Week 1: Phillies .500, but Offense Offensive

Ryan HowardThe Phillies finished the first week of the season at 3-3, which is not bad everything considered.

They received strong starting pitching performances in four of six games. The pitching staff as a whole has a 3.38 ERA, which is 11th in baseball. They showed some fight as Ryne Sandberg said following today’s 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the Nationals. The Phillies overcame a seventh-inning deficit to win Friday, an eighth-inning deficit to win in 10 innings Saturday and tied the game in the seventh inning yesterday. They gave up two runs in the 10th, but made things interesting with a run scored in the bottom of the inning.

But the gigantic red flag that flapped in the wind in Clearwater, Fla., planted itself at home plate in Philadelphia:

No offense.

The Phillies are 28th in baseball with a .563 OPS, a percentage point or two ahead of the Mets (.563) and Twins (.515). They have scored just 16 runs in six games. Only the Twins (13) and Nationals (13) have scored fewer. They have hit just two home runs. Only the Twins (1) and Marlins (1) have hit fewer.

Everybody knew the offense would be an issue, which is why we have seen Sandberg use six lineups in seven games (including today’s game). He is searching for a winning combination, trying to find decent match ups and hot bats whenever they are available, although it will be interesting to see how he balances what is supposed to be a developmental year with his desire to win that night’s game. For example, he benched Cody Asche on Friday and Saturday for Andres Blanco. Sandberg said he liked the spark Blanco provided, but the Phillies should want to give Asche as many opportunities to play as possible this season. He could be part of the Phillies’ future, either at third base, left field or wherever. Blanco is not.

The same holds true for Ruf, who snapped an 0-for-11 slump with a pinch-hit homer this afternoon, and others.

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A lot of people are unhappy with Ryan Howard, who struck out four times in four at-bats today. But you might as well relax because he is going to continue to play. First, who is he holding back? Ruf had 12 at-bats this week, which should be enough to show what he can do. And even if Maikel Franco were the hottest hitter in Triple-A, he would remain there until the end of May for the same reason Cubs prospect Kris Bryant opened the season in Triple-A: team control for an extra year. Second, it’s one week. I’m not suggesting Howard will return to MVP form with more time, but it doesn’t make sense to pull the plug on somebody owed $60 million just one week into the season.

The team is going to to struggle and Howard might struggle along with it, but he should get a good look.

Ryno: Small Ball Will Continue

Ryne SandbergRyne Sandberg promised the Phillies would play oodles of small ball in 2015.

He watched those efforts fail repeatedly last night in a 3-2 victory over the Nationals in 10 innings, but he remains as determined as ever to make it part of his team’s game.

The Phillies had runners on first and second with no outs in the third and fifth innings and twice tried to sacrifice bunt to advance their base runners. But Freddy Galvis bunted the ball back to the pitcher in the third and Ben Revere bunted the ball back to the pitcher in the fifth with the lead runner thrown out both times. (A batter earlier in the fifth, Cole Hamels reached base when he attempted to sacrifice a runner to second. He bunted the ball in front of the plate, but an errant throw to second allowed both runners to be safe.)

That’s 3-for-3 on bad bunts on a team that vowed bunting would be a big part of its game this season.

The Phillies also had a runner on second and no outs in the ninth, but Revere missed the sign to sacrifice bunt. He struck out swinging.

“We have to get the bunts down,” Sandberg said. “It’s a priority. We need to improve on that. We could have made it much easier on the offensive side of things with Cole out there on the mound and with the pitching we had.”

But the Phillies would have been better served swinging away in those situations … yes, even knowing the end result of Revere’s at-bat in the ninth. Baseball Prospectus’ Runs Expectations data from 2014 showed a team’s chances to score decreased when a team gave up an out to advance a runner.

Teams averaged 1.4023 runs with runners on first and second and no outs last season.

They averaged 1.2714 runs with runners on second and third and one out.

