The SportsTalk Shop: Ways to Fix the Phillies

Last week I gave my trimester grades on a season-gone-wrong for the Phillies through the first two months of the season. Today we take a look at how the team should proceed from here:

1) Trade AT LEAST one of the core players
I know this will be extremely painful to the Phillies front office to part ways with one of their most marketable players, but it has to happen. The Phillies have to change the mentality and the look of this franchise and show everyone – the fans, the community and the players themselves – that no one is untouchable. The debate over trading Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd and others is gaining the momentum of a runaway freight train. The Phillies should be open to seeing which of these players would bring you the greatest return value for next year and pull the trigger on a deal. You need to improve this team in multiple ways, and with very few minor league options on the horizon, the only way to start accomplishing this is by dealing a major piece NOW.

2) Acquire a “dirt-baller”
Think Larry Bowa, Pete Rose or more recently, a Randy Ready or an Aaron Rowand. A high-energy guy, perhaps not the greatest talent, but someone who understands the game and will play it the right way. I’m not a big fan of the “WAR” statistic (wins-above-replacement), but those numbers do have some merit. You need to bring people that will help you find ways to win ball games and the Phillies need to find players who at least have a positive number in that category (eg., Ben Revere has a -0.4 WAR as of last week, Cesar Hernandez a -0.6, Tony Gwynn Jr. is a -0.8, Dom Brown is a -1). Each season the St. Louis Cardinals have rosters littered with players who know how to play the game and execute the fundamentals. I’m hard pressed to find very many younger players on the Phillies’ current 25-man roster who have shown the ability to do the same, and someone must be brought in to start doing that.

3) Stop evaluating with rose-collared glasses
John Mayberry, Jr. last year had a WAR of -1.2 and the organization REWARDED him with a near $ 1.1 million raise. He’s had three different seasons to prove himself as a starting outfielder, a platoon outfielder, than a fourth outfielder, a capable pinch-hitter…and has not delivered in any of these roles on a consistent basis (despite a dismal first eight weeks, Mayberry fans would argue he’s deserved more money based on the red-hot June he’s having offensively). The Phillies say Darin Ruf is not an everyday player…fine, then show me a young player who is. Sticking with Revere, Brown and the like when you no longer have reasons to believe in these players is fool’s gold that the team has continued to purchase for three years now.

4) Stop tolerating mental mistakes
Jimmy Rollins made a innocent comment about preseason games being meaningless and he was benched three days IN SPRING TRAINING. If Mayberry can’t shag a fly ball against the fence, then don’t put him out there anymore until he can. If Revere doesn’t remember to tag up on a fly ball with less than two outs or isn’t taking the appropriate lead off a base, then bench ‘em, outright ‘em or option them to Triple-A. Granted, there’s not many major league available players waiting in the wings right now, but giving these guys repeated chances and watching them fail multiple times with mental lapses is not working. I’d rather see Triple-A players Steve Susdorf or Clete Thomas try to fight their way to remain on the big league roster than to see listless players (Brown) not running hard to first base.

There’s another issue to address here: Ruben Amaro, Jr. The current Phillies general manager is pretty much in a no-win scenario, of which he is responsible for creating. If he conducts a massive fire-sale over the next two months, he’s admitting that his five-year plan of sustaining what was a World Series contender has failed miserably, thereby inviting a changing of the guard to take place. If he does nothing, or next to nothing, during the next few weeks, then he could be fired for not being proactive in correcting this out-of-control team. There’s no easy road here and accomplishing the above-listed tasks will not be easily achieved mid-season, but actions must start coming…and soon.

I do believe Amaro’s hands were tied somewhat in trying to rebuild this team a few years ago. Remember that in 2011 Ruben stated that the team needed to take a different direction: produce more runs, work counts, play more fundamentally sound baseball and similar comments. The moves that have transpired since that time are mostly contrary to that belief. Like him or not (and I certainly have not agreed with very many of his decisions over the last three years), Amaro is still an intelligent man with a solid baseball background. I don’t believe he completely gutted this team without outside influence, whether it be pressure to keep popular players in town, bad advice on player evaluations, poor scouting reports, or a combination of all three.

