Utley healthy as scouts begin to eye Phillies

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Utley healthy as scouts begin to eye Phillies

It’s the time of the year when high-ranking scouts pop into ballparks to check out players that might be available around the July trade deadline.

A Boston Red Sox scout was in town for the Phillies-Nationals series earlier this week. Jonathan Papelbon pitched three times in that series to mixed results. The Red Sox, of course, have closer issues. So do the Tigers, who had a scout in Denver while the Phils were there last weekend.

On Friday night, the night Chase Utley came off the disabled list, scouts from the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants showed up at Citizens Bank Park. It was not known why they were in attendance, but both teams have suffered injuries in the infield and if those injuries don’t clear up, a player like Utley might be of interest.

The Yankees are hoping that first baseman Mark Teixeira makes it back quickly from his second right wrist injury of the season. Utley has played first base and could be attractive to the Yankees if Teixeira continues to have problems.

The Giants hope to get third baseman Pablo Sandoval back from the DL next week, but could look to trade for a second baseman and move Marco Scutaro to third base if Sandoval’s foot problem persists.

There are still almost six weeks before the trade deadline, and these are far off scenarios, but it’s never too early for potentially needy teams to start gathering intelligence.

The Phillies, of course, have not decided if they’re going to sell off talent. They are still hoping to make a run, but losses like Friday night’s -- Cole Hamels blew a 3-0 lead and the offense left 10 men on base in a 4-3 loss to the Mets (see game recap) -- make it more and more difficult to believe in this team, which has lost 9 of 13 to fall to 35-39.

Utley, 34, will be a free agent at season’s end. If the Phils don’t make that run in the next six weeks, he could be attractive to a contender.

Utley is focused solely on making that run.

“We have to stick with it,” he said after Friday night’s game. “We have a lot of games to play. If you ride the roller coaster, you can get in trouble. We just have to stay with it.”

Though he went 0 for 5 (with a couple of hard-hit balls) and left three runners on base, Utley came out of Friday night’s game feeling good. He missed a month with a strained right oblique muscle, an injury that can drive a hitter crazy if it’s not healed.

“I think I’ve overcome it at this point,” Utley said after the game. “It felt great. The last two games (at Reading on minor-league rehab) felt good and tonight it felt good.

“I had some opportunities to drive in runs and I wasn’t able to do that. But in the overall picture, I feel good and I feel like I can contribute.”

For now, any contributions that Utley makes will come in Philadelphia.

After that?

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."