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Lee Staying in Philly? Ask Again Later

cliff lee magic eight ballIf only Cliff Lee had a crystal ball and not a $10 plastic Magic 8 Ball.

Maybe then he could see into the future and learn how much time he has left in Philadelphia.

Lee met with reporters following today’s workout for Phillies pitchers and catchers at Carpenter Complex. He finished last season on the disabled list with an injured left elbow, which scuttled any chances he could be traded this offseason. Lee has hinted in the past he would like to leave the struggling Phillies and play for a World Series contender, but he used a Magic 8 Ball he said he found in his locker to deflect those inquiries today.

“I brought this to answer my hard questions,” he said.

Questions like, “Phillies president Pat Gillick said the team would not contend until 2017 …”

“Hold on a second,” Lee said, picking up the Magic 8 Ball. “Most likely.”

So what did he think about Gillick’s comments? Lee signed a $120 million contract with the Phillies in Dec. 2010 because he believed the Phillies could win multiple World Series championships. Instead, the Phillies have not made the postseason since 2011, including a last place finish in the National League East in 2014.

Lee will make $25 million this season with a $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million club option for 2016. Essentially, the Phillies front office has said the team does not expect to win throughout the remainder of Lee’s deal.

Lee picked up the Magic 8 Ball again.

“Yes, definitely,” he said, referring to Gillick’s comments.

Yes, definitely he wants to be traded?

“Let me see,” he said. “That’s another tough one. I don’t know if I want to answer that.”

He looked at the ball again.

“Very doubtful.”

(more…)

Are Ryno and Hamels on Different Pages?

Cole HamelsRyne Sandberg said yesterday he thinks the Phillies have a “chance to surprise some people.”

But then Cole Hamels told USA Today he wants to win and “I know it’s not going to happen here.”

It sounds like manager and pitcher are not on the same page. But Ruben Amaro Jr. and Sandberg said today they had no problem with Hamels’ comments. How could they? The Phillies front office has said the organization is rebuilding for the future and the process could take at least a couple seasons before the team can be a postseason contender.

“Maybe I would have liked for him to have chosen his words a little differently, but it’s totally understandable,” Amaro said Thursday. “Cole wants to win. I think everyone is on the same page. We all want to win.”

Sandberg said he spoke with Hamels about those words. He said Hamels told him that he made those comments “a while ago and it didn’t reflect on his feelings coming into camp. I think it was unfortunate timing and it wasn’t a reflection on how he feels coming into camp.”

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote Wednesday’s story. He said he interviewed Hamels for the story Tuesday.

Perhaps Hamels completely changed his feelings from Tuesday to Thursday, when Phillies pitchers and catchers held their first workout at Carpenter Complex.

Perhaps Hamels simply does not want to ruffle any feathers.

But Hamels has said numerous times he does not want to spend his prime years on a losing team. He told USA Today his limited no-trade clause would not scuttle a trade to a contender.

“He’s one of those guys that sits in the sweet spot for us,” Amaro said about Hamels. “He’s going to be a tremendous asset if he stays with us, and if we get to the point where we move him, it’s going to be because we get assets back that are going to move us forward. He’s in our camp. I fully expect him to pitch on Opening Day for us. I’m glad to have him. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game and I’m happy to move forward with him and get us going back on track.”

Amaro said he has talked to veterans like Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee since they have arrived in camp. Each player has indicated in the past they would like to play for a winning team.

“There’s a lot of talk about us rebuilding and these (veterans) being disgruntled and all of that stuff,” Amaro said. “(But) these guys are all professionals, and they’re going to play and pitch and they’re going to do their best to win baseball games for the Phillies, I’m sure of that.”

Manuel Will Work with Howard This Spring

Mike Schmidt, Charlie ManuelThe Phillies had one of the least productive offenses in baseball last season, and then traded two of their best hitters in the offseason: Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd.

Scoring runs could be a significant struggle in 2015.