Full disclosure: I backed Amaro when he was making the trades for Lee, Doc Halladay, Hunter Pence, et al, while ravishing what top prospects were a part of the system. I don’t believe I was the only one in the Delaware Valley that enthusiastically bought in to the ‘win now’ mantra and threw caution to the wind when making those deals. I remember the euphoria that ensued when the cash vault was opened and we woke up hearing of Lee’s triumphant return to the Phillies. We all salivated over the “Four Aces” rotation during the thrill ride that garnished 102 regular season wins, and no one back then was worried about Jonathon Singleton, Kyle Drabek and the other prospects exiled to acquire those major chips. I for one was prepared to sacrifice several years of bad baseball for one more World Series championship….a second title that never materialized.

What in-season moves to you think the Phillies should (or will) make this summer? Do you think Amaro will be retained or even make it through the 2014 season? Post a comment below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s Phillies team.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 1/3 Season Report Card

OK, Ruben. You didn’t listen to me. Nor did you listen to most Phillies fans when it came to our free advice on how we could bring the team back to playoff contention…or even recapture our interest in the club.

But before the season spirals out of control even further, I’m going to offer my unsolicited critique on this year’s team to Ruben Amaro, the Phillies General Manager. Forget the mid-term grades – we need a comprehensive analysis here at the one-third mark of the regular season–before it is too late and 2014 turns into a complete waste of a baseball campaign. So today I’ll evaluate the best and worst points of the Phillies this year and have broken down the players into the following categories. Next week I’ll be back with my suggestions on where the team should go from here.

HEAD OF THE CLASS
Despite the poor record, there are several strong positives on this year’s team. Relievers Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Mario Hollands and Jake Diekman each have had a few unforgettably bad moments during this very forgettable season. Aside from that, they have been nearly as good as one could have asked. Papelbon has been lights-out as the team’s closer and looks like a shoo-in to make the All-Star team after the team spent a good chunk of time this past winter trying to unload him. Overall, Adams and Diekman have been very steady middle-to-late-inning guys, getting called in to extinguish opponents’ rallies. In addition, Diekman, along with Hollands, who most people knew nothing about at the beginning of spring training, have served as useful two-inning bridges in several Phillies’ wins in getting the team to Papelbon. Both Hollands and Diekman can be counted on as two of the few reliable young arms going forward, and Adams and Papelbon both could be used in trades if this season continues to unravel (again, more on that in next week’s blog entry).

Fans also have to be happy with what they have gotten out of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd. Utley has been leading the league in doubles and, as of this past weekend, was on a pace to set a new Major League record for a season. Rollins is closing in on the Phillies’ all-time hit record and has kept his on-base percentage around or above .350 all season. While most people were not impressed with the Byrd signing in December, he has been one of the most consistent bats on an incredibly inconsistent offensive team, and has certainly added respectability with his defense in right field.

VERY SOLID
A.J. Burnett was a guy I was hoping they’d sign this off-season and, although they waited until the outset of spring training to do so, has filled in the “number 3” spot quite nicely. He hasn’t been stellar nor consistent in every start this year, but has been solid enough to balance this rotation and make the starting pitching staff one of the strengths of this year’s team.

Also, for a number-five starter, I have to give solid marks to Roberto Hernandez, a player I quite honestly wasn’t expecting much out of this season. With an ERA under 4.00 and the flexibility to come out of the bullpen in a pinch, this is a move that you actually have to give Amaro and Company credit for. I’ll also put Wil Nieves in this class and give a definite “B” for his efforts. In addition to admirably filling in behind the plate and hitting over .275 so far, his greatest attribute may be that he has adequately filled in the backup catcher’s spot, deflecting attention from another trade gone south that sent previous number-two catcher Eric Kratz and a minor league reliever to Toronto for Brad Lincoln (see below).

