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 sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

The Phillies made a couple quiet additions as the winter meetings ended, signing veteran outfielder Daniel Nava and lefty reliever Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts.

Nava, 34 in February, is a left-handed hitter who can play the outfield corners and first base. He came up with the Red Sox and became a fan favorite in Boston in 2010 as a 27-year-old rookie. Some Phillies fans will remember him for hitting a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first major-league plate appearance.

Nava had a few decent years in Boston, the best of which was 2013, when he had 536 plate appearances and hit .303/.385/.445 with 29 doubles, 12 homers and 66 RBIs. 

Nava's numbers and opportunities have dropped every year since. He was designated for assignment by Boston in 2015, latched on with the Rays, signed the next year with the Angels and was traded late in the season to the Royals.

Over the last two seasons, Nava has hit just .208, albeit with an on-base percentage 99 points higher because of his 30 walks and 10 hit by pitches.

Burnett, 34, has spent five of the last seven seasons in the Nationals' bullpen. He had a 2.85 ERA in 283 appearances from 2009-12 and parlayed that success into a two-year, $7.25 million contract with the Angels. However, he barely pitched in 2013 and 2014 for the Halos because of an elbow tear. He returned to the Nats last season and allowed two runs in 5⅔ innings.

Burnett, perhaps more so than Nava, has a chance to fill a role with the Phillies if he can stay healthy. He's shown he can get outs at the highest level, posting a 2.38 ERA in 2012 with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.14 ERA with 8.9 K/9 in 2010. That was a long time ago now, and Burnett's fastball has dipped from averaging 90-91 mph to 88.

According to Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, Burnett will receive a $1.25 million salary if he makes the team and can earn another $1.75 million in incentives based on his number of appearances.

Burnett has an opt-out date of March 26, meaning he can become a free agent a week before the regular season begins if it looks to him like he isn't in the Phils' plans.

Nava's chances at cracking the opening-day roster seem longer because the Phillies are expected to make more depth signings between now and the start of camp. They've prioritized finding some offense in the corner outfield and that could come in the form of more minor-league deals, a guaranteed contract or trade. One potential fit I examined last week was Mariners outfielder Seth Smith, a hitter more proven than Nava (see story).

These minor-league deals were commonplace for Phillies general manager Matt Klentak last offseason, when the only free agent he signed to a major-league deal was reliever David Hernandez. 

Last season, three players who were signed to minor-league deals with invites to spring training made the team on opening day: outfielder Cedric Hunter, utilityman Emmanuel Burriss and reliever James Russell.

Others, such as former closers Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey, failed to make the team out of camp. Bailey eventually earned a call-up; the other two didn't.

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Five more thoughts as baseball's winter meetings wrap up:

1. What now for McCutchen?
The hottest name as the winter meetings began this week was Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' perennial All-Star centerfielder who had a .404 on-base percentage from 2012-15 with four straight top-five MVP finishes before falling off a cliff in 2016.

McCutchen hit 40 points worse last season as his bat and legs slowed and his approach deteriorated at times, perhaps out of frustration. There's been some speculation he was playing hurt.

The Nationals were the team most connected to McCutchen, but after failing to work out an agreement with the Pirates and losing out to the Red Sox for Chris Sale, Washington ultimately ended up trading for White Sox CF Adam Eaton.

So, what now for Cutch? It seems unlikely at this point he'd return to the Pirates ... would be kind of awkward. He knows his days there are numbered given Pittsburgh's payroll situation, and he hasn't yet accrued 10-and-5 rights. 

But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday that the intent now is to keep McCutchen.

And McCutchen tweeted this, implying his lips are sealed after weeks of rumors.

If McCutchen does eventually end up elsewhere, I don't think it will be the Phillies. There are certainly things to like, and I do believe McCutchen will bounce back in 2017, but at this point in the Phillies' rebuild and at this point in McCutchen's career, he's not the player to alter the organizational course for. 

2. Shrewd Sale
The Sale trade played out exactly as it should have — the team with the leverage scanned the market, found a few potential deals and got maximum value for one of baseball's five best starting pitchers.

In many trades of superstars, you can look at the return package and quickly conclude which team got the better end. Those opinions aren't always proven true — prospects fail, veterans get hurt — but winners and losers are usually identifiable.

In the Sale trade, there was no clear winner or loser. 

Sale is an ace, a pitcher you'd likely rather have start Game 1 of a playoff series than David Price. He's the ideal complement to Price, though in my opinion Sale is more of 1A to Price's 1B. 

Price has exceptional stuff and command but no deception. He has a one-step delivery that doesn't throw a hitter off balance. Sale has maybe the most deceiving delivery of any major-league starter — it's all elbows and knees coming at you, especially if you're a lefty — to go along with elite stuff and usually above-average command. 

They're both lefties but they offer much different looks for a hitter.

The centerpiece of the White Sox return, Yoan Moncada, is considered by many the best prospect in baseball — a big, athletic infielder who's settled in at 3B. He's got all the tools and the type of fluidity in his game that has enticed scouts as long as scouts have existed. 

