Countdown to Clearwater: Health is Phillies' No. 1 issue

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Countdown to Clearwater: Health is Phillies' No. 1 issue

The Phillies open spring training Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla. In preparation for the first workout and the countdown to opening day, we take a daily look at the top storylines facing this club in camp.

Today: Health

Jimmy Rollins wasn’t exactly gracious after the Phillies’ run of five straight National League East titles ended in 2012.

“With us healthy, they’re a second-place team,” he said, taking a jab at the division champion Washington Nationals after the last game of the season.

Rollins didn’t mention that the Phillies actually finished third in the division behind Washington and Atlanta in 2012. His focus was on the top spot and he believes things would have been different if the Phils were at full strength.

He might be right.

He might be wrong.

But it’s definitely something to think about.

The Phils were a banged-up bunch in the first half of 2012, with all-star talents Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay missing significant time. The Phils went 37-50 before the all-star break. With the gang all back, but not necessarily at 100 percent, the Phils went 44-31 after the all-star break and made an interesting run at a wild-card berth before running out of gas and finishing 81-81.

“We were 14 games under .500 [after a loss on July 13],” Rollins said after the final game of the season. “We got our lineup back and played 14 over.”

The point is clear: If the Phils are going to take back the division -- or at least make a run at a playoff spot -- they must be healthy. Their core players must be on the field.

Offseason health reports have been good, but they tell only so much. We get our first legitimate look at the health of this club when it hits the field next week in spring training.

“I’m curious to see how people look, how healthy people are,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

The health of the entire team is important, but the status of five players is paramount: Utley, Howard, Halladay, Cole Hamels and Mike Adams.

Let’s start with Utley and Howard.

Not having their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters paired together until July 6 was a major blow to the 2012 Phillies, who finished eighth in the NL with 684 runs. Both players need to be on the field and productive in 2013. It starts with health.

Utley has not played a spring training game since 2010 because of chronic knee problems. He thought he had the condition under control entering camp last year, but it flared (in his left knee; the right knee was affected in 2011) and he didn’t play in the majors until June 27.

Utley has discovered that his knees don’t respond well to downtime, so he continued baseball activity throughout this offseason and team officials say he is feeling good. The Phillies hope the second baseman’s more active offseason will eliminate any start-up problems once camp begins and pave the way for him to get the spring preparation he needs to start the season on time and play 140-plus games during the regular season. Utley turned 34 in December and is entering the final year of his contract. This is a big season for him, team-wise and personally, and he surely wants to start it off with a healthy spring.

Howard’s future with the Phillies is more secure than Utley’s. He is entering the second season of a five-year, $125 million contract. For that price, the Phillies need him on the field, producing runs. A torn Achilles tendon and a recovery setback kept Howard out of the lineup until July 6 last year. When he returned, he was in less than peak physical condition, a result of his left leg being immobilized for a lengthy period of time. Howard did manage to hit 14 homers and drive in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, but his batting average (.219) and on-base percentage (.295) were career-lows, and he struck out nearly 35 percent of the time, a career-worst.

Howard’s leg has continued to recover in recent months, and that should allow him a stronger hitting base and better balance as he gets the valuable spring at-bats he wasn’t able to get last year. Manager Charlie Manuel challenged Howard to come to camp in better shape and those who’ve seen the slugger say he’s lost weight and looks more athletic.

The strength of this team is pitching, particularly the top three starters and two back-end relievers. Three-fifths of those pitchers have had some recent health concerns. Hamels, who might be the team’s opening-day starter, has strongly dismissed concerns about the shoulder soreness he felt in September. He denies that it lingered into the offseason, though team officials have confirmed that it was there and that they briefly backed him off his offseason work in October. Only a smooth spring will fully eliminate the concerns about Hamels.

Halladay spent the offseason stabilizing his balky shoulder and working on delivery mechanics as he looks for a rebound season. Reports from Halladay’s recent bullpen sessions have been good, but the truest reading of his condition will come in games when he faces hitters.

How much impact does Halladay have on this club? Well, Phillies starters had the third-best ERA (3.23) in baseball through May 26 last season. Halladay went down the next day and did not return until July 17. In the time that Halladay was out, Phillies starters had a 4.72 ERA, ranking 22nd in the majors. The starters’ ERA from the time of Halladay’s return until the end of the season was 3.82. Sure, a lot of that had to do with Joe Blanton’s exit and the second-half success of Kyle Kendrick and Cliff Lee. But having Halladay back was reassuring to the staff. His presence means something.

Amaro did not have a splashy offseason -- his big-money move came in July when he preempted Hamels’ free-agency -- but he did manage to address a glaring bullpen weakness with the signing of setup man Mike Adams. Since 2009, Adams has a 1.84 ERA and 112 holds, tops among relievers with 200 innings or more. The Phils blew 13 eighth-inning leads in 2012 and Adams will help reduce that number -- if he’s healthy. The 34-year-old righthander had a rib surgically removed in October to help alleviate the effects of thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that causes numbness in the fingers. Adams said he felt better within a week of the surgery. The prognosis is good for him to return to top form, but, again, time will tell and that time starts in Clearwater.

Several other players have some minor health issues. Projected rightfielder Delmon Young will be slowed early in camp as he continues to recover from offseason ankle surgery. He might not play in games until mid-March and may have to start the regular season a few days late. Reliever Raul Valdes might be a few days behind after injuring a hamstring in winter ball.

Manuel confirmed that health is the No. 1 issue entering camp, and he’s eager to get going.

“Going into camp, I definitely want to see how healthy we are,” he said. “We can talk about it all we want, but you don’t know until you get there and watch guys play.”

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.