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.”

Best of MLB: Jose Fernandez strikes out 12 in Marlins' win over Rays

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Best of MLB: Jose Fernandez strikes out 12 in Marlins' win over Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jose Fernandez struck out 12 in seven innings Thursday and won his sixth straight start for the Miami Marlins, a 9-1 decision over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Fernandez (7-2) struck out eight of the last 10 batters he faced and struck out every hitter in the Rays lineup at least once. The 23-year-old right-hander from Tampa gave up six hits in beating his hometown Rays for the first time in three tries. He finished the game with 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings, highest among major league starters.

Adeiny Hechavarria and Chris Johnson homered for the Marlins, who won three of four in their annual series against the Rays.

Hechavarria's third home run drove in the final two runs of a three-run second inning off Rays starter Drew Smyly. Johnson made it 5-0 with his second homer an inning later, Johnson's first hit in 22 interleague at bats (see full recap).

Rockies silence Red Sox, Bradley's hit streak
BOSTON -- Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Story and Dustin Garneau hit two-run homers and the Colorado Rockies stopped Jackie Bradley Jr.'s 29-game hitting streak with a 8-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night.

The win ended a three-game losing streak by Colorado and it ended a four-game winning streak for the Red Sox. Bradley's major league-best streak was halted when he went 0 for 4 after moving up to the leadoff spot for the first time this season.

Jon Gray (2-2) gave up a two-run home run to David Ortiz in the first, but pitched six scoreless innings before leaving in the eighth.

Clay Buchholz (2-5) took the loss. He pitched three perfect innings before things came apart in the fourth, when he gave up Gonzalez's homer with the other two coming the following inning (see full recap).

Happ leads Blue Jays past Yankees
NEW YORK -- J.A. Happ pitched seven strong innings, Edwin Encarnacion and Devon Travis had two-out RBIs, and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Yankees 3-1 on Thursday to win the three-game series.

CC Sabathia was the tough-luck loser for New York, allowing just two unearned runs. Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in his first game since going on the disabled list May 4 with a strained right hamstring.

Happ (6-2) allowed one run on three hits in seven innings with five strikeouts and three walks. He has given up three earned runs or fewer in 19 of his last 20 starts.

Sabathia (3-3) retired the first seven batters before an error by shortstop Didi Gregorius on Travis' grounder with one out in the third (see full recap).

Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

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Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.

The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.

In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.

Will he?

The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.

But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?

Poorly.

If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.

Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.

                                                                      ***

While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.

If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.

Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.

Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.

If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways that one if he continued to do so.

Switching over to the glass-half-full side … there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.

If they stay in the race.

                                                                      ***

Getting to Herrera’s bat flip … it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.

Cody Asche: 'I'm close' to being ready to rejoin Phillies

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Cody Asche: 'I'm close' to being ready to rejoin Phillies

READING, Pa. — The stat sheet says one thing, Cody Asche another.

“I’m close,” the Phillies’ once (and possibly future) leftfielder said after going hitless in four at-bats in a rehab assignment game for Double A Reading on Thursday morning. “I’m close, for sure.”

Asche, recovering from a strained left oblique muscle, is just 2 for 16 in four games at Reading, after going 3 for 18 in five games at Single A Clearwater.

But not to worry, he said. There are just “a couple little things” he needs to shore up at the plate, things that have led to “not-so-favorable results,” before he is ready to return to the major leagues.

“But I’m confident,” he said. “They’re easy fixes.”

Asche, a little over a month away from his 26th birthday, said he feels healthy, that he just needs to get his timing back, just needs to face more “good quality pitching.”

Where he will get that opportunity is a matter of conjecture. Immediately after beating Erie, 7-4, in Thursday’s matinee, Reading headed to New Hampshire to begin a road trip. Asche was not expected to accompany the Fightin Phils. Meanwhile, Triple A Lehigh Valley begins a homestand Friday.

“I think the plan right now is maybe go up to Lehigh [Friday], but that’s still in the air,” Asche said, adding that he still must consult trainer Scott Sheridan, as well as his rehab coordinator, before a decision is finalized.

It’s not clear if the organization also believes Asche is close to returning to the big leagues. Manager Dusty Wathan was not available for comment after Thursday’s game.

Wathan did address Asche’s situation after he played his first game at Reading on Sunday.

“It’s like his spring training,” the manager told reporters. “He’s trying to get himself back, get himself comfortable in left field, get himself comfortable at the plate and back into baseball shape.”

Asche, the Phillies’ fourth-round pick in 2011, hit .252 with 10 homers and 46 RBIs in 121 games at third base in 2014. Last year he began the season at that position before making the transition to left, in the wake of Maikel Franco’s emergence. But when Franco broke a wrist late in the year, Asche returned to his natural position.

Overall he hit .245 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 129 games. Five of his homers came in his last 18 games.

“I came in to spring training as confident as anybody in myself, and building on last year and going forward this year,” he said.

But he injured his oblique (which is near the rib cage) while swinging a bat on the eve of spring drills. Then he rehabbed, returned and promptly reaggravated the injury while swinging through a pitch the final week of camp.

It only hurt when he did … well, everything.

“Imagine everything you do during the day, you feel pain in your abdomen,” he said. “Just small things, like sneezing and coughing, are uncomfortable. Getting in and out of cars.”

Nor was his anguish merely physical.

“We’d be here all day if I tried to explain how frustrating it is,” he said. “It’s been a long process. It’s been tiring. It’s been stressful. A lot of sleepless nights during it, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it. I know I’m close. It’s just a matter of time, from here on out. Once it clicks, it will click, and I’ll be ready to go.”

Asche began swinging a bat on May 1, and started his rehab assignment at Clearwater on May 13. He made the move to Reading nine days later.

“I’m kind of over the frustration part,” he said. “I had eight weeks to be frustrated while I was rehabbing. Right now I’m just solely focused on playing baseball, and preparing myself to go up there and compete when it’s my time.”

The Phillies could use him, to add punch to the anemic corner outfield spots. And he believes he can help. 

“There’s still plenty of time,” he said. “We’ve still got a long season left. It’s not even June yet. I’ve got plenty of time to leave my mark on this year.”