Busy winter awaits Phillies officials

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Busy winter awaits Phillies officials

The National League Championship Series begins Sunday and for the first time since 2007 the Phillies will not be in it.

While the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals battle for the right to go to the World Series, Phillies management will turn its attention to 2012. With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all returning to the starting rotation, the Phils should have the starting pitching to contend for a sixth straight NL East title.

But there are issues and questions heading into this off-season.

As we continue to decompress from a season that ended sooner than anyone believed it would, lets take a look at a few of them.

Free agents

The Phils have several notable free agents, including major contributors in closer Ryan Madson and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

At 31, Madson is at the top of his game. Hes always had the stuff to close and this year proved he had the nerve. He just finished a three-year, 12 million contract and people close to him say he is eager to see what hes worth on the open market and may be ready to move on. Agent Scott Boras is ready to take Madsons 32-save season and shop it on the closer market. The Phillies will attempt to re-sign Madson but it remains to be seen if they will pull out all the stops because they believe they have three relievers (Antonio Bastardo, Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont) who could close in the near future.

The Phils would like to re-sign Rollins, but they wont give him the five years hes looking for. Hell play at 33 next season and hes been on the disabled list three times in the last two seasons with leg injuries. The Phillies would prefer a shorter-term deal. Rollins great value is the defense he provides behind a pitching-based team. The Phils have some negotiating strength because minor-league shortstop prospect Freddy Galvis is an excellent defender and could survive in the majors. But Galvis is a ways away with the bat. A two- or three-year deal would be more to the Phillies liking for Rollins, but, like Madson, hell get interest elsewhere.

Other free agents include Raul Ibanez, Brian Schneider, Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt. Ibanez (20 homers, 84 RBIs) showed he can still produce, but its likely hell do it somewhere else next season as the Phils look to get younger with John Mayberry Jr. deserving more at-bats. Schneiders work with Vance Worley probably earned him a return as backup catcher. Lidge, whose option will be declined, would like to return. The Phils will likely decline Oswalts 16 million option. Just a hunch: He pitches in St. Louis or Atlanta next season.

Arbitration players

The Phillies have always shown a strong desire to keep young, core players off the free-agent market. Thats why Cole Hamels is someone to pay much attention to this off-season. He is under control for 2012 and eligible for salary arbitration, but the Phils are expected to make a push to sign him to a long-term deal to keep him off the free-agent market when hes eligible next off-season. Hamels will get a significant raise from the 9.5 million he made in 2011. Jered Weavers recent five-year deal carries an average annual value of 17 million. Hamels will probably be looking for something in that neighborhood.

Hunter Pence, Wilson Valdez, Ben Francisco and Kyle Kendrick are also arbitration eligible.

A facelift

Despite winning a majors-best 102 games, there were times, especially late in the season, when the Phils looked old, banged-up and tired. In other words, they looked as if they could use an infusion of youth and new life. Pence gave them some, but they might need more. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., and Pat Gillick before him, are both big believers in shuffling the deck and constantly bringing in fresh, hungry talent, especially in successful times. It wont be easy doing that this winter. Ryan Howard begins a five-year, 125 million contract extension in 2012. He is untradeable. Chase Utley is owed 30 million the next two seasons and, probably for health reasons, appears to be on a serious decline. Hed be difficult to trade. Placido Polanco will be 36 next season, hes been beat up and hes owed 7.25 million. Hed be difficult to trade. Shane Victorino, affordable at 9.5 million and productive at age 31 (in November), would have value, but can the Phils afford to part with him? He was, after all, the most consistent offensive player on a team that had great offensive inconsistency.

This is a very inflexible roster. Amaro needs to get some new blood. It will be fascinating to see how he does it.

Health

This is a major off-season issue. Howard has torn left Achilles' tendonthat will require surgery and a lengthy rehab that could force him to miss a good chunk of next season. Hamels will have two surgeries, one to remove loose fragments in his elbow, the other for a hernia. Neither should impact his 2012 season. Pitcher Joe Blanton, who figures to join Worley at the back of the rotation in 2012, still might need off-season surgery to repair a nerve problem in his elbow. Polanco will likely have surgery for the second straight off-season, this time for a groin injury that sapped him of much of his offensive effectiveness.

Farm director

On top of all this, the front office needs to hire a new farm director to replace Chuck LaMar, who left the organization last month amid rumblings of personality conflicts that neither he nor club officials will talk about. Amaro said hes already begun interviewing candidates from outside the organization for the position.