In other words, the Phillies had a 9.3 percent better chance to score with Galvis and Revere swinging away in the third and fifth innings. That might not seem like a lot, but every percentage point counts for a team that acknowledges it will struggle to score runs this season.

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Frenchy’s Long Road Back

Jeff FrancoeurRyne Sandberg said yesterday he will not pull a hot bat from the Phillies’ lineup.

A single home run might not make a hitter hot, but Jeff Francoeur’s three-run home run to left-center field in the sixth inning of a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park might earn him another start tonight. They were the first runs the Phillies scored this season, snapping a 14-inning scoreless streak following Monday’s shutout loss on Opening Day.

It was Francoeur’s first home run in the big leagues since June 16, 2013, when he played for the Royals.

“I hit (15) in El Paso last year,” Francoeur said. “It was nice. It was a lot of hard work last year. It makes you appreciate being back up here and getting those opportunities. And you don’t want to miss them. It’s a lot of fun.”

Francoeur hit a combined .204 with a .536 OPS in 256 plate appearances with the Royals and Giants in 2013 before spending most of 2014 with Triple-A El Paso. He signed a Minor League contract with the Phillies in November.

He hopes this is the beginning of something.

So do the Phillies. They need the help offensively.

“A lot of hitting is getting confidence,” Francoeur said. “You get beat down, man. 2013 took a lot out of me to be honest with you. I sucked and I thought I sucked and everybody told me I sucked. You start believing it. Even last year just go out in Triple-A, but just to have fun again and play again. Like I said, when I hit that one today it was pretty cool just for the whole fact that you grind and you battle in this game, and when you get an opportunity you try to make the most of it.”

Wait, Ruf Is Playing Tonight?

Darin RufIt seemed like Darin Ruf answered 20 minutes worth of questions this afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

Why? Because Ryne Sandberg actually had him in the lineup against the Red Sox.

Wait, what?!

Ruf has hit .251 with 21 doubles, one triple, 20 home runs, 48 RBIs and an .805 OPS in 447 career plate appearances with the Phillies. He is the only Phillies player with 400 or more plate appearances from 2012-15 with a .787 OPS or higher.

Ruf also has an .839 OPS against left-handed pitchers, which might help a power-starved team of mostly left-handed hitters.

But Ruf has had a difficult time finding an opportunity to play. The Phillies front office and coaching has often cite his defense in the outfield, although the organization just a couple years ago gave Delmon Young an opportunity to play every day in right field. They said then Young’s offense would outweigh his defensive shortcomings. In fact, they almost completely downplayed Young’s defensive issues.

They do not say the same about Ruf, but if he hits, who knows?

“If there’s a hot bat, I’ll have trouble taking a hot bat out of the lineup,” Sandberg insisted.

Baseball Prospectus’ 2015 player projections actually have Ruf as the fourth-most productive player on the Phillies roster with a 1.4 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), despite only 334 projected plate appearances. Only Chase Utley (3.9), Carlos Ruiz (2.9) and Ben Revere (2.5) are projected to be better.

But Ruf has been relegated to backing up Revere in left field and Ryan Howard at first base. For whatever reason, the Phillies prefer Grady Sizemore (0.1 WARP projection) and Jeff Francoeur (-0.1 WARP projection) in right field over Ruf, who has played there in the past.

Sandberg said that could change.

“That’s an option,” he said. “I think there’s versatility and some spots wide open as far as that goes if a hitter wants to get hot. (Ruf) has a little bit of history in right field. Not a lot, but he actually didn’t have a lot of history in left field and I thought that he’s taken to that pretty well. I would say that remains an option for him.”

It should be noted that teams are not beating down the Phillies’ door to acquire Ruf. Scouts generally view him as a part-time player with some power. And I’m not saying Ruf is an All-Star in the making, a guy that would hit 35 home runs if only afforded the opportunity. But on a team begging for offense and talking about small ball like it it something that could actually work, semi-regular at-bats for a right-handeded power bat makes some sense.

