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February 22, 2017

Three hot topics for Phillies as workouts give way to games in Clearwater

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Phillies final full-squad workout before the exhibition game schedule begins was shortened by an on-again, off-again rainstorm on Wednesday morning at the Carpenter Complex.

Mark Leiter Jr., a right-hander who isn’t even in big league camp, will take the mound at Spectrum Field with a who’s who of the Phillies' top prospects on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. when they host the University of Tampa in Clearwater.

On Friday, their Grapefruit League schedule gets underway with the first of a home-and-home series with the New York Yankees in Tampa. Alec Asher is slated to start on Friday, with left-hander Adam Morgan on tap to start against the Yankees in Clearwater on Saturday.

With workouts coming to a close and games on deck, manager Pete Mackanin addressed a few of the hot-button topics of Spring Training.

Nola's health

Since declaring himself 100 percent and ready to roll into camp on schedule with the rest of the pitchers five weeks ago, Aaron Nola has continued to exude confidence in his attempt to rebound from elbow woes that shut him down for the final two months of the 2016 season. Nola has thrown to hitters in live batting practice sessions and stayed on course with the rest of the healthy pitchers in Clearwater.

But all eyes will be on the 23-year-old right-hander when he makes his first Grapefruit League start, likely at some point in the next week. And then those eyes will follow him in his next start. And the one after that. You get the point.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” Mackanin said. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm really pleased with the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

If everyone is still confident, in say, another month, the Phillies can feel very good about Nola heading into the 2017 season. But then the storyline really only changes venues, from Clearwater to Philadelphia.

“We have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually, (but) especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

Pitching musical chairs

Jake Thompson got to spend $75 at the pro shop at Belleair County Club on Tuesday afternoon. He received a gift card for having the longest drive during the Phillies' annual spring golf outing of players, coaches, broadcasters and staff.

The manager’s reaction to Thompson winning longest drive?

“I guess your wrist is healed, huh?” Mackanin kidded the 23-year-old pitcher.

Thompson, who had a right wrist sprain when workouts began last week, threw off the mound on Wednesday for the first time since being shut down when camp opened. Zach Eflin, who underwent surgeries on both of his knees late last summer, threw on Monday after skipping a session late last week.

As with Nola, it will be interesting to see how both young pitchers continued to progress into March. Thompson and Eflin are tentatively strong candidates to open the season in the Triple-A rotation with Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Clay Buchholz forming the Phillies starting five.

But there are plenty of other starters in camp, with two more with major league starts on their resumes (Morgan and Asher), and a healthy group of rising prospects at or ready for Triple-A, including Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, Ricardo Pinto, and Mark Appel. With some major shuffling needed, with the caveat that everyone remains healthy, Mackanin was asked about the possibility of a six-man rotation.

“Not during the season,” Mackanin said. “I don't want to. We'll discuss it, but I'd rather not do that. With veteran pitchers, these guys get into a routine. If you take them out of it, they're out of their comfort zone.”

Mackanin would prefer to have two left-handers pitching out of his bullpen. With few candidates in camp, it still makes a lot of sense for the team to try Morgan out in a relief role to solve both issues (the gluttony of starters and dearth of left-handed relievers).

Offensive output

Three years ago the Phillies were flailing offensively through the first two weeks of spring training games and I asked former MVP and unofficial team mouthpiece Jimmy Rollins whether it was concerning.

“Who cares,” Rollins famously said. “When the season starts, that's when results matter. There really is no other way to put it. No one talks about preseason in June. No one does. … No matter how much you want these games to count for something when April comes around, people aren't talking about this.”

Even though he took plenty of heat (from then manager Ryne Sandberg), a lot of what Rollins said made sense, particularly with a veteran-laden team. Although the same can be said about the games the Phillies will play in the next month (that the win-loss results don’t matter, that a lot of what happens in March will be forgotten come May) the franchise is at a different time and place in the spring of 2017.

The Phillies had the worst offense in baseball in 2016. It wasn’t much better in 2015 or 2014, either. New hitting coach Matt Stairs and a front office in its second full season want to see an emphasis on better plate discipline and its players “give away” fewer outs.

Looking to see what, say, Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis or Nick Williams are hitting in Grapefruit League games might not matter much. But how they’re getting those results will matter.

“That's a long process,” Mackanin said of his players adjusting their offensive approach. “It takes a while for all of that to settle in. When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21