Phillies set stage for a spring-training closer competition

Phillies set stage for a spring-training closer competition

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies on Tuesday announced the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit and with that set the stage for some spring-training drama.

Who will be this team’s closer in 2017?

Benoit figures to be one of three candidates, joining Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez. Heck, you could even throw Edubray Ramos into the mix because he has the stuff to close, though his time might come further down the road when he's gained more experience.

“As we sit here today, I think we’ll probably enter spring training with a competition,” general manager Matt Klentak said of the closer role.

Phillies relievers had a 5.01 ERA last season, which ranked 28th in the majors. Klentak is trying to build a complete bullpen, not just find a closer. However, the closer role is the headline grabber in the bullpen and it’s difficult to settle upon other roles until a closer is anointed. So this will be one of the more interesting storylines in spring training.

Gomez fell into the job after others failed early last season and had a very nice five-month run. He recorded 37 saves before struggling badly down the stretch and giving way to Neris, whose fastball-splitter repertoire allowed him to strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season. 

Neris could be the favorite coming into camp with Gomez sliding back into a seventh-inning or even multi-innings role. Ramos and lefty specialist Pat Neshek, picked up in a trade with Houston earlier this offseason, will be in the mix to pitch in the late innings and it would not be surprising to see Benoit emerge as the eighth-inning guy. Of course, this is all subject to change. There’s a lot of offseason left and it would not be a shocker to see Klentak trade one of his relievers in the right deal. But for now, Klentak believes he has an improved bullpen.

“We feel better today than we did a few days ago,” he said. “We have several players in our bullpen that can compete for the ninth-[inning job], the eighth, the seventh, the sixth. We’ve made our bullpen better.”

The Phillies are Benoit’s seventh big-league team. The 39-year-old right-hander has been one of the game’s workhorse relievers for more than a decade, recording a 3.79 ERA in 712 games in his career. He saved 25 games for Detroit in 2013 and had a 2.81 ERA in 51 games as a setup man for Seattle and Toronto last season. He struggled with the Mariners but was brilliant after a trade to Toronto in July. With the Mariners, he had a 5.18 ERA and 1.438 WHIP in 26 games. He walked 5.5 batters per nine innings and struck out 10.4 per nine. With Toronto, his control improved — he walked 3.4 per nine — and so did his ERA. He had an 0.38 ERA in 25 games with the Jays, allowing just one run in 23 2/3 innings.

“He really was two different guys,” Klentak acknowledged. “But as we drilled down into the data — strikeout rates, walk rates, batted-ball tendencies — there are some underlying things that he’s always done in his career that we think make him a pretty good candidate to have another good year. This guy has been really consistent for the better part of a decade.”

Over the last seven seasons, Benoit has posted a 0.98 WHIP. That ranks third among major-league relievers during that span behind only Kenley Jansen (0.89) and Craig Kimbrel (0.98).

Benoit will make $7.5 million in 2016. The Phillies are still a rebuilding club and they are not expected to contend in 2017. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see them turn Benoit into a prospect through a trade in July. This is contingent on Benoit pitching well, of course.

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

BOX SCORE

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Phillies showed a little power in their 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night.

Tommy Joseph provided some of it.

Vince Velasquez provided a lot of it.

Joseph crushed a two-run home run to left field and also lined a double off the center-field wall on his way to a four-hit game. The double came off his bat at 109 miles per hour. The homer was his third of the spring.

Meanwhile, Velasquez showed off his big fastball in striking out seven Blue Jays over five innings of work. Vinny Velo's final pitch of the night was a 97-mph dart past a swinging Jose Bautista.

"That pitch felt really good coming out of my hand," Velasquez said. "Sometimes my fastball slips a little bit and I yank it, but this one I got right behind and threw it right through the catcher."

Velasquez actually struck out the side in that fifth inning against three pretty good hitters in Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Bautista.

"That last inning, he really let it go," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Pitch economy remains an area that Velasquez needs to improve on. He threw 87 pitches. But he was pleased with the way he attacked hitters in that final inning of work.

"I didn't attack in one inning," he said. "But in that last inning, I stopped fiddling around and trusted my stuff. I need to do that the whole time."

Velasquez gave up just one run, a homer to Martin. He allowed five hits and walked two.

Velasquez had a busy night. He drove home a run with a ground out against Aaron Sanchez. He also walked against Sanchez and scored a run on a dash home from third base after Freddy Galvis got hung up between first and second. Galvis waved Velasquez home. After crossing home plate, Velasquez, rather humorously, almost ran into the netted backstop.

"I just had momentum. I got excited," he said. "As soon as I saw Tulo (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) make eye contact with Freddy, I booked it. He's going to think, 'Pitchers can't run,' so I showed off my athleticism."

After the outing, Velasquez pronounced himself ready for the regular season.

"I'm good to go," he said.

He made five Grapefruit League starts and gave up eight runs in 19 2/3 innings. He walked nine and struck out 25.

"It's been a strong, healthy, successful spring training," he said.

Velasquez will likely start the home opener on April 7. He will need to get some work in this weekend. The Phillies leave Florida on Friday. He could stay behind for a day and pitch at the minor-league complex if needed.

Offense clicks
The Phillies had 12 hits. They had 15 in Sunday's 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays again on Tuesday night. That game will be in Clearwater. Aaron Nola will start against Marco Estrada.

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pathway for Andrew Knapp to make the Phillies' opening day roster as the backup catcher was cleared way back in November when he was added to the 40-man roster.

The job all but became Knapp's on Monday when the team released two veteran catchers who were not on the 40-man roster. When Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were let go, Knapp became one of just two catchers in camp, the other being starter Cameron Rupp (see story).

So it's pretty obvious that the 25-year-old Knapp will open the season with the big club -- even though nothing will become official until rosters are filed with the commissioner's office this weekend.

"Obviously there are four or five days left," Knapp said. "I'm just going to keep trying to make good impressions and try to win a job. I'm keeping my head down, trying not to think about it too much."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round draft pick of Cal-Berkeley in 2013. He has never played in the majors.

"It would be a dream come true," he said. "Everyone hopes to get called up at some point but to make a team on opening day would be pretty special and it would be the best moment in my career so far."

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin acknowledged that Knapp would probably make the club.

Mackanin would like to have the rest of his roster in order over the next day or two.

"As soon as possible," he said. "Because the last four or five games I'd like to play almost as if it were a season -- using the bullpen that way, using the bench in a certain way, seeing what it looks like, our bench guys, all our hitters. We just don't want to make a bad decision so we're just going to string it out as long as we can."

Roster questions must still be answered on the bench and in the bullpen.

How does the bench shape up? Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp are set. The Phils are expected to go with a five-man bench so that leaves two openings. There are four players vying for those spots: Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin has impressed, but at 22 years old, he would benefit from playing every day at Triple A.

Mackanin praised Stassi's work on Monday. If Stassi makes the club, the final spot would come down to Coghlan and Nava.

"Stassi has obviously made a great impression, mainly because, not necessarily because of his results, but the fact that he had a lot of quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "It looks like he can handle making adjustments to the different pitchers and different situations. He seemed to handle left-handers well. He made a good impression, as has Coughlan. Nava has also been consistent throughout the spring."

Stassi, Coghlan and Nava are all non-roster players so the Phils would have to clear 40-man roster space to add any of them.

Two spots remain open in the bullpen. Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Alec Asher and Cesar Ramos are the candidates. All but Ramos is on the 40-man roster.

How will this all shake out?

More answers are probably coming Tuesday.