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AP_17093811270915.jpg Gary Landers/AP

Joaquin Benoit struck out two of the three batters he faced in a perfect sixth inning on Opening Day. Benoit's numbers in the last seven seasons – and status as a 39-year-old veteran on a one-year deal – make him an intriguing candidate to close games for the Phillies before July.

April 04, 2017

Closers, placeholders and trade bait: Three more Opening Day observations

CINCINNATI – The Phillies are 1-0 to start a season for the first time since 2014, a season that began with Cliff Lee allowing eight runs on 11 hits to the Texas Rangers only to collect his first win of the year.

The Phils’ first Opening Day win in three years had a bit of everything, from entertaining offensive out of the chute, to an effective start from Jeremy Hellickson, the major league debut of spring training darling Brock Stassi, and a near-meltdown from a closer that brought memories of Mitch Williams’ ninth-innings flashing back into the brain.

We wrote a good bit about the latter two storylines: Jeanmar Gomez, already walking a tightrope with the closer’s job when he reclaimed the job this winter after a shaky end to last season, nearly blew a 4-1 lead and had his manager bombarded with ninth-inning questions after the game, and a window into what it was like for Brock Stassi’s family after his emotional graduation to the big leagues went viral in the last five days.

What’s left? 

Well, it was just one game, so we surely don’t want to overstate anything with the following observations. But there is no game on the docket today or tonight – despite the sun shining brightly in downtown Cincinnati – so what else is there to do besides roll out more observations from Opening Day.

Placeholders?

Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis entered last year basically competing for the chance to stay in the Phillies infield beyond the 2016 season, and they certainly entered this season in the same place.

Scott Kingery, No. 11 on our inaugural prospect power ranking list, is considered a fast-rising second base prospect with stellar defense, speed, and some pop, too. Jesmuel Valentin was the 26th man in spring training, the last man cut from camp. Kingery is starting at Double-A, Valentin at Triple-A, and both could make a push to reach the big leagues before the end of 2017.

Both of those guys play second base, of course. J.P. Crawford, the top prospect in the organization, reached Triple-A last summer and could be a strong two months with the IronPigs away from breaking into the big leagues.

But both Hernandez and Galvis are already here and someone still has to prove they’re worthy enough to take either one of their jobs.

Hernandez capped an epic at-bat to begin the Phillies 2017 season (battling back from an 0-2) count to become the first Phils player since 1938 to lead off the season with a home run. Hernandez, who added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, slashed .327/.421.433 in his last 87 games last season while playing superb defense. If he’s added even a smidgen of power to his game, Hernandez is going to be tough to move out of his position.

Galvis also homered on Opening Day. He also doubled. He also brings one of the strongest gloves in the game to a crucial position on the field. Can he block Crawford’s path to the big leagues? Galvis’s .280 career OBP in 481 big league games says he cannot. But if he can build on his strong finish to last season (.276/.319/.518) in his last 47 games and sport an OBP closer to where it was in 2015 (.302) to support his Gold Glove-worthy defense and leadership in the clubhouse, Galvis will at the very least allow the front office to be patient with Crawford this summer.


Trade Bait

Jeremy Hellickson binged "Stranger Things" on August 1 last year and the rest of the baseball world was greeted with an even stranger thing when the trade deadline arrived late that afternoon: the veteran righthander and soon-to-be free agent was not traded.

The Phillies and Miami Marlins reportedly had moved pretty far along for a potential trade, but then the Padres fouled everything up. If Hellickson pitches like he did in the first two months of last season (3.68 ERA in 11 starts) and like he did on Monday for the second straight Opening Day (five innings, one earned run), don’t be surprised if he’s moved well before the deadline.

Ditto for Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, although they’d likely move closer to the July 31 deadline (teams seem to move quicker on pitching, particularly if there’s a desperate need in a rotation). Both veteran hitters had strong Phillies debuts, Kendrick with three hits and Saunders with a run-scoring double in the first inning.

If Saunders can somehow replicate his first half from last year (16 home runs, .298/.372/.551) he could be a pretty enticing chip on July 31. But if I were to handicap the veteran outfielders and the likelihood they’re traded, I’d say Kendrick (who would also bring defensive versatility to his new team) is more likely to go. The Phillies do value the presence of a veteran hitter in their young lineup, and the left-handed hitting Saunders fits nicely into the middle of the order with right-handed hitters Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph.

But if Nick Williams goes on a tear in the next 2 1/2 months at Triple-A, all bets are off.

Pen Pals

Let’s not let Jeanmar Gomez’s ninth inning overshadow the three innings that preceded it on Opening Day. Even with some uncertainty at closer, the Phillies’ bullpen is markedly better than it was this time a year ago.

This time last year in Cincinnati, the Phils’ pen blew each of the first two games as both David Hernandez and Dalier Hinojosa failed in auditions to win the closer’s job. Neither Hernandez or Hinojosa are in the ‘pen anymore. In fact, the Phillies have just two relievers who were on the Opening Day roster last season: Gomez and Hector Neris.

The front office made a point to improve the back of the ‘pen in acquiring Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. Benoit shined in his Phillies debut, striking out two of the three batters he faced in the seventh on darting fastballs.

We all probably make too much of closer competitions and the job in general. Perhaps there is a different kind of psychological pressure in the ninth, but there are high leverage outs to be had in the seventh and eighth innings, too.

If the Phillies do decide to make a change in the ninth, here’s one idea: slide Benoit into the closer’s role and leave Neris alone in the role he’s dominated in as a set-up man.

Why pass Neris up for the job? Again, eighth-inning outs are crucial, too. And perhaps he can graduate to the closer’s job in August, ala Ken Giles two years ago after the veteran he replaces is traded.

If Joaquin Benoit can replicate his Opening Day success for the next few weeks, he would be an obvious man for the job. Benoit has 43 saves, a 2.40 ERA, a 0.977 WHIP, and a 10.0 strikeout rate in the last seven seasons (since 2010). And the soon-to-be 40-year-old reliever would have almost certainly have stronger trade value come July 31 if he’s a closer.


Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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