when you don't hit, it's always going to seem like that.

Since May 12, the Phillies are 2-9. They've hit .225/.273/.345 as a team for the second-worst OBP and OPS, ahead of only the Mariners.

They've been middle of the pack with runners in scoring position over that span, but they have just 89 plate appearances with RISP, which is seventh-fewest in baseball.

A lot of this can be attributed to the top of the order. Cesar Hernandez is 9 for 54 (.167) with no extra-base hits over his last 14 games. And that vaunted 1-2 in the Phillies' order — a duo which hit close to .350 in April — is down to .282.

4. Scouting Chatwood
The Phillies face 27-year-old right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6, 5.09).

He was the Rockies' best starting pitcher last season when he went 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA in 158 innings. He walked 70 and those control issues have continued this season — 27 walks in 53 innings.

He's been especially wild lately, walking 19 in 21⅔ innings this month. 

Chatwood averages 95 mph with his fastball and sinker and 88-90 with his slider and changeup. He also throws a high-70s curveball.

He faced the Phillies twice last year and went 0-2, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) in nine innings. Interestingly, though, no active Phillie has an extra-base hit against him.

Hopefully, the Phils will be able to make Chatwood work tonight and take advantage of their opportunities with men on base. They stranded the bases loaded three times last night.

5. Franco sits again
Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp are sitting again. Pete Mackanin wants the extremely inconsistent, wild-swinging Franco to sit back and watch for a few days to regroup. He also wants to see some more of Andrew Knapp after a rough defensive week from Cameron Rupp.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Andres Blanco, 3B
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Andrew Knapp, C
8. Michael Saunders, RF
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P