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: Phillies Spring Training Preview

As I gaze out my window at the freshly fallen snow for the gazillionth time this winter (and the extra two feet of the white stuff the plow truck deposited in front of my driveway), I realized it’s time to get ready for the opening of Major League Baseball’s spring training this week.

For Phillies fans, it will be a busy, yet not-quite-fulfilling spring session, given the lack of big-name moves during the offseason. In fact, there are more questions than in any of the last seven pre-seasons, which were met with much more optimism when compared to this year. Nevertheless, several key issues stand out as items to focus on for this year’s Spring Training if the “Phightin’ Phils” are going to have any shot at challenging for a post-season berth. Here’s four things that you MUST pay attention to as camp gets rolling.

THE VETS MUST BRING IT–AND STAY HEALTHY.
There’s simply no two ways around this one. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has used this as his excuse, er, reasoning, behind all the moves they’ve made since last summer. Guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and other “over-35” players must defy human nature and play better than they did the past two years, even given their advanced age (in baseball terms, of course). The mantra of “these guys we’re paying $20-million to play baseball have to produce for us” that Amaro and Co. have repeated this winter is the foundation of whatever the team hopes to achieve this year. Any sign of a major injury, continued decline or even just a status-quo performance by any of the established players could mean doom for the ball club before the season even starts.

WILL SANDBERG BE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THE VETERANS — LONG-TERM?
After watching Ryne Sandberg manage ball players for two full seasons at the Triple-A level, I can tell you that his style is completely different from Charlie Manuel. He loves to hit-and-run, have his players hit behind runners, bunt the winning run into scoring position, steal a base–at appropriate times–and really likes the game played the way it should be played. Trying to convince some of his dyed-in-the-wool veterans to do so will be a much more arduous task. Manuel thought he had explained the importance of hustling to Rollins, only to have to bench him on several occasions for simply forgetting to play at 100%. John Mayberry Jr., provided he gets on base, should utilize his God-given speed and try to pilfer a base once-a-season. It will be interesting to see if all the players buy in to his fundamentally sound brand of baseball…and what he’ll do when, inevitably, a player doesn’t follow through.

WHO IS THIS MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ GUY ANYWAY?
After the initial ESPN-reported signing offer of five years, $48-million fell through, the Phillies signed Gonzalez to a $12-million pact over three seasons. At that time, MAG was unofficially slated to be the number-three pitcher behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro has slowly backed off his expectations so much that is sounds like Gonzalez is not even a guarantee to be in the team’s starting rotation. Sandberg has referred to him as the “mystery man” and almost everyone in the organization admits they have never seen him pitch nor have any idea what to expect from him. Here lies your hopes of a solid pitching staff. Through experience, you cannot expect Kyle Kendrick to be consistently relied on for anything more than a number-four starter. One must dream of a week without snow in Eastern Pennsylvania as a more realistic hope than thinking Roberto Hernandez, Jonathon Pettibone or even Chad Gaudin will be anything remotely close to what the Phillies had in previous year’s “Number-3” guy, Roy Halladay. I will probably be wrong, but I keep holding out hope the Phillies do make a run for A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana or one of the few remaining quality starters available to try to add SOME consistency to this rotation. If they don’t, Gonzalez will be the single most-watched pitcher in camp, and anything short of a performance that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation guy this spring will be a huge disaster for the Phillies.

WHEN WILL ‘PAP’ MELT DOWN?
Notice I did not say “if” Jonathon Papelbon melts down. It’s simply in his track record of sounding off and creating havoc in the clubhouse when things are not going well. If the Phillies gets off to a bad start in spring training, it could happen sooner rather than later. The Phillies themselves were so convinced of this distraction that they tried to give him away to any team with the need/payroll/ space/patience to acquire him…yet found no takers. Remember, with this young, inexperienced core of relievers joining him in the bullpen this year, it will be pivotal for “Pap” to provide some leadership for the young arms…something that will not happen if the Phillies closer is unhappy. Several of the beat writers have told me that he was a major distraction during 2013 (and his famous line “I didn’t come here for this” would only support their claims) and he will continue to be one in the likely event that all of the above things don’t go absolutely right for this team out of the gate.

Am I being too pessimistic about the 2014 Phillies? What are your thoughts on my “big four” items to watch for this spring training? What other players and issues should we be focused on for the next six weeks…and beyond? Post your comments here on our blog or email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep watching future editions of our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” program, live each week at 6pm, as we start to focus in on the Phillies as the regular season draws near.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Offseason Predictions

 

Phillies Offseason Predictions

Around this time for the last several years, we’ve done a segment on RCN Sports Talk  with all of our panelists making predictions on what moves the Phillies would make during the offseason. I can happily boast that most of my September suggested acquisitions (including Raul Ibanez, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, and Jim Thome) have come true during the following winter. (Full-disclosure: Most of those ‘correct predictions’ haven’t always worked out too well—like Adams and Thome). Nevertheless, with Ryne Sandberg now officially the Phillies’ Manager for 2014, I’d like to give my annual “Six-Step Offseason Game Plan” for Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. and company to consider for the upcoming months.

STEP #1: SIGN MATT GARZA
The Phillies desperately need a solid, right-handed #3 starter to begin the 2014 season. Sandberg has said in multiple publications that the team’s number one goal for next year is to improve the starting pitching. As the prize starting pitcher in this year’s free agent market, Garza will not be cheap. However, the Phillies’ starters not named Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee sported a collective ERA well north of 4.50 this year. Also, with Lee turning 35-years old during the next season, the Phillies need another quality, reliable starting arm for any kind of playoff run. Ricky Nolasco or James Shields might be the only other free agent pitchers that I would “settle” for, but all three names are going to command big bucks and a long-term deal. So for my money (and it’s not), I would spend the lion-share of my available budget by going after Garza.

