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.