Will Venable to Phillies: Latest Contract Details, Comments and Reaction

March 28, 2016 by Joseph Zucker  
Filed under Fan News

Will Venable didn't have to wait long to find a new team. One day after the Cleveland Indians announced they released the 33-year-old outfielder, he reportedly agreed to a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki and CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury.  

The Phillies confirmed the deal on Twitter.

In 135 games with the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers in 2015, Venable hit .244 with six home runs, 33 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb posited Venable could be a good platoon option in right field with right-handed bat Tyler Goeddel. Historically, Venable is a much better hitter against right-handed pitching than he is against lefties, per Baseball-Reference.com:

Despite his struggles over the past two seasons, Venable can still be a valuable member of an MLB outfield, especially if he's splitting time and not playing every day.

He ranked 25th in FanGraphs' baserunning metric among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances in 2015. Not only is Venable a threat to steal, he can also advance an extra base on base hits on occasion. In addition, he will help Philadelphia defensively, especially given his ability to play all three outfield positions.

The Phillies almost certainly aren't going to be a playoff contender in 2016. PECOTA projects them to win an MLB-worst 66 games, per Baseball Prospectus. Adding Venable won't make them contenders overnight, but he'll add depth to the outfield and provide security in the event Goeddel struggles in the majors.

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Pete Mackanin, Phillies Agree to New Contract: Latest Details and Reaction

March 25, 2016 by Joe Pantorno  
Filed under Fan News

The Philadelphia Phillies announced on Friday they have signed manager Pete Mackanin to a new two-year contract for the 2016 and 2017 seasons. 

The deal also includes a club option for the 2018 season and replaces the contract Mackanin signed back in September 2015, per the team

Mackanin, who was originally the team's third-base coach, took over the Phillies manager job in the final 88 games of the 2015 season after Ryne Sandberg resigned in June. 

He went 37-51 with a young, inexperienced team that began the year 26-48 and were already 15.5 games behind the first-place Washington Nationals at the time of Sandberg's resignation. 

The small improvement in winning percentage didn't do much for the Phillies, who ended the season with a league-worst 63-99 record. 

His side was made up of either inexperienced youngsters or veterans on their last legs. Five of Philadelphia's starters in the field were 25 or younger, while the likes of 37-year-old Carlos Ruiz and 36-year-old Ryan Howard didn't hit over .229. 

The Phillies' pitching staff didn't help, either, with a team ERA of 4.69. Only the Colorado Rockies had a worse mark than that. 

Mackanin will once again have to deal with a team that is trying to rebuild with young talent, such as third baseman Maikel Franco and starting pitcher Aaron Nola, in a National League East that looks to be dominated by the New York Mets and Nationals. 

With expectations low around Philadelphia for the 2016 season, Mackanin will have an opportunity to surprise some people in baseball if he manages his Phillies to some success. 

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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Maikel Franco’s Monstrous Spring Signals MLB’s Next Big Hitting Star Has Arrived

March 25, 2016 by Zachary D. Rymer  
Filed under Fan News

Maikel Franco has apparently decided on the Kris Bryant route to stardom: hit a whole bunch of dingers in spring training, and then keep right on slugging in the regular season.

A fine choice, indeed. And one that could pay off just as well for Franco as it did for Bryant.

The Philadelphia Phillies' young third baseman has the first part down for now. Fresh off a rookie season that featured 14 home runs in only 80 games, Franco has slugged seven home runs in 17 games this spring. That's the most of any other player this spring, and just two fewer than Bryant hit in his Rookie of the Year preamble last spring.

All rise for a moving-pictures demonstration of Franco's power display:

Franco, 23, isn't skimping on other numbers either. He's also racked up a .300/.340/.720 slash line. And next to a slugging percentage that high, that Franco has only struck out nine times in 50 at-bats comes dangerously close to being an earth-shattering paradox.

Now, this is where we're obligated to mention this is only spring training. Weird things happen in spring training. WeirdThings. Because of that, the spring exhibition season isn't quite the equal of Nostradamus, or even Paul the Octopus, when it comes to predictive powers.

However, there are cases when spring training isn't completely useless. As Neil Paine wrote at FiveThirtyEight in 2014, spring numbers should affect our outlook on a player so long as they're "particularly strong or weak." Franco's certainly qualify as the former.

And it's not like they've come out of nowhere. Franco was considered one of the game's top young players going into the 2015 season, as he was ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and others.

The general agreement was that Franco's bat was his primary calling card. He made good on that by putting up an .840 OPS to go with his 14 dingers, and those numbers pass the smell test.