OK BUT WAS EXPECTING MORE OUT OF…
I have to be honest – I’m a big fan of Chooch, but was frankly expecting more out of Carlos Ruiz than one home run, 10 RBIs and a slugging percentage lower than Nieves’, his backup (through June 2nd). While his on-base percentage is leading the team, I am disappointed at a number of bad pitch selections he has made this year. With all the young arms coming out of the pen, I have to place the blame on the experienced Ruiz for not taking charge and for making some questionable calls behind the dish. I had defended the Phillies signing this 35-year old catcher to a three-year deal, largely in part due to his ability to handle pitchers behind the plate. A little better offense and a few less mistakes in pitch selection might have helped the Phillies have a better shot at being closer to .500 than they are presently.

I’ll also put Kyle Kendrick, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in this category. While they have had moderate-to-very-good success on the hill this year and each deserves a few more wins, they each have had meltdowns at inopportune times—and a team like this year’s Phillies club that needs everything to go right to contend, can’t afford to have mental lapses. I’ve seen each of these players make base running errors and/or pitiful attempts at laying down bunts which, for the money they’re making, is inexcusable.

One may put Ben Revere in a “failing” category but honestly, why would anyone expect him to be anything more than what he has shown throughout his career? He’s a slap hitter with excellent speed who will steal bases when he gets on and will provide some highlight film material with great catches in the outfield. He also has no arm, is prone to base running and route-taking mistakes and has never shown the ability to work a count or coax walks. Revere showed these traits in Minnesota and again last year in Philadelphia. This brings me to my biggest, most grating issue with the Phillies—why do you expect something from players when there’s no evidence to suggest a result different from what you’ve been getting? It’s been a reoccurring issue for three years now and, in my opinion, will continue until the team takes a more practical approach to building a team.

NEAR FAILURES
Despite the fact that Ryan Howard provided one of the top moments of the season—a walk-off home-run against Colorado last week, there are 25 million reasons why he has not lived up to his weighty contract. While his defense has improved, he came into this season as the single-most important offensive player who needed to play like he did before signing the massive contract extension. Despite his team-leading home run and RBI totals, his inability to have success off of left-handed pitching is becoming alarming. Since 2011 in now more than 250 at-bats against southpaws, he strikes out a whopping 43% of the time. Mix in Howard’s paltry .301 OBP and .434 SLG versus all pitchers and you’re left with the fact that he is just not the power-hitting force he once was. Again, if there were other players around him to pick up the slack—or if other more potent bats were acquired this past offseason, his weaknesses would not be as glaring. But since so much of this season’s potential was based on Howard’s return to being one of the most powerful bats in all of baseball—rightly or wrongly—his performance this year can only be considered slightly above failure.

One more time, for the Phillies to expect miracles from the likes of Dom Brown, Antonio Bastardo, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernadez, John Mayberry Jr. and count on these guys doing something beyond what they’ve never consistently done before are Amaro’s biggest gaffes as the GM. For the last five years, we’ve hear it said that it’s time for guys to step up, and five years later, we’re still looking for guys to do so in right field, left field, the bullpen, the bench and now, third base. Bastardo and Galvis had quality campaigns going in 2013 before drug suspensions ended their season and called into question just how natural their successes were. None of these players has stepped in to grab the opportunities presented to them and, for most of these players, one could argue no one should count on them any longer.

OY-VEY!
Jayson Nix, Shawn Camp, Luis Garcia, Jeff Manship (prior to this past weekend’s Mets series), Brad Lincoln, Phillippe Aumont…OK I’ll stop here before you get too depressed.

INCOMPLETES
While Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Miguel Alfredo Gonzales, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin were players looked at having key spots on the team early in spring training–and may or may not hold a larger role in the Phillies future–I don’t think you can critically analyze the performances of these players thus far because of the injuries they’ve sustained.