They hope a new hitting program in Spring Training can combat a lineup that lacks power. The program involves coaches working with specific hitters throughout camp in an effort to give them a consistent voice as they stress making more contact, using the whole field, having a more consistent two-strike approach and situational hitting.

Former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is scheduled to work with Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Maikel Franco, Jeff Francoeur and Grady Sizemore. Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt will work with Domonic Brown, Cody Asche, Darin Ruf and Freddy Galvis; and assistant hitting coach John Mizerock will work with Chase Utley, Ben Revere and Cesar Hernandez.

“With the minds we’ve got here, why not utilize them?” Phillies hitting coach Steve Henderson said today.

Henderson will oversee the program and float among the hitting groups, which also will have groups coached by Minor League instructors Sal Rende, Andy Tracy and Dave Brundage.

“I’m going to make sure everything goes the way we want it to go,” Henderson said. “We’re trying instill what we want as an organization. I’ve never done this anywhere. But we’ve never had this type of guys to help.”

Billingsley: Ready to Go

If the Phillies trade Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee in the coming months, they will need somebody to take their place.

That person could be Chad Billingsley.

Billingsley, 30, signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Phillies in January. He pitched just 12 innings in the big leagues the past two seasons because he had Tommy John surgery in April 2013 and surgery to repair his right flexor tendon in June. But Billingsley said today at Bright House Field he feels healthy and Ruben Amaro Jr. said he could be ready to pitch in the big leagues by late April.

Even if Hamels and Lee remain in Philadelphia, Billingsley could bump another pitcher from the rotation. Jerome Williams is on a one-year contract. David Buchanan has options remaining.

“It could be sooner or later,” Billingsley said about his potential return. “One thing I know after the last two years is don’t look too far ahead. It was a long two years.”

If Billingsley can return to prior form – his 3.65 ERA from 2007-12 ranked 27th out of 89 qualifying pitchers – the Phillies not only will fill a hole in the rotation, they also will have a relatively desirable trade chip come July.

It is something worth watching as the season progresses.

“I’m feeling really good right now,” Billingsley said. “I started to mix in breaking balls Tuesday and everything recovered really well after that.”

Ryno Talks Lee, Utley, Franco, Billingsley, Brown …

Cliff LeePhillies pitchers and catchers hold their first workout Thursday at Carpenter Complex, so on the eve of camp opening Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg touched on numerous topics.

Here are a few highlights from Wednesday’s nearly 30-minute press conference:

Cliff Lee. Lee finished last season on the disabled list with an injured left elbow, but his elbow is reportedly healthy. The Phillies and Lee hope so. The Phillies would like to trade him as they build for the future. “I know that he started his (throwing) program right around Dec. 1 like normal,” Sandberg said. “He had a little bit of a setback with I think a cold or upper respiratory (issue), but other than that everything’s been on schedule with Cliff. … He’s got no complaints and he’s pretty much where he usually is. So far, so good. We’ll keep an eye on him with his sides and his outings.”

Chase Utley. Utley had a solid first half in 2014 (.806 OPS through July 11), but slumped terribly in the second half (.661 OPS after July 11). Sandberg said he could give Utley more time off this season. “It’s important to have bench players that’ll be able to step in and give those guys possibly more of a rest than normal,” Sandberg said. “But that’s really up to the player and how he’s going. He had an All-Star first half of the season. Still a quality at-bat even if he made outs, still a quality at-bat. But, yeah, I see Chase getting some more days off this year.”

Maikel Franco. Franco is likely to open the season in Triple-A, but he will get a look at both third base and first base this spring. “He had an outstanding Winter Ball, so I’m anxious to see him,” Sandberg said.

Odubel Herrera.</> The Phillies selected the outfielder in the Rule 5 Draft. So far they like what they see. “He’s been impressive,” Sandberg said. “He’s a young guy that’s already opened up some eyes.”

