In second rehab game, Utley feels '100 percent'

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In second rehab game, Utley feels '100 percent'

READING, Pa. — Headed into Thursday night’s contest at First Energy Stadium, Chase Utley had appeared in just four previous games for the Reading Fightin’ Phillies.

For a homegrown player like Utley, who spent parts of three seasons at Triple A, this fact is a little quirk in his development, though it doesn’t seem to have hindered Utley’s career in baseball. Even that 2002 season spent playing third base in Triple A instead of playing second base at Double A didn’t slow him down.

“It went by pretty fast at the time. I knew no different,” Utley said of those halcyon days. “I enjoyed my time at Scranton and I missed out in playing [in Reading] and it seems like they have a great fan base. It’s a lot of fun playing here, but that was the road they wanted me to take.”

Meanwhile, Utley’s latest incarnation with Reading doesn’t appear as if it is going to last too long, either. Though he went 0 for 5 on Thursday night following an 0-for-4 for Reading on Wednesday in his first rehab games since suffering a strained oblique muscle on May 21, Utley likely will rejoin the Phillies for this weekend’s series against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think it’s a possibility,” Utley said when asked if he will be joining the Phillies for Friday’s series opener against the Mets. “I have to talk with [general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel] to see what we all want to do.”

Though Utley didn’t get any hits in his rehab outings for Reading, that’s kind of beside the point. With an oblique injury, Utley simply wanted to give it a vigorous test to see how he stood up to the wear and tear of a ballgame, and he definitely got that the last two nights in Reading.

Utley played all nine innings where he grounded out twice, flied out twice and struck out with the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning on a tricky off-speed pitch from Portland Sea Dogs starter Keith Couch.

Utley also faced a lefty reliever as well as Portland’s closer in the ninth.

More important to Utley, he was tested in the field. In the fourth inning, Utley had to leap in order to snare a would-be line drive base hit. He also made the turn on a 6-4-3 double play and slapped a tag on a runner at the end of a peculiar, 7-6-4 double play/sacrifice fly.

After the game, Utley was pleased that he was able to play his normal game with nothing to worry about.

“I jumped for a ball that possibly could have given me trouble and there was no problem whatsoever,” Utley said of his leaping catch. “I got to face a lefty, which was nice. I got five at-bats and saw some pitches and it went pretty well.”

Utley didn’t come out and declare himself ready to jump back into the Phillies’ lineup, but he certainly seemed to be leaning that way.

“I think everything is good,” Utley said. “I didn’t get any hits, but the main goal was to feel comfortable out there and I felt 100 percent.”

And Utley got to spend a couple of days in Reading, Pa., too. Counting a rehab assignment in 2007, Utley is 1 for 19 with three strikeouts in five career games for Reading. Incidentally, during that rehab assignment in 2007, Utley and Reading manager Dusty Wathan were teammates.

This time around, Utley, 34, was the big-league veteran offering advice to the kids.

“I don’t feel that old, but these guys are a lot younger than I am,” Utley said. “It’s good to talk with them. They all seem to work hard, which is No. 1 in my book.”

This time Utley played alongside two of the Phillies’ top prospects in lefty starting pitcher Jesse Biddle and third baseman Maikel Franco.

Biddle, the top-rated prospect in the system, had a rough outing on Thursday. In six innings, the lefty allowed four earned runs on six hits and six walks. Though he struck out five, Biddle’s command was troublesome. Of his 104 pitches, Biddle threw 52 strikes and 52 balls.

Not the ratio a pitcher is shooting for in a start.

“He struggled a little bit with his command. His fastball command was good early on, but he seemed to lose it a little in the middle innings,” Wathan said of Biddle. “But to his credit, he stuck with it because we were a little short in the bullpen after a doubleheader the other day.

“He had to battle through it and it’s something a young pitcher has to do.”

Meanwhile, Franco went 2 for 4 in his Double A debut and even made a barehanded grab of a soft grounder hit down the line at third base.