Craig Edwards of FanGraphs saw an offensive profile similar to that of Adrian Beltre, in that Franco was an aggressive swinger but in enough control to make plenty of contact. His power was also legit, as Mike Petriello of MLB.com notes that Franco was among baseball's best at hitting the ball hard when he got it airborne. It's no wonder he didn't need to rely on Citizens Bank Park to boost his power.

Had Franco not been sidelined by a broken wrist, he might have made a run at 25 or even 30 home runs. As such, good health was arguably the only thing he needed to emerge as a top power hitter in 2016.

But apart from good health, Franco has offered a couple of explanations for what's different this spring. One is that, as he told Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press (via the Washington Times), he's simply "more comfortable" knowing that he's going to come to the ballpark and see his name in Pete Mackanin's lineup every day.

As for why this comfort has translated to so much power, well, that's supposedly the whole idea. As he told Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, hitting for more power is "what I've been working on."

Franco didn't elaborate exactly what he's been working on, but there's nothing that can't be solved with a Sherlock Holmes mindset and a willingness to scour the Internet for clues.

To that end, it's not surprising that a good but not quite elite prospect like Franco entered the big leagues with some notable weaknesses. One that Baseball America pointed out was that Franco's swing "can get long" and leave him "vulnerable to velocity on his hands."

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, this leads us to a plot of Franco's power production in 2015:

The catch is that 80 games isn't a huge sample size, but it makes sense that Franco tended to drive pitches out over the plate. As a guy with a long swing, he would drive the ball best when he could get his arms extended. And when the focus is narrowed to fastballs only, the effect is even more pronounced.

But if you watched the above video closely, you might have noticed the location of the two Jordan Zimmermann fastballs that Franco sent into orbit. The first was here:

And the second was here:

Though neither fastball was quite in Franco's kitchen, both appear to be on the inner half of the plate. The same goes for his second home run of the spring and—though the camera angles are less than ideal—seemingly his first, fifth and sixth home runs as well.

Admittedly, it's hard to tell the exact location of each of the pitches Franco took for a ride without the help of PITCHf/x. But to the naked eye, it sure seems like he's upped his power potential against inside pitches from "very little" to "a whole lot."

And our eyes may not be deceiving us. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs took a closer look at one of Franco's dingers off Zimmermann and noticed a slight difference in his swing. Relative to a swing at a similar pitch in 2015, Franco did a better job of keeping his hands tucked to his body, effectively shortening his swing.

That is, Franco may now be doing a thing that will help him do a thing that he wasn't so good at before. This is what us baseball folk call an "adjustment," and they sometimes lead to greatness.

Just what kind of greatness could we see from Franco in 2016? Let's allow Jayson Stark of ESPN.com to give us an idea.

"I had a scout predict to me that if he plays 130 games this year, he will hit 35 home runs," Stark said on a recent podcast (via Joe Giglio of NJ Advance Media).

That would be a case of Franco drastically outplaying his projections for 2016. At FanGraphs, neither Steamer nor ZiPS sees more than 25 home runs in Franco's immediate future. At Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA thinks the same.

But the scout who Stark spoke to isn't off his rocker. Franco teased 25-30 home run potential in 2015 even despite the sizable hole in his power stroke. If he has indeed closed that hole, an extra five to 10 home runs sound about right.

And if Franco can manage that, we're going to be looking at quite the hitter.

There aren't many hitters who can regularly put the ball in play and whack the daylights out of the ball. The members of that club are hitters like Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rizzo and Albert Pujols. Franco appears to have what he needs to gain entry in 2016.

When it happens, we won't be able to say we didn't see it coming. When a guy is having the kind of spring Franco is having, it's hard to miss.

 

Regular-season stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com.

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Mark Appel Finally at Peace with No. 1 Pick Burden, Fighting for MLB Future

March 24, 2016 by Bill Speros  
Filed under Fan News

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Mark Appel knows all too well the answer to this baseball brainteaser: “Who was the lone player taken before 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant in the 2013 MLB draft?”

Appel was that No. 1 overall pick, chosen by his hometown Houston Astros out of Stanford. Thirty-three months after being selected ahead of Bryant and everyone else in that draft, he has yet to throw a major league pitch.

His stat page on Baseball-Reference.com reads like an atlas of minor league flyover country—Tri-City, Lancaster, Quad Cities, Salt River, Corpus Christi and Fresno.  

He has a 5.12 ERA in 253 minor league innings across four time zones.

