Was Braun's gesture a shot at Phillies fans?

ap-ryan-braun-brewers-win.jpg

Was Braun's gesture a shot at Phillies fans?

It's a good thing Ryan Braun is embracing the role of the villain in road parks, because he'll be receiving thunderous boos in every stadium he visits this season.

And, along those lines, it's probably a good thing for him that the Brewers traveled to Citizens Bank Park so early in the season, because it's hard to imagine Braun getting louder jeers than he's received from Phillies fans this week.

"I try to use it to my advantage," Braun said of the boos after Tuesday's Brewers win over the Phillies. "I love it. It’s great. Seriously, as a competitor I really enjoy it. It’s a challenging game and it’s a long season and playing in an environment and atmosphere like this is certainly motivating."

The boos continued Wednesday night after Braun's three homers in the series opener. And if you thought maybe, just maybe, they were getting under his skin after three strikeouts in four plate appearances in the middle game of the series, Braun's two-run triple in the eighth inning squashed that idea.

"Well I struck out three times today," said Braun when asked about his 39 RBIs in 45 games against the Phillies. "You just continue to compete. I'm friends with Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and those guys, so I've always enjoyed competing against them."

Braun made an emphatic gesture after reaching third base, putting two fingers in the air in the direction of the crowd. The safe assumption was that it was directed at his Brewers teammates, but an assumption wasn't safe given the context of these two games and Braun's three previous lousy, frustrating at-bats.

"No [it was directed] to our dugout, we always do that when we get big hits," Braun said with a smirk. "We've done that forever, we just haven't had an opportunity to play too many good games, close games, exciting games."

It's been an exciting few days for the Brewers' disgraced perennial MVP candidate. Braun was suspended 65 games last season for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, and that was just one calendar year after he tested positive for an elevated level of testosterone but walked on a technicality.

Braun's fierce denial of the initial positive test and eventual suspension are the main reasons for all the boos. But that's what makes the reaction in Philly so interesting -- most of it is based on baseball fans' disgust, but some of it is also based on respect for his game.

Braun has absolutely destroyed the Phillies. He's played 45 games against the Phils and has driven in 39 runs. He's played 76 games against the Braves and Mets combined and he's driven in 42 runs.

Braun entered this series with zero RBIs. He now has nine. And that's with a balky thumb that has caused chronic pain. "I've talked about it enough, I wish it would just go away," he said of the injury.

As far as the destruction of Phillies pitching ...

"Obviously it's a great ballpark to hit in," Braun said after Milwaukee's 9-4 win (see Instant Replay). "I enjoy competing against these guys. Aside from that, I don't know -- small sample size, anything can happen."

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.