A strong and sturdy third baseman, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Franco turned a lot of heads playing at Single A Clearwater this season. In 65 games with the Threshers, Franco had 16 homers and 52 RBIs. He also was batting .299 with a .349 on-base percentage and a .576 slugging percentage.

Franco looked like a big-time player in the field and at the plate on Thursday night.

“He’s a young guy with some bat speed and he plays a good third base,” Utley said of Franco. "I think he’s just 20 years old so he’s going to definitely improve and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Maybe in a few years Franco and Utley will be teammates again, just like they were for a short time in Reading.

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

It took the better part of three months but J.P. Crawford is finally on a hot streak. 

Whether it's a result of warmer weather, the ups and downs of a long baseball season, motivation from the national outlets which have soured on him, or all of the above, Crawford is finally hitting the ball with authority.

This week's Future Phillies Report begins with him:

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
Crawford has hit .262 in July with a .357 on-base percentage, but the most impressive part of his month has been the power. Ten of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases (two doubles, two triples and six homers). Crawford is pulling the ball more and generating loft with his swing.

It's an interesting development given the recent criticism from Baseball America's John Manuel and ESPN's Keith Law that Crawford has gotten homer-happy of late. Law wrote in a chat that accompanied his midseason prospect rankings that Crawford had lost his great control of the strike zone because of it.

But the J.P. staples are still there — his on-base percentage is 113 points higher than his batting average this season, and he has 52 walks with 59 strikeouts. 

Crawford has never been a big power guy. These eight home runs are three shy of his career high set in 2014. As Manuel noted on Jim Salisbury's "At the Yard" podcast last week, a player needs to show some pop in order for major-league pitchers to respect his bat and stay away from the middle of the plate. If he doesn't, or if he can't, then that walk total won't be as high once he debuts.

For now, though, Crawford seems to be in a good place, and the Phillies are hoping it continues for another month or so. He still has enough time to turn his 2017 season around and make a push toward next year's opening-day roster.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (Class A Lakewood)
Sanchez is gaining more and more steam nationally as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Law wrote on Wednesday, after seeing Sanchez pitch last week, that he has "perhaps the best" fastball of any starting pitcher in the minors.

The Phillies have been very cautious with Sanchez, who turns 19 on July 29. He has yet to throw more than 80 pitches in any game this season, and his six innings last Wednesday matched his season high.

He's having a stellar year against Single A competition — .199 opponents' batting average, 54 strikeouts, six walks, one home run allowed in 56⅓ innings.

Sanchez still has some things to work on, notably his breaking ball. Even a pitcher with the best of fastballs needs to be able to throw his slider or curveball effectively for strikes to succeed in the majors. 

As Sanchez progresses through the Phillies' minor-league system, these pristine strikeout-walk numbers may regress. His control is excellent and his command is advanced but no 19-year-old has mastered fastball command. In the South Atlantic League, he's been able to keep hitters off balance even when he makes mistakes.

Baseball America ranked Sanchez 47th in its Midseason Top 100, a spot behind Mickey Moniak.

RHP Adonis Medina (Class A Lakewood)
From one young Dominican right-hander to another, Medina is having a very impressive year for the BlueClaws. In 15 starts, he has a 3.32 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 81⅓ innings.

Medina has never before missed bats at this clip. It's his fourth year in the Phillies' system and from 2014-16 he struck out 6.0 batters per nine innings. This season, he's struck out 10.7 per nine.

Medina, 20, gets his fastball up to the mid-90s and has shown an impressive curveball and changeup this season. 

The Phillies feel good about that young pitching staff at Lakewood, which also includes Nick Fanti, who was involved in his second no-hitter of the season earlier this week.

2B Scott Kingery (AAA)
Kingery has hit safely in 16 of 19 games since being promoted to Lehigh Valley and has reached base in 18 of 19. 

