Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

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The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."