When the Phillies return to the field Thursday, there will be just two weeks left until the season begins in Miami.
But there’s still plenty to sort out in Clearwater before opening day. Who will be the fifth starter? Who’s going to be on the bench? Is Aaron Nola going to be healthy? How about the bullpen? Is the new Phanatic in shape for the season? Is Bryce Harper’s big toe OK? But most importantly, will the Major League Baseball season even start on time?
As the coronavirus continues to spread, the likelihood continues to grow that the disease will affect baseball in more ways than just closing the clubhouses from the media. “Anything I tell you today could change in 24 hours,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said Tuesday afternoon. Stay tuned.
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Nick Martini had been dropped by three teams in five months before arriving in Clearwater last month. It was the toughest offseason of his career, Martini said. But he at least reported to Florida with a job.
And then he lost that one, too. The Phillies designated the outfielder for assignment just before camp opened, removing Martini from the 40-man roster and leaving him in Clearwater without a team for which to play.
He had to wait four days to learn his fate because a player — as Martini learned this offseason — must pass through waivers after being DFA’d. Perhaps there are worse places than Clearwater to be unemployed.
“I just went to the beach,” Martini said. “I tried to take my mind off it.”
Martini cleared waivers and returned to the Phillies on a minor-league deal. He left the beach and joined the team at Spectrum Field, where he’s made an impression this spring. The 29-year-old is 6-for-16 at the plate (.375 average) in Grapefruit League play, and his 1.250 OPS is the third highest on the team among players with at least seven plate appearances.
Clearwater claims to have the best beaches in America. Maybe they helped Martini refresh himself after a long winter.
“I still have a chance,” Martini said. “I’m still here, and I have to make the most of it.”
The Phillies will likely add one more outfielder to an opening-day group that already includes Bryce Harper, Jay Bruce, Adam Haseley, and Roman Quinn. Kyle Garlick is already on the 40-man roster and is right-handed, which likely provides an advantage over the left-handed Martini. But Martini has pushed himself into contention this month.
“His at-bats have been great all spring long,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He grinds out at-bats. It’s a professional at-bat every time he goes out there.”
Martini played 55 games in 2018 with Oakland, posting a .811 OPS in 179 plate appearances. It was a small sample size, but it was a stretch of success. He spent most of last season with Oakland’s triple-A team, hitting .328 with a .913 OPS.
But he was designated for assignment in August, moving three days later to the Padres, and began changing teams at a rapid pace. He was designated for assignment by San Diego in November and claimed by the Reds, who DFA’d him in January. The Phillies claimed him, but designated him for assignment a month later.
He’s no longer on the 40-man roster, but at least the revolving door has stopped. Martini has a team this spring and a chance to impress new faces. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity and the beach.
“I definitely do have some confidence because I have done all right up there. I played a good amount with Oakland in 2018, and that definitely gives me confidence,” Martini said. "Hopefully enough to get another chance. You always have to have confidence that you can get that opportunity, They have a ton of really good players on this team. If I get a chance, I get a chance.”
Is Bryce Harper worried about coronavirus? “I live, man,” he said. The Phillies are adjusting in Clearwater to living amid the fears of coronavirus, but the players don’t seem too concerned about the virus. Scott Lauber has all the details from Florida about what the team is doing to protect players.
The Phillies will find out later this week if Aaron Nola will be able to pitch on opening day after he battled the flu this week. If he can’t, Zack Wheeler showed Tuesday that he’s ready for the season. Wheeler struck out six, and his fastball was exceptional. “Whenever they need me, I’ll be ready,” he said.
Bryce Harper left Tuesday’s game after being hit by a pitch on the left foot, but he said he is fine. Harper will be off Wednesday and Thursday, Girardi said, before returning to the lineup Friday in Clearwater.
Spencer Howard received a taste of the big leagues Tuesday, and the Phillies received a glimpse of the starter they should be plugging into their rotation sometime this summer. Howard pitched an inning in Tuesday’s win over the Twins for his first Grapefruit League action. Now, the Phillies have to finalize a plan for how to use their top prospect this season.
Four years ago, Ramon Rosso was ready to quit baseball and move to Spain to become a mechanic after the Dodgers released him. Instead, he stuck with his dream and caught the eyes of the Phillies. Now, with a revamped fastball, he’s a legitimate contender to reach the majors in 2020 as a reliever.
Today: The Phillies are off.
Tomorrow: The Phillies play the Rays in Port Charlotte, 1:05 p.m.
Friday: The Tigers visit Clearwater, 1:05 p.m.
Saturday: Phillies travel to Tampa to face the Yankees, 1:05 p.m.
Joe Girardi seemed to tip his hand earlier this week when he hinted that Jay Bruce will start in left field on opening day. But no matter who starts, the Phillies will begin their 10th straight season without consecutive opening-day starts by the same left fielder.
Bruce would join this cast of left fielders: Andrew McCutchen, 2019; Rhys Hoskins, 2018; Howie Kendrick, 2017; Cedric Hunter, 2016; Ben Revere, 2015; Tony Gwynn Jr., 2014; Domonic Brown, 2013; John Mayberry Jr., 2012; Raul Ibanez, 2011. Those nine players combined during those seasons for just 5.7 Wins Above Replacement.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.
Question: I’ve heard many people question how many additional wins can be attributed to a new manager however I would say the much greater impact a manager has on wins and losses may be tied to who they hire to be the pitching and hitting coaches. To that end, in retrospect Gabe Kapler’s greatest failing may have been firing Rich Kranitz and replacing him with Chris Young. If Bryan Price has more success especially with the younger pitchers, how many more wins do you think that could yield this season? — Scott B. via email
Answer: Thanks, Scott. It’s a great question, and the answer is: potentially, a lot.
There’s no way the Phillies can win more than 81 games — the number they won in 2019 — without improvements from their starting rotation. And if that happens, a large amount of credit will go to Price’s being able to connect with the young pitchers — such as Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta — in a way that Chris Young could not.
Those three pitchers have raved this spring about Price, who is not forcing them to throw four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone the way Young instructed. Everything seems grand in Florida, but the real test will come during the season. Will Price’s game plan work? Will the pitchers continue to follow his lead? Will Velasquez, Pivetta, and Eflin finally find consistent success?