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February 22, 2023

What they're saying about the Phillies: Aaron Nola, Andrew Painter and a leap of faith

Nola is entering a contract year and the 19-year-old Painter has a rare chance to earn a spot in the rotation.

Everyone's down in Clearwater now. Spring training is officially in full swing and games are just a few short days away. 

This time of year always brings tons of optimism across baseball, but even more so for the Phillies now that last year's incredible run to the NL pennant has proven them a clearcut contender. 

And when expectations are high, there are tons of moving parts that get going, which means tons to talk about. 

So here's a bit of what they're saying about the Phils:

A (calculated) leap of faith

Matt Gelb | The Athletics

Top prospect Andrew Painter has stormed right through the Phillies' farm system and is now in camp with a clear rotation spot up for grabs. 

This kind of opportunity is almost unheard of for a 19-year-old pitcher, but it's a scenario the Phillies have willingly set up after tons of research and tons of trust in one person in particular: Brian Kaplan, their director of pitching development who has worked with Painter since he was 14. 

An excerpt from a deep dive into Kaplan's and Painter's relationship and the opportunity at hand for the top arm on the farm by Matt Gelb:

This is either haphazard or brilliant, but the Phillies are convinced their plan for Painter is the latter because they’ve put an incredible amount of thought into it. It’s audacious to ask a teenager who threw 103 2/3 innings in his first full professional season to compete for a big-league rotation job. The Phillies have mapped out various scenarios to make it work. It requires everyone to have a little faith in the unknown.

“Where our relationship is most impactful for the organization is the trust factor,” Kaplan, 39, said. “Because our relationship is what it is, he trusts the decisions we’re making. And our decisions are not made lightly. Our decisions have been discussed across the entire organization — all the way down to the coaches who were with him from when he first started (in the minor leagues). Strength coaches. Trainers. Mental performance team. Everybody. Everybody’s been in on this.

“He trusts us. He doesn’t have his guard up. He’s not questioning things when he turns his back.”

Kaplan was there five years ago. He was there last Thursday as a resource for Painter and every other pitcher in camp because the Phillies have a deep-rooted confidence in what he preaches. Kaplan and pitching coach Caleb Cotham have created an organizational strength with how the Phillies refine pitchers that was years in the making — and no one could have known it. 

“It all comes together,” Kaplan said. “Everything has its place. The wheels definitely got started a long time ago. But Andy just kind of came into my world and I got lucky.” [The Athletic]

Outfield options

Alex Coffey | The Philadelphia Inquirer

After the deadline deal late last summer to get Brandon Marsh from Anaheim, the Phillies finally found some everyday stability in center field. 

Still, with Nick Maton and Matt Vierling in Detroit now, they do need a bench player behind him to fill in on occasion. 

They're looking to their top utility man Edmundo Sosa for the job, and it turns out he was already way ahead of them. 

Wrote Alex Coffey:

[Manager Rob Thomson] first broached the idea with Sosa about a month ago. He said the infielder was not just “all in,” but seemed to have been thinking about playing some games at the position already. He has spent his spring training working on learning the position with first base/outfield coach Paco Figueroa.

“We’re going to experiment a little bit and get Sosa some work in the outfield, especially in center field,” Thomson said. “We think he can do it. It’s tough in Florida, to try to teach a guy to play the outfield, because of the high sky every day, the sun, the wind, so sometimes it gets frustrating. But I just told him to stay after it.”

Thomson said Sosa has a legitimate chance at playing center field in big league games this season. At a minimum, he’ll play there in some minor league games this spring, just so the Phillies can see how he’s progressing.

“He’ll get some [chances] during spring training, for sure,” Thomson said. “But having said that, he’s still an infielder. And a really good one. So we’re not taking that away from him at all.” [The Inquirer]

Additionally, Darick Hall has also been getting some outfield reps in.

As we noted in our storylines to watch for when pitchers and catchers reported last week, the ban on the shift is going to force clubs to make some defensive adjustments and likely work to the benefit of teams with more athletic and versatile benches. 

So in this case, the more flexible the Phillies' backups are, the better. 

Nola up next

David Schoenfield | ESPN+ ($)

Aaron Nola, the club's No. 2 starter and the longest-tenured Phillie, is in a contract year, and although team president Dave Dombrowski has talked a little bit about an extension over the winter, there's nothing happening yet. 

The righthander has had his ups and downs over the past several years, for sure, but has been extremely durable and mostly good if not great through all of them. 

So it's that consistency and slight uncertainty about the future that makes Nola David Schoenfield's most intriguing player on the Phils heading into 2023:

Some of the intrigue here surrounds Nola's potential contract extension -- which he and the Phillies have started discussing as he heads into his walk year. The Phillies haven't been afraid to open the wallets of late, so this feels like a must-sign for Dave Dombrowski. Nola has been extremely durable over the past five seasons, which makes him a relatively safe bet, at least as far as pitchers go (unlike, say, the Chris Sale contract with the Red Sox that Dombrowski gave in 2019 when Sale was coming off shoulder issues). Nola is arguably coming off his best season with a career-best 8.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio after issuing just 29 walks in 32 starts. If he doesn't sign, that certainly makes for an intriguing season; if he does sign, I think he's primed for a sub-3.00 ERA season and -- with better luck in run support -- a much better win-loss record than 2022's 11-13.

Fun fact: Nola ranks third in Baseball-Reference WAR among pitchers since 2018 -- behind Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. Teammate Zack Wheeler is fourth. [ESPN+]

BCIB goes for gold

Todd Zolecki |

J.T. Realmuto – Kyle Schwarber and Trea Turner too – will be leaving Phillies camp soon to go play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The last time the international tournament came around in 2017, Realmuto was just coming off his third year with the Marlins, was barely on anyone's radar, and still had a long way to go before earning his reputation as the best catcher in baseball. 

But time flies, everyone's well aware of him now, and he's happy to have the honor, along with the chance to bring some more gold into his family. 

Wrote Todd Zolecki:

He still remembers being a kid in Oklahoma, going to his grandmother’s house, taking his uncle’s Olympic gold medals out of a case and putting them around his neck. Realmuto’s uncle, John Smith, won six consecutive world championships in wrestling from 1987-92, including gold medals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He is regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers in U.S. history.

“We were always trying them on, wearing them, thinking how cool they were,” Realmuto said recently at BayCare Ballpark. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I couldn’t believe somebody in our family was the best in the world at what he did. It was hard to fathom as a kid. Getting to watch my uncle on the biggest stage in the world, winning gold medals and then actually getting to wear those medals as a 7-year-old is awesome.”

It helps explain why Realmuto is excited to play next month for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. []

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