What areas do you think need the most improvement? What other glimmers of sunlight do you see from this disappointing season-to-date? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and check back here as I outline my plan on what I feel the next steps should be for the Phillies this season.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The Three Big Pigs

 

There were three rather “big-named” baseball players who recently came to the Lehigh Valley to play for the ‘Pigs—the Phillies’ Triple-A minor league affiliate. I had a chance to catch up with two Phillies players who were looking to work their way back to the Major Leagues, and one talented and much publicized young prospect who is anxious for his first taste with the parent club.

Here are some sound bites from Phillies outfielder Darin Ruf and pitchers Ethan Martin and Ken Giles, and then the latest insights on when each of these players might see action in Philadelphia.

Now the latest insights on all three players.

Darin Ruf
While he admitted that he was not quite ready to return to the big leagues, there might be other factors in play that force the Phillies to bring Ruf up sooner rather than later.

First, the Phillies offense has been abysmal and two of the offensive areas where the team has struggled the most—first base and left field—are the two positions Ruf plays. Ruf could spell Ryan Howard and Dom Brown at least once a week each while adding some right-handed pop into the Phillies lackluster lineup. What was interesting to me was that Ruf told me he has not played ANY right field so far in any of his appearances nor has even shagged fly balls out there in warm-ups. With center fielder Ben Revere and backups Tony Gwynn and John Mayberry Jr. struggling mightily, you would think an option—at least for a few games a week—would be to start Ruf in right field and move Marlon Byrd to center. However, with so much riding on this season, the Phillies will soon be going into panic mode if their offense doesn’t improve against someone other than the Reds. Ruf seems to be one of the few in-house options the organization has to offer. As long as he keeps hitting the ball with authority at Triple-A, expect to see Ruf promoted in the very near future.

Ethan Martin
This flame-throwing right-hander looked to be a big key in what has become the weakest part of the Phillies team—the bullpen. His injury in spring training was a major blow to the franchise, and his lack of velocity would be a major concern if it doesn’t return to reaching the mid- to upper-90s as it did a year ago. The fact that Martin said he “felt good” so far in his rehab assignment is a positive. His velocity appears to be increasing with each outing, but it looks as if Martin is still a few more weeks away from moving up to the Phillies.

Ken Giles
With the Phillies bullpen in desperate need of a strikeout pitcher, fans in the Delaware Valley have gone “ga-ga” over this right-hander, whose fast ball has topped out at 102 mph in Reading. While his arm is impressive and his slider has looked good so far this season, he clearly needs at least a few more weeks of minor league seasoning. He has gotten batters to swing over his slider, and most opposing hitters are having trouble picking up the difference between his two pitches. The real test is how Giles performs on days where his command is lacking and to see how he responds when it does. Remember, he had a high “WHIP” and an ERA over 6.00 last season. The Phillies want to see this young phenom to continue to show consistency. If he does, he could be promoted to the parent club as early as mid-June.

A few other notes
After a rocky start to the season and a demotion to Triple-A, Phillies right-handed reliever Justin DeFratus has been throwing the ball better than anyone on the team right now. He has been moved to the IronPigs’ closer spot in the bullpen, but told me that he would feel comfortable pitching multiple innings—which would likely be his immediate role if he’s promoted to the big club. If any pitcher is promoted to Philadelphia over the next week or so, my money would be on DeFratus, as he looks more “major league” ready than anyone else on the staff right now.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez has seen a spike in his velocity while pitching down in Clearwater for the Phillies Single-A team, and could be moved up to a higher level over the next month. While the Phillies have invested three years and $15 million in Gonzalez and are trying not to rush him back, they desperately need him to show something positive in year one of his contract. He could be a candidate to help out in the bullpen in the season’s second half.

Should two or three of the above names, say DeFratus, Giles and/or Martin, continue improving the way they have been over the last ten days in Triple-A, it would certainly help the Phillies’ ailing bullpen and give Manager Ryne Sandberg a couple viable right-handed options in bridging the starters to the later-innings relievers.