All of it—the status and hype given to a top pick, the $6.35 million signing bonus, the pressure of being taken by the team you supported as a kid, the assumption of surefire stardom—has been equally a "blessing and a burden" for Appel

"Not many people can identify with you, especially when things don't go well. It's hard to describe what that feeling is like. You have these ridiculous expectations. And I don't want my expectations dependent on what some team paid for me,” Appel told Bleacher Report.

“I look back and think, That was a dream. That didn't happen. It’s difficult to believe sometimes. You see how far you had to come just to get to that point, especially in times of struggle, and it shows how hard you can still go knowing you can accomplish your goals and dreams with hard work and effort.”

Appel was traded with four other pitchers (including Vincent Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzerfrom Houston to Philadelphia for closer Ken Giles and shortstop Jonathan Arauz on December 12.

General manager Jeff Luhnow once called drafting and signing Appel “the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player” and added "we believe it's going to be a long-term relationship." 

Fast-forward to this offseason, and Luhnow was explaining his rationale in dealing Appel to the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich. “When you draft a player high in the draft, you expect him to contribute in the big leagues, and he hasn’t done that yet because he hasn’t had a chance … There’s no question that he has value, otherwise we wouldn’t be acquiring Ken Giles in return for him.”

Any dream of Appel playing for his hometown team as its premier prospect had been—somewhat mercifully—extinguished with that deal. 

“It hurt being traded, for sure,” he said. “It felt like I let the Astros down and myself down. I had made so many friendships there, too. It was sad leaving some of those guys.”

It was the latest starting point in a pro baseball career that has been marked by anything but consistency. 

"I've experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said. “Are you kidding me? If you told me just a year after being the No. 1 pick overall, I’d be sitting in High-A in the California League with a 10.80 ERA halfway through the season, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Appel's voice and demeanor lack any trace of anger. He is relaxed and resolute when discussing his past and future.

His selection came just one year after the Indianapolis Colts used the No. 1 overall NFL pick on fellow Stanford Cardinal Andrew Luck in 2012.

Appel shared a few physics classes with Luck on Stanford's campus. They both get paid to throw objects right-handed to a teammate with accuracy.

That’s where their professional similarities end. Luck is already a star. Appel just wants to earn his shot.

He begins 2016 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he has the physical tools to be fiercely dominant. His fastball tops out in the upper 90s, and he flashes a plus slider and a changeup. 

Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs recently wrote of Appel: “The problem is a general lack of feel, consistency and true command that makes his fastball too straight and hittable, the shape and location of his slider too unreliable and his changeup too straight."

In his first spring camp, Appel was recovering from an appendectomy. He threw just one inning. Last year, he was able to pitch routinely but was limited in building a pitch count. 

Since he arrived at Philadelphia Phillies camp six weeks ago, his focus has been on physical conditioning, pitching stamina, baseball intelligence and emotional calm.

His goal is to build up to “more of a normal pitch count” of at least 90 to 100. When he’s not pitching and working out, he’s at home playing the guitar (Christian and country music), or rewatching the entire series run of the The Office on Netflix.

“I feel really good this spring. I got good work in at the big league camp. Hopefully, I showed them a little of what’s to come,” Appel said.

While that may sound neither glamorous nor encouraging to Phillies fans, he finds a reliable pattern is what he’s always craved. Even when he didn’t realize it.

“It’s all about building that routine. We want to be able to take a running start when the season starts.”

Appel threw four innings with the big-league Phillies this spring (1 ER, 4 BBs, 3 Ks) before officially being designated to the minor league camp. An unsteady performance against the New York Yankees was countered with a solid outing in Fort Myers against the Minnesota Twins.

What is to come of Appel remains merely an educated guess, but the Phillies are in no hurry to find out.

Philadelphia pitching coach Bob McClure is a former major leaguer who played parts of 19 seasons with seven different teams. “The way he throws, it kind of reminds me of [Mark] Prior. I’m talking about the shape of his pitches. He’s a big kid. He’s a horse,” McClure said.

McClure doesn’t want Appel to be the next Mark Prior. He wants him to be the first Mark Appel.

“We want him to be himself. You’re a No. 1 pick out of Stanford. Just have fun and be you. There’s no rules,” McClure said. “When you try and put [pitchers] in a box, you stop creativity and stop growth. There are certain things pitchers get boxed up in. Finding who you are shouldn’t be one of them.”

With Houston, Appel said he found himself expending time and effort working on certain pitches and situations, rather than being allowed to improve his overall performance.

“For example, you might spend an entire bullpen session working on a changeup, or a situational pitch, or a certain grip, instead of just throwing a regular bullpen,” Appel said.

Finding a nuanced spot for Appel won’t be a problem with the Phillies. They lost 99 games last season and are a consensus pick to finish far behind the New York Mets and Washington Nationals in the NL East.

