Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder Odubel Herrera makes a running catch on a ball hit by St. Louis Cardinals Matt Holliday in the third inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on April 30, 2015. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Just as they were for the second half of last season, young players will be in the spotlight for the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training.
The Phillies began a youth movement in earnest in 2015 when they had the worst record in the major leagues at 63-99. Ace left-hander Cole Hamels was traded to the Texas Rangers in July, and second baseman Chase Utley was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August after shortstop Jimmy Rollins left as a free agent the previous winter and signed with the Dodgers.
The lone holdovers from the Phillies' run of five consecutive National League titles from 2007-11 are catcher Carlos Ruiz and first baseman Ryan Howard.
Pitchers and catchers begin workouts Thursday at Clearwater, Fla., and it will mark Pete Mackanin's first spring training as manager. He was promoted from third base coach last season after Ryne Sandberg resigned following a 26-48 start. The Phillies went 37-51 under Mackanin.
Mackanin and the Phillies' staff will spend much of the spring looking at players who likely will begin the season in the minor leagues but could make their major league debuts at some point in 2016. The list includes right-handers Mark Appel, Zack Eflin and Jake Thompson, catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, shortstop J.P. Crawford and outfielders Roman Quinn and Nick Williams.
Right-hander Aaron Nola, third baseman Maikel Franco and center fielder Odubel Herrera established themselves as potential cornerstone players last season.
"To have a core group of players that has come through the minor leagues together, that has graduated to the big leagues together, that has developed at the major league level together and ultimately to win at the major league level together, that is the position you want to put yourself in," said new general manager Matt Klentak, who replaced Ruben Amaro Jr. in October.
Appel was one of five players acquired from the Houston Astros in a trade for closer Ken Giles in December. Also coming from Houston were left-hander Brett Oberholtzer and right-hander Vincent Velasquez, and they will compete with lefty Adam Morgan and righty David Buchanan for the fifth starter's spot.
Thompson, Alfaro and Williams were part of a six-player haul from the Rangers for Hamels. One of those players, righty Jerad Eickhoff, figures to be the fourth starter in a rotation fronted by Nola and including the additions of veteran righties Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton in offseason trades with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively.
One area where the Phillies want to have a veteran presence is closer. They signed former Arizona Diamondbacks setup reliever David Hernandez to a one-year, $3.9 million contract as a free agent in the offseason and will also have three former closers in camp on minor leagues contracts -- Edward Mujica, Andrew Bailey and Ernesto Frieri.
The Phillies also will give plenty of opportunities during Grapefruit League play to left-hander Daniel Stumpf and outfielder Tyler Goeddel who were selected from the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays in the Rule 5 Draft.
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: Four pitchers -- LHPs Brett Oberholtzer and Adam Morgan and RHPs Vincent Velasquez and David Buchanan -- will compete to be the No. 5 starter behind RHPs Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Jerad Eickhoff. Oberholtzer and Velasquez were two of five players acquired from the Houston Astros in the December trade for closer Ken Giles. Oberholtzer, 26, was 2-2 with a 4.46 ERA in eight starts for the Astros and 7-4 with a 4.50 ERA in 12 starts for Triple-A Fresno. Velasquez, 23, went 1-1 with a 4.37 ERA in 19 games, including seven starts, for Houston in his first taste of the major leagues, 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA nine games, including five starts, for Double-A Corpus Christi. Morgan, 25 and Buchanan, 26, split last season between the Phillies and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Morgan went 5-7 with a 4.45 ERA in 17 starts during his first crack at the major leagues and 0-6 with a 4.74 ERA in 13 starts at Lehigh Valley. Buchanan was 2-9 with a 6.99 ERA in 15 starts for the Phillies and 4-2 with a 2.80 ERA in 10 starts for Lehigh Valley.
ROOKIE WATCH: Though the Phillies are in rebuilding mode, many of their players exceeded rookie limits last season, though a pair of Rule 5 draft picks figure to make the Opening Day roster: LHP Daniel Stumpf and OF Tyler Goeddel. Stumpf, 25, was 5-4 with three saves and a 3.57 ERA in 42 games, including one start, for the Kansas City Royals' Double-A Northwest Arkansas farm club last season. The speedy Goeddel, 23, hit .279 with 12 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 123 games with the Tampa Bay Rays' Double-A Montgomery affiliate.
COMEBACK TRAIL: RHP Edward Mujica will be in a camp as a non-roster player but has a good chance of making the Opening Day bullpen and could even wind up as the closer. The Phillies signed RHP David Hernandez as a free agent in the offseason, and he enters camp as the presumptive closer despite having just 19 saves in six seasons. Mujica has 50 saves in his 10-year career, including 37 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. Mujica, 31, had a rough 2015, as he was a combined 3-5 with one save and a 4.75 ERA in 49 games with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics.
--3B Maikel Franco has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, a Phillies great, for his power potential and defensive work at the hot corner. Franco, 23, hit 14 home runs in just 80 games last season to rank second on the team to the 23 belted by veteran 1B Ryan Howard. Franco also had a .280 batting average and 50 RBIs for the Phillies after batting .355 with four homers in 33 games with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
--1B Ryan Howard is in the final year of his five-year, $125 million contact that also includes a $23 million club option for 2017 that the Phillies certainly will buy out for $10 million. While Howard led the Phillies with 77 RBIs last season in addition to topping them in home runs, it a far cry from the four-year span from 2006-09 when he averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs a season. At 36, Howard might be entering his final season.
--C Carlos Ruiz, 37, could be entering his final season, as his three-year, $26 million contract expires in November and it seems certain the Phillies will pay the $500,000 buyout on his $4.5 million team option. Ruiz figures to be the backup to C Cameron Rupp this season after hitting a career-worst .211 with two home runs in 86 games in 2015.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just want to manage each day to win that game. I think the way the players play will convince the fans that these guys are really trying and for real." -- Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, on handling a young team with low expectations.