Pence out for Phils' opener vs. D-backs

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Pence out for Phils' opener vs. D-backs

PHOENIX -- Hunter Pence, mired in an 0-for-15 slump, is not in the Phillies starting lineup for Mondays series opener against Arizona. John Mayberry Jr. starts in right field in place of Pence against lefty Wade Miley.

The Phils are coming off two straight losses in San Diego. They lost those games by a combined score of 11-2.

Here is Monday nights Phils lineup:

Juan Pierre LF

Placido Polanco 3B

Jimmy Rollins SS

Ty Wigginton 1B

Shane Victorino CF

Carlos Ruiz C

John Mayberry Jr. RF

Freddy Galvis 2B

Kyle Kendrick P

E-mail Jim Salisbury at jsalisbury@comcastsportsnet.com

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.”

Future Phillies Report: Power from Alfaro, Cozens; Crawford settles in at AAA

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Tug Haines, Don Holohan/Reading Fightin Phils

Future Phillies Report: Power from Alfaro, Cozens; Crawford settles in at AAA

J.P. Crawford is settling in at Triple A, Jorge Alfaro and Dylan Cozens continue to show power, and Zach Eflin threw seven more shutout innings for the IronPigs.

All of that and more in this week's Future Phillies Report:

C Jorge Alfaro (AA)
The home run Alfaro hit Monday in Reading was such a no-doubter that Erie centerfielder JaCoby Jones didn't even turn around. Alfaro's blast landed on the top of the hill in center at FirstEnergy Stadium, his third of the season.

The hard-hitting catcher continues to impress at Double A. He's gone 11 for 29 (.379) with a homer and five RBIs since our last check-up, posting four multi-hit games in his last seven. Alfaro is up to .353 on the season with an .897 OPS that would be higher if he had walked more than twice on the year. 

Alfaro has never been the most patient hitter. He has one goal at the plate and that's to do damage, and so far this season he's been Reading's top run producer. Alfaro has 11 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs in 24 games.

He also continues to stand out behind the plate. Alfaro has thrown out three more base-stealers over the last week to make him 8 for 18 on the season.

Alfaro finds himself in a tricky situation. He's hitting enough to warrant a call-up to Triple A, but the Phillies aren't going to promote him and create a logjam behind the plate at Lehigh Valley with Andrew Knapp. And even if Knapp may eventually have to switch positions, it's in the Phils' best interest to keep developing both players as catchers in the meantime.

Instead, look for Alfaro to stay at Double A, where the Phillies will hope he can stay healthy and build confidence by continuing to torch Eastern League pitching.

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
Six games into his Triple A career, the Phillies' top prospect is 6 for 20 (.300) and has walked four times. Of course he has. Crawford's walked nearly once a game this season, with 34 in 42 games, one every 5.6 plate appearances.

He's converted all 20 defensive chances in his first week with the IronPigs.

Crawford earned the promotion last Friday after hitting .265 with a .398 on-base percentage for Double A Reading. This is his last stop before the majors, which Crawford figures to get a taste of this September. From there, you could see him battle for the Phillies' opening day shortstop job next spring.

Crawford has been batting second for the IronPigs, a lineup spot he figures to occupy once he sticks in the majors. Crawford doesn't have a ton of speed, but his ability to work counts, make contact and reach base at a high clip make him a prototypical No. 2 hitter.

He's faced some solid pitching prospects so far at Triple A. Crawford went 3 for 4 Friday in a game started by lefty Henry Owens (Red Sox). Earlier in the series against Pawtucket he faced left-handers Eduardo Rodriguez and Roenis Elias (Red Sox). Crawford went 1 for 2 with two walks over the weekend against Toledo's Daniel Norris (Tigers). 

RHP Zach Eflin (AAA)
Ho-hum, another dominant start from the Phillies' 22-year-old right-hander speeding toward The Show. Seven more shutout innings from Eflin Tuesday at Pawtucket improved him to 5-0 with a 2.05 ERA in eight starts. He's struck out 45 and walked eight in 52⅔ innings and held his opponents to a .182 batting average. 

Lefties are hitting just .191 against Eflin with one extra-base hit in 71 plate appearances. In fact, he's allowed just seven extra-base hits all season, or one every 28.3 plate appearances. 

Eflin's 0.80 WHIP leads the International League.

The 6-6 sinkerballer just continues to go deep into games and pitch low-stress innings. In his last three starts, Eflin has pitched 21 innings and allowed one run on just 10 hits. He's walked one batter each game and struck out 17. He's been very efficient, averaging 14.7 pitches per inning.

Eflin is six months younger than Aaron Nola, who debuted with the Phillies last season a month after turning 22. Eflin could follow suit this summer. If he keeps rattling off performances like this, he could eventually crack the Phillies' rotation. A spot would open if a pitcher is injured, if Jeremy Hellickson is traded, if Adam Morgan struggles or if the Phillies limit Vince Velasquez's innings.

RHP Jake Thompson (AAA)
Thompson gave up three home runs last Friday and another on Thursday, but all were solos. He followed an eight-inning, three-run, eight-strikeout performance last Friday by allowing three runs in 5⅔ innings Thursday.