Chad Billingsley. The Phillies hope Billingsley, who missed most of the past two seasons because of injuries, can be ready to join the rotation by late April. “I’ve seen him throw about three or four days ago,” Sandberg said. “He looked very good. He can give us a big boost in the starting pitching.”

Domonic Brown. Brown’s .634 OPS in 144 games last season ranked 139th out of 147 qualified hitters in baseball. His .640 OPS as an outfielder ranked 60th out of 64 outfielders, and his .641 OPS as a left fielder was the lowest of any left fielder since Chuck Knoblauch’s .582 OPS for Kansas City in ’02. “It’s a big year for Domonic Brown, to see if he’s one of the pieces of the puzzle going forward,” Sandberg said.

Unless Unseated, Howard Remains First Baseman

Ryan HowardThe Phillies are rolling out the veterans this week at Bright House Field.

Cliff Lee will speak to reporters tomorrow. Jonathan Papelbon follows him Friday with Cole Hamels on Saturday and Chase Utley on Monday. Phillies fans are curious to hear what they have to say about returning to a team headed in a different direction.

Ryan Howard is not scheduled to speak to reporters, but perhaps that announcement will come. He might be the most interesting Phillies player to hear from, considering his offseason. He finalized a legal battle with his family. His general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said publicly and privately the organization would be better without him.

“Right now, unless he gets unseated, he’s the first baseman,” Ryne Sandberg said today. “He needs to prepare himself to be the best first baseman he can be.”

But certainly it is not a stretch to think Howard feels a little unwanted or unappreciated. That could create tension in camp.

Sandberg said he spoke with Howard about a month ago.

“I know he’s got a lot of things off his mind, coming from him,” Sandberg said. “Ryan was very positive with the conversation. He wanted to be part of the process here with the younger players that we might have in camp. Be that type of a guy. He’s been a Philadelphia Phillie. He considers himself a Phillie right now so for him to take pride in that and going forward help out with the process, that’s something he can also help out with.

“We can get younger around Ryan Howard and have some youth and some hop around him. Like I said, if he gets to where he can really contribute, I’m anxious to see him and see where he’s at and to see if he can be a guy who can raise his game and help us win. I’m confident in Ryan in bouncing back and having that type of year.”

Phillies Interested in Moncada?

moncadaThe Phillies need to inject more youth into their system, so they have not stopped trying to trade Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon and others.

Of course, there are other ways to add youth.

They could take a run at Cuban free agent Yoan Moncada, who is a highly regarded 19-year-old middle infielder. The Phillies have seen him play and they like him. They already have 20-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford in the system, so a Crawford-Moncada combination in the middle of the Phillies’ infield (many project Moncada as a second baseman) is intriguing.

“We know him well,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said today. “He’s a very good prospect. He has a chance to be a very good player. He checks off a lot of the boxes, but we’re not the only team that would be interested in Yoan Moncada. But that’s all I can say.”

There are significant penalties to consider. Moncada is under 23 and has not played five years in the Cuban professional league, so a team will pay a 100 percent penalty to sign him, if they exceed its annual international bonus allotment. The Phillies are less than $100,000 under their $3,221,800 cap for the 2014-15 international signing period, which runs from July 2, 2014, to June 15 this year. So if the Phillies would pay Moncada a $25 million signing bonus, they essentially would pay $50 million.

Then are future considerations, too. If a team exceeds its international budget by 15 percent – a certainty with Moncada – it is prohibited from spending more than $300,000 on any international player for the next two signing periods (2015-16 and 2016-17). In other words, if there are players similar to Moncada down the pike, the Phillies could not engage any of them until July 2, 2017.

“It is clear that those penalties are significant,” Amaro said. “That is part of the process.”

It is worth noting the Phillies did not enter serious negotiations with Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed a $68.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks in December. The Phillies would have paid no penalties to sign Tomas because he is not under 23 and did not play fewer than five years in the Cuban league.