Which player are you most anxious to see wear a Phillies uniform? Do you think the team can stay in the race long enough to get some of these “powered-arm” relievers up to the Majors to help improve arguably the team’s weakest link (along with an inconsistent offense) this year? Post a comment below or email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com as we continue to follow the Phillies this spring.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 2014 Season Outlook (part 1)

 

The expectations are not nearly as high for this Phillies this season as they’ve been in recent springs, but ready or not, Opening Day (and the unofficial end to this miserable winter) is here!

In preparation for the new baseball season, we recapped the action from this year’s spring training down in Florida on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and coming up this Thursday, we’ll provide an overview of the Phillies and other teams’ major and minor league systems (our special guests will be ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen & PhillyBaseball.com ‘s Chuck Hixson).

First, here’s a sample of the insights we discussed about the Phillies, their prospects from the exhibition season and thoughts on the new season from inside the Phillies organization:

Here are a few more comments and observations from this year’s spring training season and elements to watch as the 2014 season unfolds.

1) Pray for good health. Ryne Sandberg has been much more adept at resting his older players to keep them fresh. While Charlie Manual would often speak of doing this in the preseason, he would quickly resort to playing his veteran ball players heavily which certainly wouldn’t help the established players deal with injuries as the season would unfold. Still, with an aging core, there’s no question that most of the starting players will have to stay healthy for the entire year for the team to have any shot at the playoffs.

2) The bullpen looks good. In talking with a writer who covered the team this spring, I ask which relievers really impressed him and he rattled off five or six different names. In fact, his biggest question mark was with the team’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, and his velocity and mental approach to the season. If the young relievers can truly develop this season (Jake Diekman might be the stopper before the year is out), this will be a positive for the organization going forward regardless of the outcome of this year’s campaign.

3) The lack of bench power. For various reasons, the team lost potential bench pieces Freddy Galvis, Darin Ruf, Bobby Abreu, Kevin Frandsen and Ronnie Cedeno before the final exhibition game in Clearwater. John Mayberry, Jr. will start the season (barring a waiver-wire addition) as the team’s sole source of power off the bench. Although I was impressed by Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Cesar Hernandez’s preseason, the team starts 2014 with a huge collection of singles-hitters as pinch-hitting options. Plus, there’s SERIOUS depth issues among the organization’s position players. If you lose any combination of Chase Ultey, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cody Asche for any length of time, you’re not just talking about the season being over, you are looking at players who potentially open the season at Double-A needing to step up and play in the big leagues.

We’ll have more on the Phillies, as well as insights on other major and minor league teams on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show. And in next week’s post, we’ll hear from some of the Phillies prospects themselves and their outlook on the 2014 season. In the meantime, post a comment below or email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com with your thoughts on spring training and predictions for the Phillies in 2014!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Can Ruf Make the Phillies?

 

One of the most animated Phillies-related discussions this winter continues to be over the team’s power-hitting first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf. He has solidified a strong fan base in the Delaware Valley region–somewhat surprising since he has never had a full season of success at the Double-A level.

It’s partially because of his ability to rack up home runs as he did in Reading two seasons ago. Or, perhaps it’s because he was not considered a “blue chip” prospect, yet his blue collar approach which we all love a player to have, has forced the Phillies to consider this underdog in their future plans. Although he has been inconsistent in his approach at the plate for the last two years, and he doesn’t really have an available position on the team’s current roster, people have pushed hard for him to be in the ball club.

