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.”

Instant Replay: Nationals 3, Phillies 2

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AP

Instant Replay: Nationals 3, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

The Phillies fell victim to a dominating pitching performance by Washington’s Max Scherzer in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday night.
 
Scherzer held the Phillies to two runs over eight innings. He walked one and struck out 11.
 
Scherzer has started against the Phillies eight times since signing with the Nats before the 2015 season. He is 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in those games.
 
The Phillies had just three hits. They had just four in losing to the Nats on Monday night.
 
Starting pitching report
Jerad Eickhoff gave up three runs on five hits and three walks over six innings. He gave up back-to-back two-out doubles in the first inning and extended the inning with a walk before giving up another RBI hit.
 
He took the loss to fall to 9-13 in 27 starts. His ERA is 3.90.
 
Scherzer (15-7) opened the game with five no-hit innings. The right-hander has carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in nine of his 61 starts with the Washington. He has reached double digits in strikeouts 12 times this season.
 
Bullpen report
Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos kept the game close.
 
Mark Melancon earned the save for Washington.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis broke up Scherzer’s no-hit bid with a leadoff double in the sixth. He was promptly picked off second on a bad boneheaded base running play.
 
Ryan Howard lined a two-run homer to left to get the Phils on the board and make it a one-run game in the seventh. Howard hit an 0-1 Scherzer fastball that registered 94 mph on the stadium gun. Howard had been 1 for 20 with 13 strikeouts in his career against Scherzer before the homer.
 
Howard’s homer was his 20th of the season. He has reached 20 homers 10 times. Only Mike Schmidt (14) did it more as a Phillie. Howard has 377 homers, tying him with Norm Cash and Jeff Kent for 73rd all time.
 
Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Scherzer (with a safety squeeze) drove in the Washington runs.
 
An honor
One day after pitching seven innings of two-run ball against the Nationals in his fifth big-league start, Jake Thompson was named the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher. Thompson went 11-5 with a 2.55 ERA in 21 starts for Lehigh Valley.
 
ICYMI
Manager Pete Mackanin is about to cut into Howard’s playing time so he can look more at Tommy Joseph (see story).
 
Up next
The two teams play the series finale on Wednesday night with a pair of lefties on the mound. Adam Morgan (1-8, 6.50) opposes Gio Gonzalez (9-9, 4.25).

The end is near: Pete Mackanin to cut back Ryan Howard's playing time

The end is near: Pete Mackanin to cut back Ryan Howard's playing time

Pete Mackanin has picked his spots with the pitchers he has let Ryan Howard face in recent months and that helped Howard carry post-All Star break numbers like a .306 batting average and .653 slugging percentage into Tuesday’s night game against the Washington Nationals and their right-handed ace, Max Scherzer.

Scherzer is the type of power arm that Mackanin often protects Howard from.

But despite awful career numbers — 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts — against Scherzer, Howard was in the starting lineup at first base over Tommy Joseph on Tuesday night.

Listening to Mackanin explain his reasoning, one came away with the impression that Howard’s playing time is about to nosedive as he and the Phillies begin their last month together.

“Just to get him in there,” Mackanin said when asked why he was starting Howard against a pitcher who’d dominated him in the past. “I’m going to start using Joseph more. I’ll play [Howard] today and [Joseph] tomorrow and then I’ll lean on Joseph a little bit more the rest of the way.”

Why?

“To see him more,” Mackanin said. “I’m not saying I’m going to strictly play Joseph, but I have to get him as many at-bats as possible through the end of the season.”

Makes sense. The Phillies will part ways with the 36-year-old Howard after the season. Joseph, 25, has not won the first base job long term, but he has a chance to, especially if he can improve his on-base skills. His power numbers — 17 homers and a .500 slugging percentage in 250 at-bats — are excellent.

Mackanin was asked whether the decision to pull back on Howard’s playing time was his or whether it came down from above.

“It’s my own,” he said. “I think it makes sense to see Joseph as much as possible. Howie was swinging the bat extremely well. I’m just going to see if he can put something together against Scherzer. A lot of people don’t have good numbers against Scherzer anyway. Lefties at least hit him better.”

Mackanin said he wants to make sure Joseph gets plenty of at-bats against right-handed pitching down the stretch.

“I don’t want to happen to him what happened to [Darin] Ruf, where we didn’t have opportunities to get him at-bats,” Mackanin said.

While Mackanin wants to look at Joseph more, he has no intention to look at 23-year-old Rule 5 outfielder Tyler Goeddel more as the season winds down. Reserve Jimmy Paredes continued to get outfield reps with the start in left field on Tuesday night.

“I’ve seen enough of Goeddel to know — we’ve kept him this long and we’re going to keep him and we’ll see where we go next year with him,” Mackanin said. “I don’t see a need to play him, especially after he hasn’t played so much. What’s the point?

“Paredes, he’s an extra player. That’s why we got him. I’m trying to put some offense into the lineup and he’s been swinging the bat pretty well. Peter Bourjos is coming off his wrist injury; I’m just trying to get Paredes as many at-bats as possible to see if he can help us win games. But he’s not an everyday player right now here for us.”

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts despite awful numbers vs. Max Scherzer

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts despite awful numbers vs. Max Scherzer

Despite having awful career numbers against Max Scherzer, Ryan Howard is in the Phillies' lineup against him Tuesday night.

Howard, 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts against the Nationals' ace, bats fourth. 

Howard seems to be coming back to Earth. He hit .357 with seven home runs, four doubles and 16 RBIs in his first 20 games out of the All-Star break, but has gone 2 for 16 with two singles and eight strikeouts since.

Jimmy Paredes gets another start in left field. Peter Bourjos is out of the lineup for a fourth straight game.

The rest of the lineup is standard. Odubel Herrera, who bats second, is 6 for 19 with five walks in his career against Scherzer (see game notes).

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Aaron Altherr, RF
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P