If this was 2009 and the Phillies’ outfield included Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth there is no question Ruf should be on the bench. But Revere, Odubel Herrera and Sizemore might not combine for 10 home runs this season. Ruf can’t get some semi-regular at-bats knowing that?

Phillies, McGowan Agree to Terms

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Photo DayThe Phillies added another arm to their bullpen tonight.

A baseball source confirmed an ESPN.com report that the Phillies have agreed to terms with right-hander Dustin McGowan.

McGowan, 32, went 5-3 with a 4.17 ERA in 53 appearances (eight starts) last season with Toronto. He is 25-27 with a 4.57 ERA in 158 appearances (68 starts) over parts of seven seasons with the Blue Jays.

He had a 6.75 ERA in seven Cactus League appearances this spring with Dodgers, who released Tuesday. He would have made $1 million had he made the Dodgers.

The Phillies must finalize their Opening Day roster before 3 p.m. tomorrow. Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles, Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman entered the weekend as locks to make the Phillies’ bullpen. (There is no indication Giles is going to open the season on the DL, despite a recent back issue and his fastball hitting 94 mph today.) The team selected the contracts of Jeanmar Gomez and Cesar Jimenez today, putting them in the bullpen.

That makes six relievers.

Rule 5 Draft pick Andy Oliver had been outrighted to Triple-A, but he elected to become a free agent.

Right-hander Luis Garcia remains in camp. He has options remaining. The Phillies also could elect to carry an eight relief pitcher until they need a No. 5 starter April 12.

Revere, Herrera Make Most Sense Hitting Second

Ryne SandbergRyne Sandberg said nobody should read anything into today’s lineup at Bright House Field.

He said Monday following an 18-4 loss to the Pirates that he hoped to play his Opening Day lineup at least once before next Monday’s season opener against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park. So today’s lineup appeared to offer some clues with the exception of backup catcher Cameron Rupp playing over Carlos Ruiz.

Left fielder Ben Revere and center fielder Odubel Herrera hit first and second, respectively, which made sense.

“It’s a possible combination,” Sandberg said.

Revere and Herrera both offer speed and the possibility of respectable on-base percentages atop the lineup. Revere hit .306 with a .325 on-base percentage and 49 stolen bases last season. Herrera, who is a Rule 5 Draft pick, won batting titles in the Double-A Texas League and Venezuelan Winter Ball. He entered Thursday hitting .328 with a .355 on-base percentage in the Grapefruit League.

“(Freddy) Galvis is another guy in the No. 2 spot,” Sandberg said. “He’s another option depending on that day’s lineup.”

Galvis has hit .218 with a .259 on-base percentage in 550 career plate appearances with the Phillies. He has hit .246 with a .291 on-base percentage in 2,631 plate appearances in the Minor Leagues.

Asked if Galvis has enough hitting ability to warrant the No. 2 spot, Sandberg said, “Playing the game the right way. Setting up base runners, moving the runners and doing some things for the three, four, five hitters. That’s what Freddy has done so well this spring. He fits that mold very well, too.”

But the occasional opportunity to potentially advance a base runner might not benefit the lineup as a whole. The No. 2 hitter in baseball last season averaged 731.8 plate appearances per team. The No. 8 hitter averaged 628 plate appearances.

That is a difference of 103.8 plate appearances in a season.

It is going to be very difficult for the Phillies to score runs this season. Every out counts. So it goes without saying they should have their best hitters at the top, whether or not they play small ball as effectively as Galvis.

Here is a look at the average plate appearances per spot in the lineup in MLB last season:

  1. 750.4 plate appearances
  2. 731.8 (-18.6 fewer plate appearances than spot above)
  3. 716.3 (-15.5)
  4. 700 (-16.3)
  5. 684.3 (-15.7)
  6. 665.1 (-19.2)
  7. 647.1 (-18)
  8. 628 (-19.1)
  9. 608 (-20)

Galvis has hit a bit better this spring. He entered today hitting .288 with a .309 on-base percentage. If he can keep up that pace perhaps some time hitting second works. But if he hits like he has in the past that spot is better reserved for Revere, Herrera or somebody else.