Amaro is scheduled to chat with reporters about the off-season early in the work week. He did not speak with reporters after the Phils were eliminated from the postseason in a 1-0 Game 5 loss to St. Louis on Friday night. He was probably too sick to his stomach after watching a series that saw Lee blow a 4-0 lead in Game 2 and the bats fail to support Halladay in Game 5.

E-mail Jim Salisbury at jsalisbury@comcastsportsnet.com

Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

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Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

It seems like Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has decided pulling Odubel Herrera in the seventh inning of a tied game on Monday is enough punishment for failing to run out a ground ball.

The centerfielder will be back in his customary leadoff spot when the Phillies take on Justin Verlander and the Tigers tonight at Comerica Park (see game notes).

Much of the talk surrounding the Phillies in the last 24 hours has centered on Herrera after Mackanin yanked him from the game Monday (see story). After all, Herrera's .335 batting average leads an offense-starved team that averages just 3.24 runs per game, second-worst in the majors. Before he was pulled on Monday, Herrera was 3 for 4 with an RBI and had a 15-pitch at-bat against starter Mike Pelfrey to start the game.

Tommy Joseph will start again at first base after clobbering his second homer of the season on Monday. Despite another night of immense struggles (see story), Ryan Howard is again in the lineup as the designated hitter in the American League park.

The only change to to the lineup from Monday see Carlos Ruiz starting behind the plate to catch Jeremy Hellickson.

Star outfielder Justin Upton will sit again for Detroit as he nurses a quad injury. Mike Aviles will start in his place in left.

Both teams' lineups can be found below. (Updated, 5:43 p.m. — Tigers leadoff man Ian Kinsler has been scratched because of flu-like symptoms.)

Phillies
1. Odubel Herrera CF
2. Freddy Galvis SS
3. Maikel Franco 3B
4. Tommy Joseph 1B
5. Ryan Howard DH
6. Carlos Ruiz C
7. Cesar Hernandez 2B
8. Tyler Goeddel LF
9. Peter Bourjos RF

Tigers
1. Cameron Maybin CF
2. J.D. Martinez RF
3. Miguel Cabrera 1B
4. Victor Martinez DH
5. Nick Castellanos 3B
6. Steven Moya LF
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
8. Mike Aviles 2B
9. Jose Iglesias SS 

Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

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Jackie Robinson's historic Dodgers contract on display in Philadelphia

A piece of modern baseball history will be on display in Philadelphia for the next couple of weeks.

The original contract Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 that allowed him to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball will be featured at the National Constitution Center from May 26 until June 5.

Mikalai Kontilia, CEO of Collectors Cafe, the company loaning the contract to the Constitution Center, brought both the Dodgers' document and the contract Robinson signed with the minor league Montreal Royals in October 1945 to The Comcast Network's Breakfast on Broad show on Tuesday morning.

"What's amazing is, these contracts, finally, after 60-some odd years, have been unearthed, discovered and the American people can finally see the Jackie Robinson contracts," Kontilia said.

The Dodgers' contract plays an important role in American history, and not just in terms of sport. Many people point to then-Dodgers owner Branch Rickey's signing Robinson as a starting point in the American civil rights movement.

Kontilia said a historic documentarian appraised the contracts at a value of $36 million.

For more on the contracts, check out the segment from Breakfast on Broad.

Photo credit of Robinson signing contract: DodgersNation.com.

Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

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Phillies-Tigers 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson's 2-strike changeup key

Phillies (25-20) at Tigers (22-22)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies actually lost a one-run game. 

Their six-game road trip started off with a 5-4 loss Monday night — which makes them 14-4 in one-run games — against a Tigers lineup that showed just how much power it has. Miguel Cabrera homered twice, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos added solo shots of their own. It was an all-around rough night for Phillies pitchers, but they have a chance to even the series tonight at Comerica Park.

Let's take a look at the matchup:

1. Keep 'em in the park
Comerica Park favors pitchers more than hitters, but the Tigers and Phillies made it look small on Monday, hitting a combined six home runs. Oddly enough, all were solo shots.

Jeremy Hellickson hopes tonight for more success than Vince Velasquez had Monday. Hellickson struggled with the home run ball earlier in the year, allowing nine in his first seven starts. He didn't allow one in either of his last two starts, but the Marlins and Reds aren't as loaded offensively as the Tigers.

Detroit has clicked at the plate over the last week, belting 17 home runs over its last six games. J.D. Martinez has three of them and Cabrera has five. With those two batting second and third, Hellickson needs to be sharp in the first inning. 