STEP #2: ADD AN RH POWER BAT
Not since Jayson Werth migrated to Washington  have the Phillies had a reliable, middle-of-the-order bat to compliment Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (more on the latter in a moment). I saw Darin Ruf play quite a bit in Triple-A and with the Phils and saw the same issue. He needs to gain consistency in laying off low-and-away breaking pitches. I think it’s very possible he improves in this area, but believe it would be a mistake at this time to pencil him in as an everyday outfielder. With Dom Brown and a weak-throwing Ben Revere in the other spots, you need a better defensive outfield option to play every day. The problem is: How do you acquire a Giancarlo Stanton-type of player without having to sell the farm? I DON’T think they should give up on their extra depth by going after Stanton. That’s why I believe Philadelphia will try to sign Mike Morse—a player they’ve coveted in the past coming off a down year. Ruf could be insurance should Howard or Brown go down with an injury (both have spent time on the DL the last two years) and also in case Morse continues his slide.

ALTERNATE ‘STEP #2’ (DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH OR A DIE-HARD FAN OF A SPECIFIC PHILLIES PLAYER): There is another possibility how the Phillies could add another bat for the lineup, but it would probably involve trading away a “core player.” I know the Phillies are high on both free agent outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, but signing either presents a problem. Ellsbury is another left-handed bat on a team already top-heavy from that side of the plate. Choo is right-handed but not the “power bat” the team needs to add. In an offseason where the team needs to get creative to improve the club (and their outfield defense as well), don’t be surprised if one of these players are added. However, the signing of Ellsbury or Choo would require a higher-end player (either in salary or prospect status) to be dealt to free up either cap or roster space, while still addressing the team’s other needs.

STEP #3: RE-SIGN CARLOS RUIZ
Even if you DON’T like the idea of “Chooch” returning, consider the following – the Phillies’ 2014 starting catcher must:
1) Be right-handed
2) Handle pitchers well
3) Not be over the age of 36
Looking at all available free agents, those three requirements eliminate just about every free agent but Ruiz. I doubt Boston  will let Jarrod Saltalamacchia go and don’t think you can sign Brian McCann away from Atlanta. Even if you could sign the latter, you’d have way too many left-handed hitters. A.J. Pierzynski is too old to count on to catch 140 games. Dioner Navarro, although he rakes left-handed pitching, is not a steady defensive-minded backstop and will finish with a lower batting average than Ruiz. This might be the area the Phillies look long and hard to find a partner via the trade market, and would consider jettisoning away some of their young prospects. Unless they can find a quality backstop elsewhere, look for Ruiz to re-sign a one- or two-year deal.

STEP #4: ADD A SET-UP MAN
Despite the improved bullpen during the last two months of this season, I would not go into next season without a proven—and injury-free—reliever to help out in the back end of the bullpen. The Phillies have been fooled for two years now in thinking the younger players will fill-in all the available holes. Although I would now count on BJ Rosenberg, Jake Diekman and Justin DeFratus for roster spots in 2014, I would not assume they, nor any player coming off an injury, should be counted on for the eighth inning role. Again, it might be pricey. I would target a guy like Joe Smith from Cleveland, who boasts a career 2.98 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP (as of 9/18). I would estimate a three-year, $15- to $18-million deal to get this done.

STEP #5: RE-SIGN DOC HALLADAY OR KYLE KENDRICK
This might be the most emotionally-draining move of the off-season. With Miguel Gonzalez already signed for next year (and without anyone seeing him throw a pitch in the last several months), I don’t know how anyone could target him any higher than a #4 pitcher. It leaves room for just one of these two right-handers. Halladay is a Hall of Famer and was one of the premiere pitchers in the game for the last decade. However, his velocity actually decreased in his last outing at home and he didn’t show signs of making a strong adjustment with his new arm slot. Coming off a major injury, it will be hard for the Phillies to commit big dollars to him, unless Doc gives a big-time hometown discount and agrees to a heavily incentive-filled deal. Kendrick has been frustratingly inconsistent through his Phillies career and, until the last 15 games of this season, has been amazingly resilient health-wise. He was injury-free during his Phillies-tenure before having shoulder problems in September. He might cost $8 million to occupy the #5 spot in your rotation. But with young starters Jonathan Pettibone and Adam Morgan also coming off injury issues, you need to have another arm ready to be available to go for spring training.

STEP #6: FIND A QUALITY SWING-MAN
This was one of former Phillies’ GM Pat Gillick’s strengths: try to find someone who other people have given up on, give him an incentive-laden deal, and hope he performs for you. That’s where Amaro’s scouts will have to dig deep to find a low-risk, high-reward type of player who could either help out in the rotation or as a long-man out of the bullpen. If there’s one thing the Phillies painfully learned this year it was that just because you have a quality starting rotation heading into spring training, doesn’t mean it will STAY quality all season long. A little extra pitching depth is a requirement and could go a long way in helping the 2014 Phillies.

As hinted at with “Step #2”, it may not be possible to make all these moves without unloading salary, which brings us to the possibility of the Phillies trading Howard or Papelbon. Although it may not be probable, I would bet that Amaro will explore trade possibilities involving both of these players. If they do, following the above advice would help cover the team’s weakness should one or both players get moved.

What do you think of my offseason Phillies agenda? Which players do you think Philadelphia will—or should—add? Post a comment here and let us know in what direction the Phillies should go.