He's swung and missed more often with the IronPigs — his strikeout rate is 23.5 percent at Triple A compared to 16 percent at Double A. But he's still playing well and sparking his team's lineup. 

In his 19 games at Triple A, Kingery has four homers, three doubles and seven steals in as many attempts. Overall this season, he's hit .306/.364/.579 with 21 doubles, 22 homers, 54 RBIs, 26 steals in 29 attempts and 74 runs scored.

And he's done all of this while playing excellent second-base defense. Kingery's speed, defense and contact ability should make him a starting second baseman in the majors soon. His floor seems to be Cesar Hernandez with a bit less plate selection but better defense and baserunning. His ceiling is all of that with the added element of power.

1B Rhys Hoskins (AAA)
For the first time this season, Hoskins is in a cold spell. He's just 9 for 54 with three extra-base hits in July and down to a still-impressive .281/.376/.550 on the season.

Hoskins' call-up will likely occur soon, but the Phillies will first want to him to get back to swinging well and comfortably working deep counts. 

The organization knows it can't keep both Hoskins and Tommy Joseph because both look like everyday first basemen and neither can play another position. The problem is, it doesn't look like the Phils will be able to trade Joseph for much ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

The only two potential contenders who could use a first baseman were the Yankees and Mariners, but the right-handed heavy Yankees never made a ton of sense for Joseph and can be crossed off after Tuesday's acquisition of Todd Frazier. The Yankees will likely use Frazier and Chase Headley at the infield corners.

The Phils would be wise to hold on to Joseph and try to trade him this winter when more teams are likely to express interest. Even if that's the case, though, they can still call up Hoskins and play him regularly. Joseph is not some seasoned veteran the Phillies should feel locked in to starting. He's a league-average offensive first baseman with a below-average glove. He has some value but it shouldn't come at the expense of finding out what you have in Hoskins.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
It's a shame Cozens is back to striking out so much because Aaron Altherr's hamstring injury might have created an opportunity for him. Altherr is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks but the Phillies will likely stem the tide with Daniel Nava and Cameron Perkins before welcoming Howie Kendrick back.

In Cozens' last 100 at-bats, he's hit .230 with six homers and 45 strikeouts. Overall, he's whiffed 126 times in 386 plate appearances. That's an even higher strikeout rate than he had last season when he punched out 186 times.

Opinions of Cozens are mixed. Some question whether he'll make enough contact to ever be a valuable player. Some question his attitude. Most question his defense.

Cozens has 62 homers in 972 plate appearances the last two seasons at Double A and Triple A but his value is tied almost entirely to that raw power. Will a front office that clearly values consistency, a solid hit tool and thoughtful approach at the plate be able to live with Cozens' streakiness?

He turned 23 at the end of May so he's still not yet at that non-prospect age. But Cozens requires further seasoning and is no lock to be in the majors next spring.

C Jorge Alfaro (AAA)
These final two months are crucial for Alfaro, who has had a down year at Triple A. Through 75 games, he's hit .246/.300/.360 with six homers, 40 RBIs, 16 walks and 96 strikeouts.

Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season — he's out of options after this year — so the need for him to show improvement and more consistency has heightened. 

Over his last seven games, Alfaro is 4 for 27 with no extra-base hits, one walk and 12 strikeouts. The Phillies would be right to wonder whether weeks like that will be frequent once he's in the majors. It's tough to live with a starting catcher who doesn't walk, strikes out a lot, isn't hitting for power and isn't a great receiver.

That last part is very important. Catchers are no longer judged mostly by their throwing arm but instead their ability to frame pitches and block balls in the dirt. Alfaro can also be a bit jumpy behind the plate; teams seek stillness from their catcher as soon as the target is set.

Alfaro has a long way to go but he has the tools and the upside. He just hasn't squared the ball up enough this season, fouling off or swinging through hittable pitches. The Phillies won't enter the offseason feeling confident about their catching situation, short term, if he has a second half like his first.

