July 06, 2016
While Zach Eflin was “shaking” with adrenaline after throwing the final of 92 pitches in a crisp complete game, the first for a Phillies rookie in his first career win in 18 years, Adam Morgan was still pounding the catcher’s mitt in the home bullpen at Citizens Bank Park when Tuesday night's game went final.
Morgan was not warming up just in case Eflin got into trouble in the ninth inning. He was getting in a starting pitcher’s normal in-between-starts side session.
Morgan, taken out of the starting rotation a week and a half ago after Vince Velasquez returned from the disabled list, will make his 12th start of the season on Thursday night at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies. Morgan, whose last start came two weeks ago, is 1-6 with a 6.55 ERA in 11 starts this season.
But Morgan’s spot start is less about another opportunity for the left-hander than it is about giving Aaron Nola a breather in between the first and second halves of his first full major league season.
Nola will continue to watch the last handful of games on the Phillies schedule from the dugout.
Are the Phillies then going shorthanded for the final week prior to the All-Star break? Yes and no. Andrew Bailey is throwing a rehab game at Triple-A Lehigh Valley today and can be activated from the disabled list as soon as Friday and Rule 5 left-hander Daniel Stumpf’s 80-game suspension expires on Saturday, meaning he has to be activated on Sunday.
So two fresh arms could join the ‘pen this weekend in Colorado. And if the Phillies ‘pen gets taxed between now and then, they can make adjustments accordingly.
“In this particular case with Aaron,” general manager Matt Klentak explained. “I think he’s had a very good first half. This is the right thing to do organizationally and we felt given the choice, we’d rather control it and keep him on the 25-man roster than option him or create a fake DL placement or injury.”
Klentak interestingly used the adjective “good” when describing Nola’s first three months of the 2016 season. And perhaps he’s not wrong when you look at the larger picture, and not just the last three weeks.
• Nola’s first 12 starts: 2.65 ERA, 0.987 WHIP, a 5.667 K/BB rate, and a .212/.252/.329 opponents’ slash line.
• Nola’s last 5 starts: 13.50 ERA, 2.556 WHIP, a 2.625 K/BB rate, and a .427/.490/.629 opponents’ slash line.
There’s no getting around that the last five have been ugly. But recency bias makes it easy to forget how elite the first dozen where, and Klentak obviously factored that in when deciding that Nola was not in need of a demotion to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
“The decision to skip his start in Colorado has more to do with, as (manager) Pete (Mackanin) has mentioned, giving him an extended break,” Klentak said. “It’s not punitive. It’s not really due to performance in any measure. We talked to Aaron about it and decided if we could get through to the All-Star break without having to option him, that would be our preference. We’re hoping we can do that.”
Klentak already saw a positive development in the team’s 2014 first-round pick last Saturday, when Nola rebounded from a five-run second inning by retiring the final 10 batters he faced, six via strikeout.
“I think we have to remember that Aaron is 23-years old,” Klentak said. “This is his first full big league season. He’s gone through some tough lineups, it’s getting hot, it’s pretty normal for a young player to fade a little bit. He has to learn to pick himself back up. It may be a small sample, but I would say the last three innings of his most recent outing suggest that to me and probably others that were watching that he’s willing to make some adjustments. He looked like the Aaron Nola from the earlier part of the year in those late three innings.”
The Phillies have not announced who they will align their rotation when they return from the All-Star break at Citizens Bank Park against the New York Mets, but there’s a decent chance Nola will be one of the first three starters out of the gate, while Morgan likely rejoins the bullpen or heads to Triple-A to reboot his professional career as a starter.
Major League Baseball’s trade deadline arrives in 3 1/2 weeks (August 1) and Klentak said the Phillies are still in the “feeling-out” phase of the process. The first-year G.M. didn’t sound like a man ready to clear house before the end of the month.
“(We’ve been) talking to other teams fairly frequently, but nothing hot right now,” Klentak said. “I don’t know if we’ll be super active. We’ll see. We certainly have players that other teams like, but I also like the fact that they’re helping contribute to this team. As we just talked about we’re in a good stretch right now and we don’t really want to pull the rug out. We’ll just have to wait and see. We have almost 30 days. It’s a long time.”
The Phillies players most likely to be had by contending teams include starter Jeremy Hellickson and veteran relievers Jeanmar Gomez, David Hernandez, and Bailey (although the latter two haven’t helped their value recently), catchers Carlos Ruiz and/or Cameron Rupp, and outfielder Peter Bourjos, who has been one of baseball’s best two-way players in the last five weeks.
Hellickson would still stand as the most obvious piece to move. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and the Phillies have a talent stable of young arms that will be back next season (Nola, Eflin, Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff) and rising Triple- right-hander Jake Thompson on the way, too.
The 29-year-old Hellickson, who starts this afternoon against the Atlanta Braves, has a 2.84 ERA with a 4.64 K/BB ratio in nine of his last 10 starts.
“Jeremy's been really, really good for us, not only on the field but off,” Klentak said. “I talked about that when we first acquired him, about the importance of having veterans around to mentor, to just set an example for the young players. And Jeremy's been everything we'd hoped he'd be and more, and on top of that, he's been a really steady member of our rotation. And on a team like ours, having a guy that we are pretty certain is going to give us six-plus innings every time out, that's really important.”
The Phillies could obviously benefit from having a stabilizing force and dependable innings eater with a young rotation in 2017, too. But that surely won’t preclude them from moving Hellickson for a prospect before the deadline. You can always sign or trade for a veteran pitcher in the winter at a reasonable price, as the Phillies did last November in acquiring Hellickson.
The market for non-Cuban international teenage free agent players opened over the weekend and the Phillies have continued to add talent. Most recently, the Red Sox pain (they were penalized by MLB on Friday) became the Phillies gain when they reportedly came to an agreement with outfielder Simon Muzziotti in the last 24 hours.
On Saturday, when the signing period began, the Phillies nabbed two players rated among the top 20 teenagers eligible to sign, including 6-foot-5, hard-throwing Venezuelan right-hander Francisco Morales. Klentak said the front office went into the signing period hoping to nab several high-ceiling kids rather than emptying out the pockets for one player.
“That was part of the plan, to spread out our pool over a number of players rather than to put all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “I know the Phillies did that a year ago with Jhailyn Ortiz, and there are going to be times when we believe that’s the right strategy. In this particular class, we felt it was, we were best suited to spread it out among a number of players. Obviously, we’re only three days into the signing period, but I would expect by the end of it well have spent close to every penny of our pool.”
The hulking Ortiz, a 6-3, 215-pound right-handed outfielder, recently began his professional career with the Gulf Coast League Phillies, where he is teammates with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak. Ortiz has homered in each of the last two games and is hitting .313 (10-for-32) with four doubles in his first nine games in the GCL.
Ortiz doesn’t turn 18 until November.