I pointed out a few weeks ago on our “RCN SportsTalk” show that, at the start of spring training, Ruf would probably not be on their Opening Day roster—not without a key injury to at least one other position player. When I said this, it drew an immediate reaction with our show viewers. Here’s one such email:

“Chris. How can you say that Ruf won’t be on the Opening Day roster this spring? He was the team’s best hitter for the second half
of last year? He showed patience at the plate, and was one of the few players who [showed] the ability to get on base. The Phillies
would be nuts if he wasn’t on the team to start the year, and I don’t know how you can think that he would not???” Dave, Allentown

Again, there are no current starting positions open (first base or corner outfield) in which Ruf could play, nor can he take over the “backup center field” spot on the roster that the Phillies like to have, because he doesn’t have enough foot speed to play that position. Which, in the Phillies’ minds, would keep him from making the team. The Phillies also desperately need to keep a roster spot open for a left-handed pinch-hitting option, which indicates Bobby Abreu or Tony Gywnn, Jr. will make the team before Ruf. However, for all the “Babe Ruf” fans out there, let’s take a realistic approach of how he could make the Opening Day roster. (Note: This would require the team’s front office to show flexibility and change its’ stance on an issue—which hasn’t occurred in quite some time. So you might have to suspend your belief in realism to read further).

Option #1:
The Phillies do without a designated player with great range and speed that would be their backup center fielder in case Ben Revere gets a minor injury or needs a day off. With the shorter dimensions of Citizens’ Bank Park (and other small stadiums around the league), you might be able to get away with Marlon Byrd or even Dom Brown (if your stomach can handle his routes) patrolling the center field for a game or two. This would mean that John Mayberry, Jr.’s role on the team is no longer needed (wouldn’t that kill a second bird with one stone?) and Ruf could make the team as a right-handed pinch hitter, who could spell Ryan Howard at first on occasion, and play a corner outfield spot here and there. If the Phillies do need a long-term center fielder due to a serious injury to Revere (again, like last year), they could bring someone up from Triple-A.

Option #2:
The Phillies could cut another fan favorite, Kevin Frandsen, and go with Freddy Galvis as the lone backup infielder. This might seem the most logical as Frandsen is not a power hitter that the team likes to have coming off the bench (see Abreu, below). Also, Frandsen can only play two or three positions—all of which Galvis and/or Ruf (first base) could man in the case of an slump, double switch or day-to-day injury. However, Ryne Sandberg raved about Frandsen’s pinch-hitting ability a year ago and Frandsen also has a guaranteed contract, so the team would lose arguably their most consistent bat off the bench and be forced to pay him for NOT playing, if they chose this option.

Option #3:
They could keep Gwynn, a player who spent all of last season in the minor leagues, as their primary left-handed pinch hitter. Since Gwynn also has speed and plays center field, it would make either Abreu or Mayberry expendable and clear a spot for Ruf. However, the Phillies love Abreu’s patient approach at the plate (despite his batting average now under .200), and his ability to still hit homers in a pinch–a trait they typically like to have in their first left-handed option (a la Matt Stairs, Lance Nix, Jim Thome, et al). Since Gywnn has minimal power and hasn’t overwhelmed anyone with his bat so far in spring training, this is the least likely option to occur.

Option #4:
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility: infielder Freddy Galvis becomes your “other” center fielder, thus opening up a spot on the bench for Ruf. Galvis, much like Ruf, does not have an available starting spot. While his glove is better than any infielder on the roster, he struggled at the plate in Triple-A (he actually hit better when in the Big Leagues). The team would love to have him start the year in the minors to improve his hitting so that he can become a middle infield starter for the near future. The high payroll, however, dictates the team must play him—and win—now. Having him learn center field would be another way to try to get him more at-bats. (He actually hits better from the right side of the plate and could spell Revere against a tough lefty, if needed). This idea may sound far-fetched, but Ryne Sandberg, who has pretty much guaranteed Galvis a spot on the roster, started him in center over the weekend. Look for that experiment to continue as spring training rolls on.

Are you a fan of Darin Ruf? Do you think he should make the team for Opening Day, and which other players do you think should travel north when the team breaks camp in a few weeks? Hey, Sandberg dropped Howard down to the fifth spot in the batting order for Monday’s game, so maybe anything is possible?! Post a comment below and/or send your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us on Thursdays at 6pm as we discuss the team on future shows!