Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

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Got defense? Brown, Young had it on Thursday

CLEARWATER, Fla. – There were a number of reasons for the Phillies’ disappointing season last year.

Injuries.

Poor bullpen work.

Don’t underestimate defense.

In their 102-win season of 2011, the Phils had the best fielding percentage in the major leagues and made just 74 errors.

Last season, they slipped to 15th in fielding percentage and made 101 errors while losing their five-year hold on the NL East.

Coming into this camp, defense loomed as a large question mark for the Phils because some of the players they were adding to their lineup had shortcomings on that side of the ball, and because, well, the team is getting older and age can rob a player of range.

Defense is still an issue for this team. Charlie Manuel moaned about it after some sloppy games early in camp. But Manuel had no complaints Thursday. His team played excellent defense in a 10-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins at windy Bright House Field.

What had to make Manuel happiest were the guys who played the good defense. Question mark Domonic Brown made two nice running plays in the outfield. Question mark Michael Young made two nice plays at third base. And Chase Utley, the man whose knees are always a quiet concern, showed big hops as he rose high in the air to knock down a line drive and save a run.

“That’s what you want,” said starting pitcher Cliff Lee, speaking for all the pitchers.

Six percent of the runs allowed by the Phillies in 2011 were unearned. That number rose to nine percent in 2012.

How discouraging is it on a pitcher when he’s not backed by good defense?

“Very,” Lee said.

Lee acknowledged that the Phillies could have played better defense last year but added that there were a lot of shortcomings to the team’s game in 2012. How much can the Phils improve on defense this season? Time will tell. Young and Brown will have a lot to say about that and so will Delmon Young and Darin Ruf in the outfield. One thing is clear: If the Phillies play as porously as they did last season, they will be in trouble. It could seriously impact the strength of the team -- the pitching staff.

“We want guys to make plays,” Lee said. “This is the big leagues. We expect guys to make plays. If they don’t, you have to get the ball back and try to make another pitch and hopefully they make the plays. I think everyone holds each other accountable as far as that goes. It’s not like you’re mad at him or he did it on purpose, but I think all of us expect each other to make fundamentally sound plays. When you’re giving outs away, you’re giving the other team a chance to win.

“It’s about focus and making sure you’re in the moment and anticipating the ball more than anything. You’ve got to do that on the mound, too. It’s not just the position players. It’s the pitchers, too. It’s everyone. It’s something we can all do a better job on.”

Brown continues to have an excellent spring. A 2-for-4 performance Thursday left him hitting .400. His swing looks easy and strong. The ball is jumping off his bat. Gone is the uptightness of previous spring auditions. He is playing with a relaxed, confident gait. That confidence is also showing in the field. Brown is running all-out for balls. He’s not tentative.

On Thursday, Brown cut off one ball in left-center, saving a double and made a long run to snare a sinking line drive. He said he wouldn’t have made either play last year. Of course, sore knees would have been part of the reason for that. He’s healthy now. But he’s also throwing caution to the wind, playing full speed and letting things happen instead of forcing them. That comes from confidence.

“He ran like he wanted to get those balls,” Manuel said.

“I’m feeling good, feeling healthy, that’s the key,” Brown said. “I’m out there having fun, trying to make good reads.”

On Thursday, Brown did more than try. He succeeded. His work -- and Young’s at third base -- was a step in the right direction for a team that needs to improve its defense.

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Tuesday night he'd still like another veteran bat in addition to Howie Kendrick, though he understands the front office is conscious of not blocking young prospects.

The Phillies need offense and the clearest area to upgrade is an outfield corner. But don't expect to see the Phils go after Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders or anyone of that ilk, because those players will require multi-year guarantees and everyday playing time. If you sign one of them, you're basically telling two of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr that they won't be needed much the next three years. 

That would be unwise. The whole point of rebuilding is filling a roster with young, inexpensive talent and then eventually supplementing that core with established players who fit. Look at what the Cubs did. Look at what the Astros are doing now, adding older players like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick to fill in the holes around Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

For that reason, a player like Seth Smith would be a worthwhile addition for the Phillies.

Smith, 34, makes $7 million in 2017, the final year of his contract with the Mariners. When Mackanin discusses "professional hitters," Smith is the type. He has one of the better batting eyes in baseball, chasing about eight percent fewer pitches outside the strike zone the last three years than the league average.

He's a career .261/.344/.447 hitter who averages 29 doubles, 16 homers, 56 walks and 102 strikeouts per 162 games.