OF Adam Haseley (Short-Season Class A Williamsport)
The Phillies' first-round pick has had a hot start to his pro career, hitting .342/.437/.479 with seven extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

Haseley's teammates at Williamsport rave about his work ethic, and there are believers in the Phillies' organization that he will someday be a 25-home run guy.

Haseley's intensity and focus have stuck out to Williamsport manager (and former MLB catcher) Pat Borders, who noted how locked-in and committed to his plan Haseley is during batting practice. 

Haseley's lone home run with Williamsport was an opposite-field shot down the left-field line. He uses the opposite field quite a bit. Borders remarked that once Haseley starts pulling the ball with authority, he'll be a real problem.

"The sky's the limit for him because he can repeat his swing so well and drive the ball," Borders said on this week's Phillies Clubhouse, which will air after Postgame Live Saturday night. "He hit a home run to straight left field the other day, which is a remarkable feat for anybody hitting the ball the other way but especially for somebody his age (21). He's not a super big kid but he's got power going the other way. When he learns to pull the ball with power also, he's going to be a dangerous, dangerous hitter."

OF Mickey Moniak (Class A Lakewood)
Moniak has had some growing pains in his first full pro season. Through 355 plate appearances, he's hit .263/.317/.379 with 22 walks and 72 strikeouts.

He's struggled with breaking balls, struggled against lefties and hasn't hit for much power. He was picked off last night, the sixth time he's been caught stealing in 15 attempts.

Perhaps Moniak wasn't as advanced as the Phillies thought when they selected him first overall in 2016. But that doesn't mean the shine has worn off — he's still just 19 years old. 

One interesting note from Manuel last week was that some scouts have opined that as Moniak has gained muscle, he's lost some of the quick-twitch ability that had made him such a polished, gap-to-gap hitter.

LF Cornelius Randolph (High-A Clearwater)
Randolph is in the midst of his best month in the Phillies' organization. The 2015 first-round pick has hit .397 over his last 18 games with five doubles, a triple, three homers and 15 walks.

He's hitting .258/.358/.407 this season with nine homers and 38 RBIs. The Phillies are happy to see the double-digit power because Randolph, whose value is tied entirely to his bat, entered 2017 with three home runs in 503 pro plate appearances.

At 20 years old, Randolph is nearly three years younger than the Florida State League average. The Phillies were aggressive in moving him up to Clearwater this season but he's made the necessary adjustments as the season has gone on.

RHP Jesen Therrien (AAA)
Therrien could soon be up in the majors after the expected trades of Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. The 24-year-old relief prospect has had success at both Double A and Triple A this season, posting a combined 1.49 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 62 strikeouts and just seven walks in 54⅓ innings.

The Neshek and Benoit trades would create an opening for Therrien to slide in as a seventh-inning guy. In that scenario, the Phils would likely use Luis Garcia in the eighth and Hector Neris in the ninth. 

It would be nice for the Phils to promote at least one legitimate relief prospect before the season ends so they enter the offseason feeling somewhat comfortable about their future bullpen. Therrien's progress could, in a way, cancel out the steps back taken by Edubray Ramos.

Other tidbits
Zach Eflin pitched well Wednesday night, allowing one run over seven innings for the IronPigs. He missed nearly all of June with a sore elbow but has a 2.22 ERA in five games since returning.

Jake Thompson continues to struggle. He followed a seven-inning start on July 6 by lasting just 4⅔ innings his last time out. He walked four and threw 101 pitches. In 17 starts at Triple A this season, Thompson is 3-11 with a 5.59 ERA and 1.60 WHIP.

Mark Appel was placed on the DL last week with more shoulder problems.

• In 24 games since his promotion to Triple A, outfielder Andrew Pullin has hit .198 with six doubles and two homers.