After allowing 13 earned runs in his first four starts, Thompson has given up just seven in his last five. He has a 1.93 ERA and a .193 opponents' batting average over that span, and his groundball rate has risen from 35 percent to 48 percent.

The homers Thompson allowed last Friday were to Casey McGehee, Tyler Collins and Chad Huffman. The one he allowed Thursday was to Rusney Castillo. All have played in the big leagues at some point.

Thompson was not sharp early on Thursday but eventually settled in, as he did last week, jamming lefties in and utilizing a two-seam fastball that broke down and in to righties.

In nine starts with Lehigh Valley, Thompson is 3-4 with a 3.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.7 walks.

RHP Mark Appel (AAA)
Though Appel was having some early-season success in his first year in the Phillies' system, the number of men he was putting on base and stranding foretold some eventual regression and that's been the case his last four starts. Appel recorded just two outs on Sunday before exiting for Lehigh Valley.

Appel's velocity was down to the 88 to 90 mph range, which is problematic given the relative flatness of his fastball. If he's sitting in that range he is going to get hit around, period. 

The trouble began when he walked Anthony Gose on a full count to start the game. Dixon Machado followed with a double down the left-field line on a high, 88 mph fastball. After a groundout, Appel hung a curveball that was nearly hit out of the park by Huffman for an RBI double. Three of the next four batters reached and Appel was removed for Severino Gonzalez, having allowed four runs on four hits and two walks in just two-thirds of an inning. 

There was just nothing special about Appel's stuff. His velocity early in games had been 93 to 95 mph, which helped him avoid allowing any runs in the first inning prior to last weekend. But if you were to just arrive at the ballpark Sunday and watch Appel without knowing his name, you'd have never guessed he was a former first overall pick. Is it fair to mention his draft status after each start? Probably not, but that's part of the deal when you get taken first overall and make all that money before reaching the bigs. Appel is aware of that and doesn't fight it — he's learned to accept it.

Through eight starts with Lehigh Valley, Appel is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP, and he's trending in the wrong direction. Let's put it this way: It's no fluke that he's put 60 men on base in 38⅓ innings.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams went 0 for 7 with four strikeouts in a 15-inning game for the IronPigs earlier in the week but has hit in all five games since, going 8 for 18 with three doubles and a homer. Good to see him finally striking the ball with authority. Prior to the last four nights, Williams had just one extra-base hit in his previous 33 plate appearances.

The 22-year-old is hitting .276/.311/.428 this season with seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, 20 RBIs, eight walks and 38 strikeouts. 

He's holding his own against righties, batting .295 with an .807 OPS, but the left-handed hitting Williams was just 8 for 44 (.182) with one walk and 14 K's against lefties prior to Thursday. That continued a theme from last year, when Williams hit .330 against righties and .210 against lefties.

That's why his game Thursday was so promising. Williams went 3 for 3 with a double, a walk and a hit by pitch, reaching base five times against three different left-handers.

OF Dylan Cozens (AA)
From Williams we go to Cozens, who will not stop crushing the baseball. Since having his 11-game hit streak snapped last Thursday, Cozens has gone 6 for 23 (.261) with three doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs in his last six games. 

The season numbers for the giant lefty are startling: 14 doubles, 13 home runs, 39 RBIs and a .938 OPS in 45 games. Cozens leads the Eastern League in homers and slugging percentage (.587) and is second in doubles and OPS.

Cozens is just 21, but he's powering himself up to Triple A. His success is adding intrigue to the Phillies' future outfield picture.

C Andrew Knapp (AAA)
Knapp is settling back in after a two-week slump, going 6 for 17 with three doubles and a homer in his last five games. The homer came against Tigers lefty prospect Matt Boyd, who went to Detroit from Toronto along with Norris in last summer's David Price trade.

It's pretty apparent that Knapp is going to hit his way up at some point. He has a hit in 12 of his last 13 games, and over the last two seasons is batting .321 with a .574 slugging percentage and 77 RBIs in 90 games combined between Double A and Triple A. 

Knapp is working every day behind the plate to get better defensively. Reading manager Dusty Wathan has said his blocking has improved faster than his throwing. Base stealers are 15 for 18 this season against Knapp, who had Tommy John surgery in 2013.

RHPs Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta (AA)
Lively, the 24-year-old pitcher the Phillies acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, followed up his 12-strikeout effort with a quality start and win on Sunday. He allowed three runs on four hits over six innings to improve to 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA. He's struck out 49 batters in 53 innings and allowed just one home run.

Pivetta, 23, is 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA in nine starts for Reading with 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Lively and Pivetta, who was acquired from the Nationals last summer for Jonathan Papelbon, have flown under the radar the first two months because of how many other top prospects the Phils have acquired. But they add to the organization's list of capable young right-handed pitchers.

At some point in the next few years, some of these guys could be shifted to the bullpen. The Phillies won't have enough room in the rotation if most or all of their right-handers pan out.