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September 29, 2017

Phillies Notes: Crawford's readiness for '18, Hoskins' drought, bullpen's surge, and more

Among the more important decisions the Phillies will make this winter will be whether to deal from a position of strength – a glutton of young major league/near-major league-ready infielders – to acquire starting pitching.

Yes, they can go the free agent route, too. We looked at a number of the different avenues the Phillies front office could travel and options they have within the last 48 hours.

The idea of trading an infielder straight-up or in a package for a legitimate starting pitcher could hinge, in part, on how confident the coaching staff and brass is with what remains on the roster. Example: if you’re considering trading Cesar Hernandez, are you confident with the trio of J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, and Maikel Franco moving forward, with Freddy Galvis set to be a free agent after 2018?

Will Kingery be ready for his first big league look early in 2018? Should they hold onto Franco and give him the bulk of at-bats at third base again next year, with some promising free agent options at third base on the market in the winter of 2018-19? Is Crawford ready to stay in the big leagues for good?

The latter question is an important one, and it’s one that drove the front office’s decision to promote them when they did, the day after Labor Day, when Triple-A Lehigh Valley was set to begin the International League playoffs and when the Phillies still had 26 games remaining on their schedule. Matt Klentak, Pete Mackanin, and company felt like that 3 1/2 week period when rosters expand for call-ups in September could give them an idea of whether or not Crawford was ready to roll out for good when 2018 begins.

It’s a small sample size, obviously. But what to make of it?

Crawford has slashed .210/.351/.306 in 77 plate appearances over his first 20 major league games. He’s also played exemplary defense, despite being shifted all over the diamond after playing shortstop exclusively in the minor leagues until last month.

“His swing looks a little long to me right now,” Mackanin said of Crawford, who is in a 2-for-24 funk in his last nine games. “I think he can shorten that up, but he’s been so outstanding defensively that you’ve got to like the guy. He said he loves playing third base, which shows. He looks great over there. He’s a shortstop, but he enjoys playing over there. It’s a reaction position and he’s got good reactions.”

Crawford’s defense at third, coupled with Galvis’s Gold Glove-worthy work at short, is a tantalizing combo and intriguing to think about behind a still-young pitching staff in ’18. But it’s worth wondering if the Phils’ brass would like to see Crawford back in Allentown to start 2018 to build off what he was doing there in the final 2 1/2 months of the IronPigs’ regular season.

Crawford slashed .282/.382/.520 with 13 home runs, 16 doubles, and five triples in his final 72 games at Triple-A this season after a poor start (.189/.311/.249 in his first 55 games) and subpar stay there in 2016, too (.244/.328/.318 in 87 games).

It’s also worth pointing out that Crawford doesn’t turn 23 until January.

“We’re getting a look at him,” Mackanin said. “I want to give him as many at-bats as possible. I’ve played him against lefties and righties. We’re not looking for platoon players. We’re looking for guys that can play every day. He’s held his own. He’s learning what it’s like to be in the big leagues – 40 or 50 at-bats doesn’t tell you what a guy’s all about.”

One of the positives drawn from the offensive side of Crawford’s first 20 big league games isn’t surprising: he’s shown strong plate discipline, with 14 walks (and 20 strikeouts) in 77 plate appearances. Crawford’s 14 walks are the same number that National League All-Stars Kris Bryant, Charlie Blackmon, and Cody Bellinger have drawn in September.

Among NL players, only 10 have walked more often this month than Crawford, including two of his teammates: Cesar Hernandez (who has more walks than strikeouts this month) and Rhys Hoskins (who has 23 walks this month, the most in the NL and trailing Aaron Judge by two among all big league players).

Speaking of Rhys Hoskins…

You couldn’t have expected Hoskins to continue hitting home runs at the historic pace he was on a month ago. But he’ll enter the final series of the regular season without a home run in more than two weeks.

   • In a 30-game span from August 14 to Sept. 14, Hoskins hit 18 home runs in 229 plate appearances. But since hitting his last home run on Sept. 14, Hoskins has hit zero home runs in his last 53 plate appearances.

   • But here’s a rather remarkable stat that shows just how consistent Hoskins has been in the last two seasons, at three different levels (Double-A Reading, Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia): Hoskins has only gone more than 13 games without a home run once in 297 games since the start of the 2016 season. He went without a home run in 14 straight games at Double-A Reading from August 10-25 in 2016. Earlier this season, from May 25 to June 7, Hoskins was homerless in 13 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, matching his current drought.