Nick Williams giving Phillies missing ingredient — a feared hitter — early in career

Nick Williams giving Phillies missing ingredient — a feared hitter — early in career

MIAMI -- Nick Williams has been a major-leaguer less than three weeks and his progress has accelerated so swiftly that the Phillies are already trying to pump the breaks.

“I’m not going to say a whole lot about him right now,” manager Pete Mackanin said of his 23-year-old rookie right fielder. “I don’t want to jinx myself.”

Williams, elevated to the three-hole in the batting order on Tuesday, is batting .316 with four doubles, three triples and two homers — including one grand slam — in just 16 games.

In the past six games, Williams has 11 RBIs. And he is one of just four Phillies in more than 100 years to produce multiple RBIs and multiple hits in four straight games, a list that includes Greg Luzinski (1977); Chuck Klein (1932) and Lefty O’Doul (1929).

Williams is also one of just three Phillies with an OPS north of .800. Williams leads the team in OPS at .963. He is followed by Aaron Altherr (.898), who figures to be out multiple weeks due to a hamstring injury; and Howie Kendrick (.879), who is on an injury rehab assignment at Double-A Reading.

Kendrick, who is in the last year of his contract, will likely be gone soon, perhaps by the July 31 trading deadline, if he can prove he is healthy enough to contribute to a playoff contender.

Meanwhile, Altherr and Williams have both played right field this year. Assuming Williams continues to play well, Mackanin will have to sort it out, and, presumably, one of those two players shifts to left.

For now, the Phillies need the quiet Williams to continue making noise with his bat because this is a team that ranks second-to-last in the majors with 365 runs scored.

And that’s after taking two out of three games from the Miami Marlins this week in a breakout offensive performance by the entire team. The Phillies scored 20 runs in the series, their second-best showing in a three-game set all year.

The Phillies had five players come through with multi-hit games in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over the Marlins. Seven players turned that trick in Wednesday’s 10-3 victory in which the Phillies set a season high with 20 hits (see story).

“Hitting is contagious,” Williams said in advance of Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, which starts a 10-game homestand. “When you see so many guys do it, I always think of it as, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Mackanin this week talked up Maikel Franco, who has been used as the cleanup batter 38 times this year and has hit fifth and sixth 20 times each.

Franco, according to Mackanin, leveled off his swing in a productive batting-practice session on Tuesday, and the manager predicts a big second half from him.

Perhaps Franco can settle in as the full-time cleanup hitter.

Perhaps Franco can provide quality protection for Williams in the three-hole.

Perhaps this can become a thing, Williams and Franco.

Fact is, age-wise, they are well-positioned to grow together with the Phillies. Franco is 24 — he just seems older because he broke into the majors in 2014 — and Williams is 23.

And although Williams is younger, he seems mature. These thrilling three weeks do not appear to have fazed him. He is not, for example, trying to pull everything.

“Growing up,” said Williams, who is from Galveston, Texas, “I always heard, ‘Hit it where it’s pitched.’

“If (pitchers throw) away, hit it that way. If they come in, pull it. … I just trust my hands.”

At 32-61, the Phillies are miles away from contention, and further still from their 2008 team that won the World Series.

Progress has been slow, but finding some hitters that will strike fear in the hearts and minds of opposing pitchers and managers will be a fine start.

Intentional walks are often a show of respect. Right now, no one on the Phillies has drawn more than four intentional passes.

If you look back at the ’08 Phillies, Ryan Howard was walked intentionally 17 times. Chase Utley was walked intentionally 14 times.

That’s what happens when you hit 48 homers like Howard did that year.

That’s what happens when you hit 41 doubles like Utley did that year.

That’s what happens when you’re dangerous.

The Phillies are hoping that Williams, a former second-round pick and part of the package received from the Texas Rangers in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, can be anywhere near that dangerous one day.

For now, though, Mackanin would prefer less talking and more hitting.

“I just want to watch him continue to play,” Mackanin said, “(continue to) be aggressive at the plate.”