Michael Kopech is the prototypical young flamethrower, a 6-foot-3 righty who throws a triple-digit fastball with a plus breaking ball. You look at Kopech and see some Noah Syndergaard-like, Justin Verlander-like potential.

Sale should make the Red Sox about five wins better each of the next three seasons. In terms of World Series odds, the Red Sox may enter 2017 on an even plane with the Cubs. 

And two or three years from now, Moncada and Kopech could be two of the top young players in baseball. This trade made a lot more sense for the White Sox than acquiring Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. Both are intriguing prospects, but the Moncada-Kopech duo has more talent and upside.

The conversations between the White Sox and Nationals regarding Sale ultimately led Chicago to acquire Giolito as part of the package for Eaton. 

The White Sox have done very well this offseason in acquiring three, maybe four top prospects. Moncada is a big-time building block, and the return for Eaton of Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning gives Chicago three right-handers with enormous upside.

3. No clue what the Marlins are thinking
For the better part of two weeks, the Marlins had been linked to Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, the two best closers on the market and probably the two best closers in baseball. 

Chapman agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees, by far the largest ever for a closer.

ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday night that Marlins owner/money man Jeffrey Loria had given his front office the go-ahead to sign either closer. Right now, that leaves just Jansen.

The question is why? The Marlins are not an elite closer away from winning the NL East. Adding Jansen will not catapult this team ahead of the Nationals or likely the Mets. The Marlins might not even be an elite closer away from a wild-card spot. 

Miami is still trying to pick up the pieces after the death of Jose Fernandez. The tragic loss has left them with a middling rotation, which right now includes Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jeff Locke. 

That rotation isn't leading you to October, not unless Giancarlo Stanton actually plays a full season and the Fish avoid regression from guys like Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Martin Prado.

Great New York Post columnist Joel Sherman also questioned Miami's approach this week, opining that the Marlins would be better off buying two lesser free-agent relievers like Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler at the one-year cost of either Chapman or Jansen. It would make sense since Miami already has three good relievers in A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps.

4. Brian Cashman's had quite a few months
The Yankees will not enter 2017 as the AL East favorite, but GM Brian Cashman has positioned them so well for the future, better than pretty much anyone could have expected back in July.

When the Yankees traded Andrew Miller to the Indians before the trade deadline, they picked up a top outfield power prospect in Clint Frazier and an intriguing young pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield. When they dealt Chapman to the Cubs, they picked up Gleyber Torres, one of the most well-thought-of shortstop prospects in baseball. (New York also added outfielder Billy McKinney, who could end up being a serviceable .280/.360/.430 type of player.)

And after it all, after transitioning the Yankees from an old, directionless team, Cashman ends up with all those prospects and Chapman.

In recent years there have been several opportunities for a team to re-sign a star player months after trading him for prospects. 

Some thought the Red Sox would do it with Jon Lester after trading him to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. 

When the Phillies were considering trading Cole Hamels the first time, before he signed his $144 million extension, the possibility existed Ruben Amaro Jr. would trade him and then try to re-sign him that offseason. 

It almost happened with the Yankees and Carlos Beltran this offseason, before Beltran chose the Astros. 

There have been more examples, but this is the first time I can recall the team selling high on the player, getting the prospects and then also getting the player back. 

Great work by Cashman and the Yankees, who now have an infusion of young talent and still the best eight-ninth inning combination in the American League with Dellin Betances and Chapman.

5. Rockies must trade for pitching
The five-year, $70 million contract Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies this week was a stunner because they didn't seem to need more offense. They play in the game's best hitter's park and already have an annual MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, an underrated stud in Charlie Blackmon, last year's batting champ in D.J. LeMahieu, emerging stars David Dahl and Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has 65 homers and 197 RBIs the last two seasons.

And yet the Rockies added Desmond to the second-largest contract in their franchise's history, behind only that futile six-figure deal for Mike Hampton.

They're also reportedly interested in last year's home run champ, Mark Trumbo. With or without Trumbo, the Rockies right now have the deepest lineup in the NL, one that should still thrive away from Coors Field.

But they've also backed themselves into a corner here of needing to trade one of these talented position players for a top-of-the-rotation arm. 

MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Thursday that the Rockies and Blue Jays began discussing a potential trade involving Blackmon and 25-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays, as of yet, do not seem inclined to make the deal. Stroman won't reach free agency until after the 2020 season, whereas Blackmon's contract expires after 2018. The difference in cost and years of control seems to be too much for the Jays.

Blackmon, who last year hit .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, is the most logical trade candidate for the Rockies because he's starting to get expensive. But the Jays' unwillingness to make that Stroman deal could mean that moving even a player as talented as Blackmon for equal value could prove difficult for the Rox.

Looking around the league, a team like the Indians could be a fit for Blackmon since they have an enviable group of starting pitchers in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Carrasco for Blackmon would seem even, but we shall see.