Where Appel may have once been hurried to reach the majors in Houston, the clock has slowed significantly in Philadelphia. He also no longer carries the burden of being his hometown team’s No. 1 overall pick.

“I saw some No. 1s in the minor leagues when I was in Kansas City. I’ve seen other teams with them. It’s a hard burden,” McClure said. “Not everyone can live with it and perform up to the expectations of everyone else. Now, I’ve never been a No. 1 pick, but the hardest part [for any pitcher] is trying not to live up to what everyone else thinks you should be. Forget what everyone else expects. It doesn’t matter. What do you see your progression being?”

The tumultuous nature of Appel’s journey to the majors has reinforced his Christian faith, which he shares openly whenever the opportunity arises, including daily on his Twitter feed.

"Christianity is my identity. I have learned the secret of being content in all situations. It's not all about throwing strikes, or throwing 100 miles per hour, or hitting 500-foot home runs. It’s about being content in any and every circumstance,” he said.

“I learned through the lowest of lows that I wasn’t content. I don’t need a 2.00 ERA, and a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And I don’t need to be in the big leagues at 22 in order to be content.  As much as I love it, as much as I work hard at it, as much as I want to be successful at it, baseball is not my identity. I don't ever want it to be my identity. There are too many highs and too many lows and it will tear me up.”

Appel knows that expressing his faith, especially on social media, leaves himself open to criticism and cynicism. He has also found it offers support to many. 

“A lot of people have a misconception of faith for a Christian athlete. Fans look at athletes who have been gifted by God, or worked very hard, guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. People think their sole purpose is to play baseball, and everything they do should be focused on baseball, or that their religion and faith should become a means for being better at baseball. That’s not right,” he said. 

The limits of Appel’s faith, patience and maturity reached zero hour on July 16, 2014. It was one day after his 23rd birthday. 

After being hammered for seven runs in less than two innings for Single-A Lancaster (Calif.), just a month-and-a-half after yielding 10 runs in 1.1 innings, Appel stormed into his team’s clubhouse.

Through tears of sadness and anger, he fired more than 50 baseballs into a three-quarter-inch particleboard wall next to his locker.

All the baseball doubts one could imagine flowed through him in a rage.

The wall was decimated. The experience was “therapeutic.”

If there would ever be a "bottom" in terms of his baseball career, he decided at that moment this would be it.

Appel faced a $500 fine, but he chose to repair the wall himself—with the caveat he would indeed pay the fine if the repair work wasn’t sufficient. The next day, after a couple of trips to Home Depot, he worked on the repair for about four hours.

He matched up the grains in the new high-grade oak plywood with those in the remaining walls and stained it all to near-perfection.

He likens the repaired wall to a healed soul.

“That was one moment that was so profound. It taught me a lot about my life. It was a turning point,” he said, of both the incident and sharing it on his blog. “I’m glad I did it. Players who are experiencing struggle tell me that they’ve read the blog and found it encouraging.”

McClure believes the final, finished version of Appel has yet to be created. “He’s got a lot of competitiveness in him that hasn’t gotten out yet because he was trying to please. He’ll evolve into whatever pitcher he can be. We just have to allow him to do it. We have to allow him room for failure, or to go backwards if necessary.”

And nearly three years after being drafted, he is finally at peace. 

"The Bible talks about working with all your heart for the Lord and not for men. If you're working for the Lord every time you step on the field ... I think the fans and the Phillies will be OK with the effort you give."

Appel needed a fresh start. He can still become the star everyone thought he'd be. 

The only pitcher ever taken No. 1 overall not to make the big leagues was Yankees 1991 pick Brien Taylor, whose rotator cuff was destroyed in a barroom fight.

The Phillies hope to stop him from being the second.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report, unless otherwise specified. 

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist. He can be reached at bsperos1@gmail.com. He tweets at @RealOBF and @BillSperos 

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Phillies Broadcaster Narrowly Escapes Oncoming Liner During Live Coverage

March 9, 2016 by Vanessa de Beaumont  
Filed under Fan News

Gregg Murphy will want to give extra thanks to his reflexes tonight.

If not for them, the CSN Philly reporter likely would have been the unlucky recipient of a line drive to the head.

Despite Murphy's position beyond the Bright House Field foul pole, outfielder Nolan Reimold of the Baltimore Orioles sent him ducking and scurrying—during live coverage, no less!

Fortunately, Murphy emerged unscathed (although a tad winded).

Next time, however, the Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster may want to take preventative precautions. A helmet, perhaps?

[CSN, h/t Yahoo Sports]

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