The opening frame has been a problem for Hellickson all season — his opponents have hit .289 with an .883 OPS, six doubles and a homer. His first-inning ERA is 7.00 this season and 5.75 over the last two.

2. Changes from Hellickson
He enters 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. Over his last two starts, Hellickson's given up just two earned runs in 13 innings, putting 11 men on base and striking out 13. He's faced 57 batters since last allowing a home run for his longest homerless streak of the season.

What's been the biggest difference for Hellickson in his last two starts? He's turned to his changeup, his best pitch, more often with two strikes. In his first seven outings, Hellickson threw the changeup 18 percent of the time with two strikes. His last two starts, he's thrown it 48 percent of the time with two strikes. It's completely fooled the opposition, which is 0 for 17 with 11 strikeouts against Hellickson's changeup over that span.

Hellickson has by far the highest swing-and-miss rate of changeups in all of baseball with 57 in 184 pitches (31 percent).

Look for Hellickson to continue utilizing that pitch tonight. Here are some of the Tigers' numbers this season against right-handed changeups:

Cabrera: 1 for 11
Castellanos: 1 for 10
Justin Upton: 1 for 7
J.D. Martinez: 0 for 7

Current Tigers are 30 for 95 (.316) lifetime against Hellickson. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has done the most damage, going 8 for 25 with three doubles, three homers and five walks. Cabrera is 4 for 11 with a homer. Upton is 5 for 13 with two doubles and two homers, but he's out again tonight with a tight quad.

3. Not the same Verlander
Now 33, Justin Verlander is not the same fireballer he was in his prime. In 2011, the year he won AL Cy Young and MVP, his fastball averaged 95 mph. This season, the pitch has averaged a career-low 92.1. 

Here's a look at the difference for Verlander's pitches the last three seasons compared to his peak of 2009 to 2012:

2009-12
Fastball: .254 opponents' batting average
Curveball: .152
Changeup: .196
Slider: .209

2014-present
Fastball: .263
Curveball: .248
Changeup: .275
Slider: .227

His pitches just haven't had the same life and bite as they once did. We've seen this happen to a number of former aces over the last few seasons: Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay. When the decline happens, it happens fast, especially for guys who pitch so many innings every year. It's not as drastic for some as it is for others. King Felix has been able to remain effective despite diminished velocity by mastering his offspeed pitches. That's something Lincecum, Cain and Sabathia have been unable to do.

Verlander is sort of in between. Since the start of 2014, he's 23-24 with a 4.16 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 61 starts. He hasn't been horrible but hasn't been great either.

This season, Verlander is 3-4 with a 4.58 ERA. He's struck out 60 and walked 20 in 57 innings. He's on a roll entering tonight's game, having allowed just four runs over his last 22⅓ innings with 27 strikeouts.

Current Phillies have only 34 career at-bats against Verlander and 18 belong to David Lough. Ryan Howard and Andres Blanco are 0 for 3, Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 2 and Peter Bourjos is 1 for 8.

4. Franco breaking out?
Maikel Franco has had back-to-back multi-hit games for the first time since April 22-23, when he hit three home runs and drove in seven in the first two games of a series in Milwaukee.

Is he finally breaking out of his lengthy slump? Every time over the last few weeks that it's looked like it, he's followed with a few hitless games. 

Franco does appear to be seeing the ball better, though. He's walked just 11 times all season but four have come in his last seven games. In his last five, he's reached base nine times in 19 plate appearances with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• Odubel Herrera, who was pulled from Monday's game for not hustling out a groundball, has followed an 0-for-11 skid by going 5 for 7 in his last two games. He's batting .335, and his .901 OPS is 10th among all NL outfielders, ahead of guys like Starling Marte, Hunter Pence, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Carlos Gonzalez.

• Herrera's five errors lead all MLB centerfielders. Nobody else has more than two.

• Colton Murray's soaking up three innings last night allowed David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez to rest despite Velasquez's recording just 12 outs. Hernandez has had two full days off. Getting these guys some rest will be crucial moving forward. Neris is on pace for 86 appearances, Gomez 83 and Hernandez 72. Last season, only one reliever in the majors (St. Louis' Kevin Siegrist) had 80-plus appearances.

• Tommy Joseph entered Monday 0 for 7 with four strikeouts against right-handed pitching, but he had a double and a homer off Mike Pelfrey. 

• Ryan Howard is 4 for 52 (.077) with 22 strikeouts over his last 18 games. His .156 batting average ranks last among 180 qualifying major-leaguers and his .226 OBP is 177th.