The left-handed Smith can play both outfield corners, and he's always been very effective against right-handed pitching. He has a .272 career batting average with an .827 OPS against righties compared to .202 with a .594 OPS vs. lefties. 

Smith is a fit for the Phillies for several reasons. They need more offense from the corner outfield. Logically, that outfielder should be a left-handed hitter because the Phillies' projected middle of the order has four right-handed bats in Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Kendrick.

Furthermore, Smith, unlike Saunders, for example, does not require everyday playing time. Smith shouldn't start against lefties. That would provide opportunities to Altherr and Quinn in 2017, while protecting against ineffectiveness from Altherr and another injury to Quinn.

And lastly, Smith is not going to cost anything meaningful via trade. He's a 34-year-old platoon player in the final year of his deal. The Phillies could likely land him for an insignificant prospect, perhaps a pitcher who had a high strikeout rate last season in the low levels of the minor leagues. 

For Seattle, it would be more of a salary dump. The Mariners' 2016 payroll is already $20 million more than it was last year, and per reports, they seem willing to spend to improve their starting rotation.

Smith is not a game-changer, that's not the argument here. He's not J.D. Martinez, a much bigger name and better player. Martinez would also fit the Phillies as a one-year option, and they'd likely be interested in keeping him around longer if they could acquire him. But any trade with the Tigers for Martinez wouldn't be nearly as painless for the Phils as acquiring Smith. 

So perhaps more than other available outfielders, Smith would be an offensive upgrade and a player who fits the Phillies' goal of improving without stunting a top prospect's growth.

Top Phillies prospect Mickey Moniak adds muscle, looks for big season 2017

Top Phillies prospect Mickey Moniak adds muscle, looks for big season 2017

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The difference was striking.
 
When Mickey Moniak arrived in Philadelphia to sign his first professional contract six months ago, he was rail-thin and 170 pounds.
 
On Tuesday night, Moniak made a quick visit to the winter meetings to be honored as Baseball America’s high school player of the year for 2016. 
 
He’d added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame.
 
“It’s all muscle,” Moniak said proudly.
 
The Phillies selected Moniak with the first pick in the June draft and signed him for $6.1 million. Just a few months of professional baseball convinced the 18-year-old centerfielder that he needed to get stronger. He recently capped off his first year of pro ball with a three-week stint at the Phillies’ strength and conditioning camp in Clearwater.
 
“It’s something the Phillies wanted me to do and I knew I definitely needed it, too,” Moniak said. “I really enjoyed my first year. I got a taste of what it was like to play baseball for a job and it was a good time.
 
“There were a lot of positives that came out of the first year. I felt like I jumped in there and really competed. I hit well in July. In August, I started to fatigue and I wasn’t prepared for that, being my first season. But it was a good learning experience. I needed to get stronger.”
 
Moniak hit .284 with a .340 on-base percentage, 11 doubles, four triples, a homer and 28 RBIs in 46 games for the Phillies’ prospect-stacked Gulf Coast League team. That club, loaded with young Latin players and first-year talent from the 2016 draft, went 41-17 and advanced to the finals of the league playoffs before losing to the Cardinals.
 
After the playoffs, many of the players from that club participated in the Florida instructional league. Moniak played sparingly, however, after dealing with some soreness in his right hip. He was checked out by doctors in Philadelphia and there are no more concerns.
 
“It was just tightness,” Moniak said. “Everything is good. I’m 100 percent. They said it was either a growing pain or just tightness. I just have to stretch more.”
 
Moniak is an athletic centerfielder with speed and a good left-side bat. He has been compared favorably to former All-Star Steve Finley.
 
"Collectively, we believe Mickey was the best player available in the draft," Johnny Almaraz, the Phillies head of amateur scouting, said on draft night in June. "He's a true centerfielder with incredible offensive ability and the potential to be a perennial All-Star."

Moniak hit .476 with seven homers, 12 triples and four doubles at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, California, during his senior season. He impressed a rival scout who saw him play five times during the season.

“The bat is good,” the scout said. “He’s going to hit and hit for average. He’s a good centerfielder. He can run. The question is how many home runs will he hit? If he ends up getting stronger, he could be a corner bat that’s unbelievable. There’s no negative here. It’s a good pick.”
 
Now, Moniak is stronger. He looked sturdy in a dress shirt and tie at the winter meetings Tuesday night. He is eager to see how it all translates on the field in 2017.
 
“I’m excited for the season,” he said. “I’m just going to go to spring training and compete and hopefully end up in (Single A) Lakewood, stay healthy and hopefully have a winning season and win a championship. That’s the ultimate goal and if personal stats come with that, too, that’s great.”