Thus Endeth the Winning Streak: Sixers Come Up Short Against Bucks

Thus Endeth the Winning Streak: Sixers Come Up Short Against Bucks

After playing six straight games where one team basically controlled the
game the entire way, the Sixers finally caught themselves in a
back-and-forth tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks started
the game on absolute fire—so much so that even our old friend Samuel
Dalembert hit a fadeaway jumper from the wing that I swear he didn't hit
once in his time as a Sixer—and from there, the pendulum swung back and
forth the entire game, with the Bucks getting out to formidable leads
(as back as 16 just after halftime) and the Sixers battling back. The
Sixers had it at even midway through the fourth, but came up one run
short as the Bucks were able to hold on for a 103-96 win.

The
best and the worst tonight came from our breakout point guard, Jrue
Holiday. At a glance, you'd have to say Jrue had a good game, ending
with 25 points on 10-18 shooting as the Sixers' leading scorer. But the
turnovers, a (mostly forgivable) problem for Jrue all season, were
especially costly tonight, as a couple prospective Sixers runs (the
final one especially) were cut off by Jrue giving the ball up trying to
make a cross-court pass in the lane. The Damaja turned the ball over
seven times in all, and his unusually harried play in the fourth
ultimately did the Sixers in.

Of course, Holiday doesn't
shoulder all the blame in this one. Our top two centers, perhaps
unnerved by the news that they weren't going to be spelled by Andrew
Bynum anytime soon, gave us virtually no production tonight, scoring a
combined six points and grabbing a combined seven rebounds. For the
second straight night, Lavoy Allen didn't register a single point,
looking overmatched and short of confidence. Meanwhile, neither Allen
nor Spencer Hawes gave Jrue any help switching on the pick-and-roll,
allowing dynamic Buck scoring guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to
fire away from range (and fire they did, combining for 54 points, 33
from Jennings).

There were positives for the Sixers. Namely, we
got a big boost from the returned Jason Richardson, who prevented the
Bucks from running away with the game early, scoring ten in the first
quarter and ending with 20 on the game. Richardson and Dorell Wright
combined for seven threes on the night, giving the Sixers that added
offensive dimension they'd largely been lacking while he was recovering
from his ankle sprain. For what it's worth, J-Rich was also the team's
emotional leader on the evening, urging the crowd to get into the game
as the Sixers embarked upon a big third-quarter run to cut the Bucks'
halftime lead to ribbons. You like to see that from the team's elder
statesman, especially when he's helping out on the court as much as he
did tonight.

Worth noting that Coach Collins was evidently so
enamored with Richardson and Wright and what they gave the offense
throughout the game that Evan Turner—who had a solid-but-unspectacular
game with eight points, four rebounds and five assists in just 25
minutes—sat on the bench for most of the fourth quarter. The thinking is
understandable, but the Sixers could've really used Turner's rebounding
in the fourth—a couple of second-chance buckets killed the Sixers
late—and having a second ball-handler on the court as Jrue started to
lose control of the game might not have been the worst thing either.
Tough call for Collins, and one he'll have to make a whole bunch more
times before season's end, so it'll be interesting to see where he goes
down the stretch in future games.

Anyway, I don't want to get on
Jrue too much for his fourth-quarter play, so I'll end talking about
part of his game tonight that really impressed me. Twice at the end of
quarters—the second and the third—Holiday was given the ball on the
team's final possession. Both times he dribbled the clock nearly to its
end, but rather than simply hoist a contested across-his-body three—like
say oh I dunno Lou Williams might have done in the past—at the end of
it, Jrue patiently probed the defense, waited until he got some clear
space, and hoisted a high-percentage look, hitting both times. It was so
calm, cool and collected that you'd never believe either was done in an
end-of-quarter situation.

In other words, they were the exact
opposite of the rushed, sloppy, almost panicked way he ended the game.
But Jrue's young still—not only is he just 22, he's only really been
running this team's offense for seven games now. You'd rather see all
the hits and misses with Jrue at this stage than see no spark at all,
and nothing I saw tonight makes me at all worried about Jrue in the long
term. Without Andrew Bynum, Jrue's being asked to do just about
everything for this team offensively, and so far, he's succeeding a
whole lot more than he's failing. A learning opportunity late in this
one for sure, though.

The loss drops the Sixers to 4-3 on the
season, but they'll have a chance to make up for it with four more
winnable games at the WFC, of which the middling Utah Jazz probably
presents the toughest opponent. Wednesday night they get to go against
the hapless Pistons, losers of each of their first eight, with as good
an opportunity for an easy win as they'll get early this season. Whether
or not the Sixers will pick it up will likely be telling about where
our young team is at right now. I have faith.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 34th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see paying players $200 million, $300 million, $400 million when the time comes?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him and the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).