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.

Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

A few Phillies thoughts between NFL playoff games:
 
Jerad Eickhoff was in town the other day putting smiles on the faces of some special kids at CSN Philly’s annual Shining Star Awards dinner, which benefits the March of Dimes.
 
Before the event, Eickhoff was a guest on Philly Sports Talk and he was asked about the possibility of being the Phillies' opening day starter April 3 in Cincinnati. The right-hander said all the right things, noting that there were several worthy candidates and that the decision ultimately would be made by manager Pete Mackanin, and he was right on all counts.
 
In the big picture, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who gets the ball on opening day. The goal of every starter is to stay healthy for a full season and if he does that he’ll end up with 33 starts and ample opportunity to pitch himself to the top of the rotation.
 
Still, starting on opening day is a big honor, even if a lot of folks won’t remember who got the ball for the opener much beyond Memorial Day.
 
The 2017 Phillies have two legitimate candidates for opening day starter: Jeremy Hellickson and Eickhoff. 

Hellickson got the nod last year and did nothing to suggest he does not deserve the honor again this year. The veteran right-hander pitched 189 innings over 32 starts and was a pro’s pro from the moment he stepped foot in the clubhouse.
 
But with all due respect to Hellickson, this early vote for the opening day assignment goes to Eickhoff for a number of reasons.
 
First of all, he’s earned it with his performance. He led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) in 2017. He delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure constantly stress to the staff the importance of throwing strikes. Eickhoff responded in 2016. His ratio of 1.92 walks per nine innings was the fourth-best mark among National League starters in 2016.

In addition, he's earned it with his conduct and example. The guy approaches his craft with a maturity, dedication, work ethic and seriousness that is reminiscent of Roy Halladay.

All of this leads us to another reason that Eickhoff should get the opening day nod: The Phillies are a building team and Eickhoff, 26 years old and under team control for five more seasons, is going to be around for a while. Hellickson will likely depart for free agency after this season. Ditto Clay Buchholz. Awarding Eickhoff the opening day start would be a show of faith in the pitcher, a message that management believes he can be a rock and a leader in the rotation now and in the future. 
 
And as for the notion that holding Eickhoff back until the second or third game of the season would help keep him away from opposing teams’ top pitchers and get him better matchups and possibly more run support. Well, Eickhoff already knows what it’s like to face top rivals and keep his team in the game. Last year, he matched up against Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and twice against both Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke. Late in the season, he faced NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer twice and lefty stud Chris Sale once. He pitched 19 innings in those three starts and allowed six runs. Pretty solid.
 
It’s certainly not the most important decision that Mackanin & Co. will face between now and April, but when it comes to opening day starter, well, we like Eick.
 
• Spring training is less than a month away, but the Phillies’ offseason roster construction remains in progress. You can pretty much bank on the club adding a bat, likely a left-handed-hitting outfielder, in the coming days.
 
Brandon Moss and Michael Saunders, both free-agent outfielders, remain the most likely targets, with Moss probably the best fit because of his ability to help out at first base.
 
The Phillies have had longstanding interest in Jay Bruce, who is on the Mets’ trading block, but sources say the price for him is two prospects. The rebuilding Phillies are committed to hanging on to their prospects. Moss or Saunders would cost just money, making them better fits on a short-term deal.

• The Phillies will officially open their new developmental academy in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. The club has leased four different facilities since ramping up efforts in the DR in 1994. The new facility, built on 45 acres in Boca Chica, is co-owned by the Phillies and Minnesota Twins. The two teams have separate baseball facilities and dormitories for up to 78 players. The clubs share kitchen, dining and field maintenance costs.
 
Read more about the new facility here.
  
• Agreeing at the midpoint and avoiding a hearing is always the goal when a player and his team exchange salary figures during the arbitration process. Cesar Hernandez submitted a figure of $2.8 million and the Phillies came in at $2 million. Shake hands at $2.4 million and move on.
 
• We mentioned this recently, but it’s worth repeating because it’s so remarkable. At home in 2016, the Phillies recorded a team batting average of .230 and a team on-base percentage of .291. Those marks were the club’s worst in more than a century of official record keeping.
 
• Phillies prospect Carlos Tocci is a strong candidate for the rookie of the year award in the Venezuelan winter league. The 21-year-old outfielder hit .323 with a .403 on-base percentage in 59 games for the Aragua ballclub.
 
Odubel Herrera was rookie of the year and batting champion in the Venezuelan league two years ago.
 
• And finally, Phillies chairman David Montgomery was among the honorees at the 14th annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation In the Spirit of the Game awards dinner Saturday night in Beverly Hills, California.
 
Montgomery received the Allan H. “Bud” Selig Executive Leadership Award. Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Bo Jackson, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and a host of legendary scouts were among the other honorees at the event.
 
It was nice to see an organization dedicated to scouting recognize Montgomery, who served as Phillies president from 1997 to 2014. As leader of the Phillies, Montgomery always realized the importance of scouts in building a successful organization, and in his typical style built personal relationships with every member of his club’s scouting staff, right down to the area guys who drive around baseball’s backstreets in search of young talent. Winning the 2008 World Series was the highlight of Montgomery’s time as club president and that team was built on the back of good scouting.
 
So congratulations to one of the classiest and most respected men in the game on a most fitting honor.

Phillies avoid arbitration with Jeanmar Gomez, exchange figures with Cesar Hernandez

Phillies avoid arbitration with Jeanmar Gomez, exchange figures with Cesar Hernandez

Updated: 7:50 p.m.

The Phillies and relief pitcher Jeanmar Gomez on Friday avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $4.2 million, according to a major league source.

Friday was the deadline for teams and arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary figures. The Phils avoided arbitration with shortstop Freddy Galvis on Thursday with a one-year, $4.35 million agreement.

Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is the team's lone remaining arbitration-eligible player. 

Hernandez and the team exchanged salary proposals on Friday. Hernandez is seeking $2.8 million. The team offered $2 million. The two sides can continue to negotiate and if a settlement is not reached, an arbitration panel will decide on Hernandez's 2017 salary by picking the player's asking price or the team's offer. Agreements are typically stuck at or near the midpoint before a hearing is even needed. Hearings are held during the first two weeks of February, if needed.

Hernandez made $525,000 in 2016. He hit .294 with a .371 on-base percentage and led the majors with 11 triples.

Cody Asche and Darin Ruf were also set to enter arbitration years but Asche was non-tendered and Ruf was traded to the Dodgers.

This is Gomez's final arbitration year; he's set for free agency after the season. It's a nice raise for a reliever who made $1.4 million in 2016.

Gomez surprisingly emerged as the Phillies' closer early in the season. He was the one man in early April who seized the late-inning opportunity and he carried the closer's job into the final weeks of September.

Gomez saved 37 games in 43 opportunities after registering just one in his career prior to 2016. He had a 2.97 ERA with 34 saves on Sept. 1 but had a rocky final month, allowing 17 earned runs in eight innings. It raised his season ERA to 4.85.

The Phillies added some relief depth this offseason in Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. They also have Hector Neris, who had a 2.58 ERA with 102 strikeouts in 80 innings last season, consistently showing a disappearing splitter. 

So it's no given Gomez keeps the closer's job in 2017. In fact, it would seem unlikely given his shaky September and the type of stuff Neris and Benoit possess.

CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury contributed to this story.