The Phillies still passed, expressing concerns about the price tag and his conditioning.

Knowing that, would they then enter a bidding war for Moncada? They would have to feel very confident about the player and be willing to surrender signing any talented international players over the next two-plus years.

“You can’t miss on a guy that may be that significant a risk,” Amaro said.

Ownership Looking Closely at Amaro

Ruben Amaro, Jr.Phillies chairman David Montgomery hired Ruben Amaro Jr. as Pat Gillick’s replacement as general manager in 2008.

Amaro’s contract expires at the end of the year, and his status is unclear following a pair of 89-loss seasons, including a last place finish in the National League East in 2014, despite a franchise-record $180 million payroll. Montgomery and Gillick have expressed their support for Amaro, but Montgomery acknowledged today on MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM that the Phillies’ ownership group is watching closely and a collective decision will be made about Amaro’s future.

“We think we have a pretty quality guy in that role,” Montgomery said. “At the same time, I have a partnership group … they are looking at this closely as well. The reality is that we have a GM that we think is effective. We have a Hall of Fame GM in our midst as well. If Pat spends an entire year or two close with Ruben, I think he’ll have a very good idea to how effective Ruben is and collectively a decision will be made.”

Amaro has traded Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo this offseason as the team rebuilds for the future. Gillick has said the team will not be competitive until 2017 or 2018, but signs of improvement at the big-league level and encouraging progress from the team’s prospects could help Amaro’s cause.

Davis, Stocker Finalists to Replace Moyer

ben davisIt has been more than two months since Jaime Moyer decided not to return as a Phillies broadcaster.

Comcast SportsNet is close to naming his replacement.

Sources said this week the end of the search is near and the two finalists are CSN analyst Ben Davis and Pac-12 color commentator Kevin Stocker.

Davis, the second overall pick in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft out of Malvern Prep, has been working pregame and postgame Phillies shows on Comcast. He played seven seasons in the big leagues. Stocker played eight seasons in the big leagues, including five (1993-97) with the Phillies. He finished his second season with the Pac-12 Network.

Davis or Stocker will join Tom McCarthy, Matt Stairs and Gregg Murphy on TV with Larry Andersen, Scott Franzke and Jim Jackson on radio.

Phillies Sign Billingsley

billingsleyThe Phillies need to protect themselves in the starting rotation in the event somebody is injured or they trade Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee or both.

They hope Chad Billingsley can be that guy.

The team announced Thursday night it signed Billingsley, 30, to a one-year, $1.5 million contract, which includes performance bonuses. Billingsley has pitched just 12 innings in the big leagues since 2012 because of elbow injuries, but he passed his physical and the Phillies hope he could be in the big leagues by late April.

“He’s a bounce back candidate,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that it’s a good risk. If healthy and if he bounces back close to where he has been in the past, he’s a very solid middle-to-upper rotation type pitcher.”

If everybody is healthy and nobody is traded by Opening Day, the Phillies’ rotation is expected to include Hamels, Lee, Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams and David Buchanan. Billingsley could bump Buchanan at some point. And if Billingsley pitches well, who knows? They might be able to spin him off to a contending team in July.

Again, all that is only if he is healthy and returns to prior form.

Billingsley had Tommy John surgery in April 2013 and surgery to repair his right flexor tendon last June. But before that his 73 wins from 2007-12 ranked 20th in baseball. His 3.65 ERA ranked 27th out of 89 qualifying pitchers.

“We’re going to make sure that we take our time with him,” Amaro said. “We want to make sure he’s healthy when he’s pitching in Philadelphia. We’re not going to rush him. If he continues in a straight line we’re hopeful that by late April or early May he’s ready to pitch for us.”

The Phillies designated left-hander Cesar Jimenez for assignment to make room for Billingsley on the 40-man roster. Billinsgley will wear No. 38, which had been Kyle Kendrick’s number since 2007.

Kendrick is a free agent and will not return.

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