Q&A with Pat Gillick

Pat Gillick, Charlie Manuel, Rich DubeePhillies president Pat Gillick spoke recently with MLB.com about a variety of topics.

Click here to see the story and video.

Here is an extended version of the Q&A:

Question: So for fans thinking about coming to the ballpark this year, what’s your sell?
Gillick: It’s going to be a little bit different. I think what I think is going to be exciting about it is the fact that we’re going to have some new young players on the field. As we’ve talked here in Spring Training, we had a core of players, the Rollins’, the Utleys, the Howards, Pat Burrell, etc., we’re trying to develop a new core. I think it’s exciting to see these young players develop. We think many of them will develop. There will be some that won’t develop. But again, I think it will be an interesting, energetic, energy filled club that we’re going to put on the field. I’m not saying we’re going to win every game and we’re going to have a challenge probably scoring runs, but I think it’s going to be a team that’s going to go out and certainly try to win every game.

Question: From what you’ve seen this spring, do you think the rebuild if further away than you anticipated, closer or still in that 2017-18 window?
Gillick: I think it’s probably somewhere in that window. We’ve had some good acquisitions, I think. Some of the trades that Ruben (Amaro Jr.) made over the winter have brought us some good pitching talent. We were fortunate enough to pick up two or three other people along the way. We don’t know if it’s going to work out, but certainly (Andy) Oliver and (Odubel) Herrera and (Elvis) Araujo, we’ve picked up in addition to the players we acquired in the (Jimmy) Rollins deal and the (Marlon) Byrd deal. They all look like they’re going to be in Phillies uniforms at some point.

Question: How do you assess the rebuilding process to date?
Gillick: The one thing that we really have to concentrate on is more bats and more position players. The players that we’ve received back in the different deals that we’ve made and the drafts we’ve made it’s more pitching. Pitching and defense are very important, but at the same time we’re going to have to score some runs. I think the next wave that we have hopefully it’ll bring us some position players.

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Aumont Outrighted to Triple_A

Phillippe AumontPhillippe Aumont quietly packed up the things in his locker this morning at Bright House Field.

He could have been packing for a trip to another organization, but he was not. Aumont entered Spring Training out of options, which meant if he did not make the Opening Day roster he needed to clear waivers to remain with the Phillies. But nobody claimed Aumont, so the Phillies announced he had been outrighted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Aumont, 26, is the only remaining piece of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners in Dec. 2009. Aumont, 26, is 1-5 with a 6.13 ERA in 45 appearances with the Phillies over the previous three seasons. He went 1-0 with a 4.15 ERA in seven appearances this spring. He allowed 13 hits, four earned runs, two walks and three home runs with 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings.

“I thought I did all right,” Aumont said. “Walks were down. I thought it was good enough, but some other people thought differently. But it’s OK.”

There are mixed feelings about Aumont among the coaching staff and front office. Some still see potential in the 6-foot-7 right-hander. Others do not.

A change of scenery might benefit Aumont.

“Obviously I think that anybody would think that,” Aumont said. “But the bottom line is I’m still here. I’m still getting an opportunity somewhere. That’s all that really matters.”

Aumont could have asked to be released, but he said he did not.

“What good is going to do to ask them to release me when they could have done it on their own?” Aumont said. “So if they didn’t do it, it’s for a reason. That’s the way I see it. I’ve got some work to do. I’ll just get it done.”

Could Giles Be Headed to the DL?

Ken GilesThe Phillies cannot afford to lose Ken Giles to a serious injury.

But Giles left the eighth inning of today’s 10-6 loss to the Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium with what he described as tightness in the middle of his back. Giles said he is not worried about it and fully expects to be ready to pitch Opening Day, if needed. But the Phillies hardly want Giles to risk something worse, so his availability Monday against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park is far from certain.

