Vet Jason Marquis could fit into Phillies' plans

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Vet Jason Marquis could fit into Phillies' plans

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- It’s almost a given that the Phillies will make a few roster moves in the next two weeks. Already 10 games out and in dead last place in a weak NL East, a shakeup is both inevitable and overdue.

For teams in the playoff hunt, pitching is always a commodity this time of year. Back when the Phillies were making a push for the postseason, they bolstered the roster with the acquisitions of guys like Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt.

These days, it’s the Phillies that could be the team that gives up an arm like Lee, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, A.J. Burnett or Jason Marquis.

Wait a second … Jason Marquis?

With an eye to the future, Marquis could figure in prominently with the Phillies’ plans for this season. Signed to a minor-league deal on June 3, just 10 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Marquis has climbed all the way to Triple A Lehigh Valley where he has been nearly unhittable.

Working his way back
In three starts for the IronPigs, Marquis has been charged with one run -- it was an inherited run the bullpen couldn’t hold for him -- in 18 innings with 10 hits and three walks. He also has 18 strikeouts in his 18 innings, which is a new development to Marquis’ repertoire. In 14 big-league seasons, the righty averaged 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings. That climbed to 7.8 whiffs per nine in 27 career games in Triple A, of which he’s pitched just five times since 2003.

He very well could be 3-0 for the IronPigs, considering he left all three of his games without allowing a run.

“I feel like I’m better than I was the last two years,” the veteran big-league pitcher said before Thursday night’s game against Syracuse at Coca-Cola Park.

He should know since there isn’t much he hasn’t experienced in his baseball career. Marquis pitched in the World Series with the Cardinals in 2004 and 2006 and came up through the Braves' system as a highly-touted, first-round draft pick. Marquis was an All-Star in 2009 with the Rockies and has pitched more than 190 innings five times.

Marquis is also a rarity in that he’s pitched in the Major League World Series and the Little League World Series.

“I’m ready. I was ready three weeks ago,” Marquis said. “Maybe when I was a little younger I’d get a little more pissed off [about not getting called up], but I’m down here doing my thing and as you get older you realize that does nothing, so you focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

This is a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery?

“I felt like I was past the rehab stage at the end of June,” Marquis said. “I tried to push myself to the limits throughout this whole process and I tried to push myself to where I was a pitcher and not a rehab pitcher. I felt that way mentally and physically since the end of June.”

‘I’m either in the big leagues by the time we say or I go’
A month shy of his 36th birthday, Marquis knows how to pitch. He’s also healthy for the first time in four years. Before undergoing surgery on July 31, 2013, Marquis said he pitched for four years with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Now that his arm is back together, Marquis not only has his health, but also his velocity has returned.

Marquis rarely cracked 90 mph with his fastball during the last four seasons and figured out ways to be effective for the Nationals, Twins, Diamondbacks and Padres, winning nine games before the All-Star Game twice during that time.

But as soon as Marquis was cleared to start throwing again, he says it didn’t take long to return to his old form from his days with the Braves and Cardinals. Pitching for the IronPigs, Marquis routinely throws his fastball in the 90s. He also pointed out that he has good control of his breaking pitches, which is something that often takes a long time to recover for pitchers coming back from Tommy John.

“I started throwing my breaking ball during this process probably two months earlier than what the throwing program said,” Marquis said. “I talked to the doctor about it and he said, ‘No! Hold up!’ But I threw a bullpen for him during spring training just to show him where I was and how I was feeling. My location on my fastball and slider were all there at an early stage.

“To me it becomes a state of mind more than anything and a trust factor. When it got to the point when the doctor said, ‘Alright, it’s OK to throw a baseball,’ I knew I was healthy.”

For most of his career, Marquis has relied on a sinker and slider during his 18 years in pro ball. Of course the success of those pitches come from his fastball command and he finally has some zip on it.

“My first game back I was sitting 89, 90,” Marquis said. “And I hit 91 five times. That’s the hardest average I’ve thrown in four years.”

Marquis is next scheduled to pitch for Lehigh Valley on Sunday. Since Allentown’s Coca-Cola Park is midway from his home in Staten Island and Philadelphia, friends and family have been able to show up in force for his games.

But will they be able to make the trip down to Philly by the end of the month? Marquis has an out clause in his contract that allows him to leave the organization if the Phillies don’t bring him up to the majors.

“When I signed the contract Ruben (Amaro, Jr.) was clear that I wasn’t here to be a Triple A pitcher or for depth,” Marquis said. “I’m either in the big leagues by the time we say or I go. I don’t want to come off sounding like I’m arrogant, but I’m going to be 36 in August and I’m not sitting around just to pitch in Triple A.”

Chances are he will be pitching in the big leagues very soon.

“I had a goal in my head that I wanted to be back in the big leagues by 11 months. I felt like I could compete in the big leagues in 11 months, but that decision is out of my hands,” Marquis said. “But I know with the heart of all hearts with the way I’ve been pitching over the last three weeks, that gets big-league hitters out.”

Whether he’s getting outs for the Phillies or another big-league team remains to be seen.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”