   Heading into the final three games of the season, Hoskins has played in exactly 162 games this season between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia. His slash line: .279/.391/.601 with 47 home runs, 138 RBI, 99 walks, and 117 strikeouts in 673 plate appearances.

Arms Race

The Phillies’ second-half improvement (they are 35-37 after the All-Star break after a dreadful 29-58 before the break) is a byproduct of several things, including the arrival of Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams to the lineup, Odubel Herrera’s resurgence, and Aaron Nola’s consistency. Oh, and the mostly unheralded work of the bullpen, too.

There’s a lot to like moving forward with the bullpen.

Hector Neris, a breakout set-up man a year ago, is growing into the ninth inning role: he’s converted 20 straight save chances, the second-longest active streak in the majors. Edubray Ramos has been reborn since returning from a midseason demotion: a 2.92 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 6 walks in 24 2/3 innings over 22 games since August 3, with five of the eight earned runs he’s allowed in that span coming in one outing.

And Luis Garcia:

And with all of those right-handers progress, the Phillies appear to have a real left-handed weapon moving forward, too. Former starter Adam Morgan has a 0.72 ERA since August 1 (two earned runs in 25 innings) with a 30-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Morgan’s 3.75 K-BB ratio on the season ranks 10th in baseball among left-handed relievers.

After adjusting to a full-time relief role in the last two seasons, and learning how to prepare his arm and body daily, Morgan has seen an uptick in velocity (his average fastball is a tick under 96-MPH this month).

And he’s established himself among the best left-handed relievers in baseball since the All-Star break:

   Morgan’s 1.02 WHIP since the break ranks 9th among MLB left-handed relievers.

   • Morgan’s 2.01 ERA since the break is tied with San Diego’s Brad Hand for fifth best among MLB left-handed relievers.

   • Morgan’s 4.00 K-BB ratio since the break is tied for ninth best among MLB left-handed relievers with Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and Pirates closer Felipe Rivero.

    Morgan’s .536 opponents’ OPS since the break is seventh best among MLB left-handed relievers, ahead of Aroldis Chapman (.570), Hand (.581), Josh Hader (.582), and Rivero (.605), among others.

For more one Morgan, and how he nearly decided to walk away from the game earlier this year, check out my buddy Jim Salisbury's great story from earlier this week

Little Big League

When the Phillies schedule for 2018 was released earlier this month, there was an odd "TBA" listed as the start time for a Sunday home game in August against the New York Mets. The reasoning, as first reported by long-time Pittsburgh baseball writer John Perrotto in August, was that the Phillies and Mets were frontrunners to represent MLB in the second annual Little League Classic in Williamsport.

On Friday, MLB made it official: the Phillies will play host to the Mets at Bowman Field in Williamsport, the home of the Phils' short-season affiliate Williamsport Crosscutters, on Sunday, August 19 at 7 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN.

"It's experiences like the 2018 MLB Little League Classic that create baseball fans for life," Phillies executive vice president David Buck said in a press release, "and we are honored to be a part of it."

What are you doing here?

Earlier this week, Pete Mackanin was laughing about the rookie hazing the Phillies did last weekend in Atlanta. More than two dozen Phillies with less than one year of big league service time dressed as John Travolta’s character from “Grease” in a song-and-dance routine, entertaining hotel guests.

But the funniest part of Mackanin’s comment about the whole thing was one of the names he mentioned among the veterans enjoying the show: right-handed pitcher Clay Buchholz.

The 33-year-old Buchholz has pitched in all of two games for the Phillies, the last coming way back on April 11. He had season-ending surgery more than five months ago.

But unlike some of the veteran pitchers on the roster from the recent past (including Cliff Lee and Charlie Morton), Buchholz opted to do the bulk of his rehab in Philadelphia so he could spend time with his younger teammates.

“I’ve always been an easy-going person in the clubhouse that gets along with everybody, I think it’s the face time that you show, even when you’re not helping the team on the field, it can still make an impression on guys with a younger team,” Buchholz said. “I’ve been as good as you can be and as bad as you can be (in this game), so I know both sides of the spectrum. When some of these guys are struggling, it’s probably the first time they’ve struggled in their life. So I think it takes someone who has gone through it (to offer advice) on how you can get back from that. … It can turn into a lot and have a snowball effect. I love baseball. It’s what I do. That’s what it is, to be here when I need to be.”

Buchholz, a soon-to-be free agent who earned $13.5 million this year, credited the veteran pitchers he grew up learning from in Boston, including Jon Lester, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, and Curt Schilling, for helping him as a young pitcher with the Red Sox.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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