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March 17, 2017

Altherr alters swing – but is there opportunity for him in crowded Phillies outfield?

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Phillies hadn’t even completed their fourth day of exhibition games in Florida last spring when Aaron Altherr’s 2016 season basically ended before it had a chance to begin.

Entering camp last season as the odds-on favorite for the Opening Day right field job, Altherr tore a tendon in his left wrist while diving for a ball in a March 4 game against the Braves, exactly a month before the start of the regular season. He wouldn’t return until late July, and even then he didn’t feel 100 percent right after having to take three months off from swinging a bat during his rehab and recovery.

“Physically I felt like I was fine,” said Altherr, who started 54 of the team’s final 59 games last season but slashed .202/.304/.293 with four home runs and six doubles. “It was just the swing, the feel of the swing, being able to stay through the ball consistently. The feel really wasn’t there.”

Altherr’s swing looked in tune on Friday in Clearwater, Fla., when a healthy crowd of 11,173 invaded Spectrum Field for a St. Patrick’s Day matinee against the Toronto Blue Jays. Altherr went 2-for-4 with a mammoth solo home run to left field, his second in 14 games this spring, in the Phillies 7-5 loss.

“(Hitting coach Matt) Stairs made a big adjustment to his stance and it seems to have paid off,” Mackanin said of Altherr, who is hitting .286 this spring. “The home run was a bomb.”

The adjustment? Altherr no longer holds his hands up toward his right ear in his stand, but “rests them on (his) shoulder a bit” before cocking them back when the pitcher delivers to the plate.

“They’re lower, so it’s shorter (and) quicker to the ball,” Altherr said. “It’s just a matter of getting the timing down. I mean, I had a good day today but I’ve been a little out in front, or a little late (at times), just trying to get the timing down. It takes a little practice but I feel like I’m getting there.”

Altherr could surely feel sorry for himself after a forgettable 2016 season. He had a starting job in place, suffered a season-crushing injury, and then watched the front office add two veteran outfielders in Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders to start in the corner outfield positions around All-Star center fielder Odubel Herrera.

A strong defensive outfielder (some people with the Phillies rate him as a better defensive center fielder than Herrera), Altherr has a place on the roster as a fourth outfielder. But with the new veterans here and a parade of top outfield prospects at Triple-A (Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens), Altherr may have missed his opportunity to prove himself as a viable starting option all because of the wrist injury 12 months ago.

“If you want to play, you’ve got to hit,” said Mackanin, who undoubtedly has the final two months of last season in the back of his mind. “If he hits there’s no telling what we can do. He’s making real good adjustments at the plate right now, so we’re going to keep looking at him and see what happens.”

Without doing much research, you could see a possible opening as a potential platoon with the left-handed hitting Saunders. But the 30-year-old Saunders slashed .275/.358/.569 with eight home runs in 109 at-bats against left-handers last season, this despite slashing .233/.294/.392 against them in his career.

“To be honest with you anyone can look at career numbers and it doesn’t really tell you the story of your career,” Saunders said. “I mean, it tells the story, but..”

…it doesn’t factor in a young player’s trajectory and maturation?

“Exactly,” Saunders said. “So it didn’t matter if it was a lefty or a righty, I didn't know how to hit a baseball my first two or three years. Ever since 2012, I feel like I’ve gradually progressed and taken steps in the right direction. Honestly, the last few years I feel like I’ve hit lefties better than I’ve hit righties.”

At the end of his stay in Seattle and last season with Toronto, Saunders got the chance (via regular at-bats) to develop further and prove his worth. But will Altherr be afforded the same opportunity?

You can’t predict injuries or possible trades. Perhaps Saunders or Kendrick (both on one-year deals) could be traded before July.

But with two weeks until the Phillies break camp, Altherr doesn’t have an obvious place for regular playing time. He’s been starting in center field regularly in the last week mostly because Herrera is playing with Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

“There will always be opportunities, so when I get that chance I have to make the most out of it to help the team win,” Altherr said. “Whatever my role is, just embrace it and do what I can to help the team win.

The optimistic outfielder has put his frustrating 2016 season in the rearview mirror.

“I definitely didn’t feel right when I came back and I just wanted to forget about that,” he said. “I was in the batting cages a lot just working on the swing, getting the confidence back, getting the feel back.”

Also from Friday in Clearwater: 

• Aaron Nola’s pitching line wasn’t necessarily pretty on Friday: 4 2/3 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K. But two of the runners charged to his pitching line scored after he exited the game, and after watching Nola get up to 75 pitches, manager Pete Mackanin was encouraged on the whole.

“I’m really happy about Nola, it looked comfortable coming out of his hand,” Mackanin said of the right-hander who missed the final two months of the 2016 season with an elbow strain. “He threw a lot of changeups, which he’s been working on since last year and it really looked good. It was an effective pitch.”

 • Pat Venditte, baseball’s ambidextrous pitcher, made his Phillies debut in startling fashion in the ninth inning of Friday’s game. Venditte struck out all three batters he faced, first from the right-handed side, then as a left-hander, and then finishing off the perfect frame from the right side again.

“That’s really special, it’s fun to watch,” Mackanin said. “I guess he’s in the mix right now, I like the way he threw, mixed it up from both sides. I guess he’s going to go ice up both of his arms now.”

Venditte is competing with a quartet of left-handers – Cesar Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, Sean Burnett, and Adam Morgan – for two open spots in the Phillies bullpen.

 • A busy week of roster cuts was capped on Friday with a trio of top hitting prospects in camp headed for the minor league clubhouse (and eager to return to help the Phillies realize their rebuild and return to contention): J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Nick Williams packed their bags and left the home clubhouse at Spectrum Field on Friday morning.

“I like all of them,” Mackanin said of the trio. “They need to get started and go down the get consistent at-bats on a daily basis and get off to a quick start. We told all of them – make us call you up. Do well and force our hand.”

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