Harper Plays Third, Nola’s Night, Howard’s Role, More Notes From Phils Camp

PHOTO CREDiT: BILL STREICHER-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Phillies fired up the video boards around Citizens Bank Park for the first time on Monday afternoon during batting practice–and then promptly turned the boards off prior to the start of their latest red vs. white scrimmage.

It was a pretty quiet evening, both literally and figuratively, at the park. Some Phillies coaches played defense from the jump. Aaron Nola took the ball. Andrew McCutchen homered.

Oh yeah. There was one bit of drama. Let’s get to that, and some other observations, with the regular season only 11 days away.

Controversy at Third Base

Just when you thought the Phils’ plan at third base was air tight, there’s now controversy at the position.

Jean Segura vs. Bryce Harper. The battle for the hot corner.

Kidding. But Harper did take some reps over at third base. Here he is, making a little 5-3 putout:

Phillies manager Joe Girardi said afterward that Harper asked him to play over there, so he granted him an inning to keep things light. Girardi said the two made a “no diving” pact.

Controversy over.

 

Nola’s Night

Behind that makeshift coach-led defense, Aaron Nola took the ball for three (modified) innings. He cruised through the first two frames, so much so that the team added additional hitters get his pitch count up. He did lose command a bit in the third inning, issuing a pair of walks and this single to Rhys Hoskins.

For what it’s worth, perhaps not much, Girardi has yet to commit to Nola as the Phillies’ Opening Day starter despite “feeling pretty good” about where he’s at. If not Nola, then who? Girardi mentioned Zack Wheeler and Vince Velasquez as candidates, so, welp, there’s that.

 

Nick Pivetta in Limbo

The above comments from Girardi aside, Nick Pivetta, presumably, remains in contention to win the final spot in the Phillies’ rotation. I don’t believe he did much to help his case on Saturday, when Phillies hitters plated five runs against him in a rough second inning.

Pivetta entered spring training (version 1.0) after an offseason in which he devoted significant attention to developing a changeup. I asked new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price about Pivetta’s progress with the pitch and how the team will attempt to balance expanding his pitch arsenal with maximizing results in relief appearances, if Pivetta begins the season in the bullpen. I’ll let you take in Price’s full answer:

I think it’s likely we condense. I think pitchers that have a changeup, even if they transition from a starter to reliever, if it’s a good one, the whole thought process ‘don’t get beat with your third best pitch late in the game,’ or something like that, sometimes you don’t just get to come in and utilize two pitches. The beauty of the changeup is if the breaking ball is not there, then maybe the changeup is, and you can just throttle back and forth with velocity. And he’s worked so hard on that pitch, it’s really improved. It’s really come a long way. And what he looks like now is a guy with a four-pitch mix that he can utilize. If he does end up in the bullpen, that will probably condense by a pitch.

Truthfully, I believe Price is overestimating the “fourth pitch” thing a bit. According to Statcast, Pivetta utilized a four-seamer (49.3%), curve (35.3%), and a slider (12.4%) last season. The slider, however, was more a “show me” pitch, one that yielded a .489 slugging-percentage to opposing hitters.

The changeup is such a key to Pivetta’s chances to stick in a rotation because teams routinely teed off on the four-seamer a year ago (and in 2018). Opponents hit .348 with a .697 slugging percentage against the pitch a season ago. This, despite Pivetta routinely touching 95 mph+ with it.

COVID-19 and injuries keep pretty much any outcome in play when it comes to the Phillies’ starting rotation, but if I had to guess right this moment, Pivetta opens the season in relief.

 

Nothing Left Early, But A Lot Late

The Phillies may field five right-handed starters in their rotation to open the season, but there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of left-handed options out of the bullpen. Its initial construction figures to feature veteran lefties Adam Morgan, Francisco Liriano, and Jose Alvarez, but new pitching coach Bryan Price is bullish on some of the team’s unproven guys.

“We have some power arms in the system, and I think that the beauty of it is having the experience now with Morgan, Alvarez, [and] Liriano as key some components to the left side of the bullpen,” Price said. “But I think also when you talk about guys like Damon Jones, Garrett Cleavinger, [and] JoJo Romero has been very impressive, in particular yesterday in the scrimmage.”

Echoing what manager Joe Girardi said ahead of camp, Price expects the team to carry approximately 16 pitchers when the regular season begins in less than two weeks. While some question marks remain regarding who may fill those last roles, Price is optimistic about the options.

“You’re really seeing plus, plus stuff with these kids across the board, and I won’t speak for Joe, but it certainly has me excited.”

Spencer Howard Update

The Phillies remain high on Spencer Howard’s upside, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to break this summer camp as the team’s No. 5 starter or even as a relief option (hello, service time!). At least it doesn’t feel that way to me after listening to Price today. Again, that’s just my sense. But here’s what Price had to say:

“I think the repetitions in a 60-game season you don’t really want to talk about repetitions and importance of workload, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it either,” he said. “I mean, if this kid is the guy we think he is—and we do—he’s going to have a really nice future in Philadelphia, but he has to build up a workload. Last year was shortened by injury on the front end, so workload is important. And if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, or whatever, summer camp, then he’ll be getting workload in Lehigh Valley.”

Again, delaying Howard’s Major League debut could be motivated by a variety of factors. A cautious approach and service time considerations are both in play. Still, it seems likely Howard will throw meaningful innings for the Phillies this season.

Price seems to think so.

“But I would really hope and expect to see him pitching here, if not on Opening Day, then at some point in time because he really needs the work, and I think he’s ready to compete at this level.”

As for how currently views the most intriguing arm in camp?

“He would be a top-end prospect in any organization because he has power, he throws strikes, he’s athletic. He’s got a really, really good changeup and breaking ball,” he said. “The key component there is stuff with strikes, stuff with command. The sky is the limit, and in the same respect, then you have to get to the big leagues and perform at this level before you start to define where you are.”

Howard is slated to next throw live on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Outside The Park…

Are we doing J.T. Realmuto billboards now? We’re doing J.T. Realmuto billboards now!

The Phillies on TV, Maybe?

The word I got on Sunday night is that there are no plans for the Phillies to stream the team’s remaining scrimmages.  Perhaps Sunday’s scheduled home exhibition against the Orioles will be a different story?

Quick Notes

  • A longer scrimmage is scheduled for tomorrow night.
  • Seranthony Dominguez still hasn’t had Tommy John surgery. His 2021 availability is fading by the day.
  • Victor Arano faced some hitters prior to tonight’s scrimmage.
  • Zach Eflin threw what Price called a “beautiful” bullpen earlier Monday.
  • Enyel De Los Santos and Robert Stock were optioned. Girardi termed the moves as “procedural.” He said the two will remain in camp, pitch, and still have an opportunity to make the team.
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