In fact, they probably will want to be cautious with him. There is no reason to push him in early April in a season without postseason expectations.

“It’s just stiff,” Giles said. “It doesn’t hurt. I’m able to move around and stuff.”

“I’m a little concerned with that, a little concerned with that,” Ryne Sandberg said.

No kidding. Giles is a big reason why the Phillies’ bullpen could be the team’s lone strength in 2015. Giles went 3-1 with a 1.18 ERA and one save in 44 appearances last season. He allowed 25 hits, 11 walks and struck out 64 in 45 2/3 innings. Giles’ 0.79 WHIP was fifth among rookie relief pitchers since 1914. His 5.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio is sixth, and his 12.61 strikeouts-per-nine innings average ranked 10th.

Giles touches 100 mph with his fastball, but his velocity has been down this spring.

It hit 95 mph Tuesday.

“It’s hard to tell if that has to do with his lower velocity,” Sandberg said about the back tightness. “I’m just waiting to see him get checked out, waiting to see what it is.”

“For me, I think that’s perfect, where I need to be,” Giles said about his velocity. “I don’t want to be too in shape when I go in the season, then when the season goes on I kind of wear down. So around where I’m at right now I think it’s going to be perfect. Then I can just continue to build up during the season.”

A lack of velocity in Spring Training is not unusual for closers and power pitchers. Former Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee often spoke about those pitchers needing to pitch with a “third deck,” meaning a Major League stadium.

The Phillies hope that is the case with Giles.

Giles said he felt a muscle on the left side of his back grab him during his plate appearance with Ryan Goins, who grounded out. Giles then walked Mike Reeves. Sandberg and assistant athletic trainer Chris Mudd immediately went to the mound to see him.

They knew something was wrong.

Giles said he has had the stiffness in his back for a few days, although Sandberg said he was not on any injury reports.

“I’ve stayed on it, kept it loose and stuff like that,” Giles said. “I felt like it went away completely today, but then once I got back out there and really tried to rev it up it kind of just clenched up.”

Told the Phillies might want to be cautious with his back, Giles said, “I don’t think they’ll be too pushy on that because they know I’ll speak the truth. Every day they always want to know how I’m feeling and stuff like that, but I’m not really concerned about that kind of stuff.”

The RF Carousel Continues

Astros Phillies BaseballThe Phillies have been trying for years to replace Jayson Werth in right field.

They have started Hunter Pence, Marlon Byrd, John Mayberry Jr., Domonic Brown, Delmon Young, Ben FranciscoDarin Ruf, Laynce Nix, Grady Sizemore, Nate Schierholtz, Roger Bernadina, Michael Martinez, Ross Gload, John Bowker, Casper Wells, Ezequiel Carrera and Tony Gwynn Jr. in right field since Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals in Dec. 2010. But with the Phillies announcing today that Brown will open the 2015 season on the 15-day disabled list with left Achilles inflammation – his DL stint can be backdated to March 27, which means he could be activated as early as April 11 – that list could grow to 18 by Opening Day.

The candidates to replace Brown include Jordan Danks, Jeff Francoeur, Brian Bogusevic and Russ Canzler. Sizemore, who started 11 games in right field last season, remains a possibility.

“We’re very open-minded,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said this morning at Bright House Field. “We don’t have a set right fielder right now.”

Here is a closer look at the candidates to replace Brown:

Danks. He might be the favorite. First, he already is on the 40-man roster and has options remaining, which comes into play. Second, he might play the best defense. Danks has hit .227 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs in 344 at-bats in his career with the White Sox. He is hitting .250 (9 for 36) with one home run, five RBIs and .746 OPS this spring. If Danks is the Opening Day right fielder it would give the Phillies six left-handed hitters in the lineup with Carlos Ruiz the only right-handed bat and Freddy Galvis a switch-hitter.

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