Murphy: 3 key pitching issues for Phils this spring

Murphy: 3 key pitching issues for Phils this spring

Murphy: 3 key pitching issues for Phils this spring

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Beneath the concrete seating bowl of Spectrum Field, there is a dimly lit corridor that leads to a golden rectangle of sunshine. Step through those doors over these next couple of weeks and you’ll hear the surest sign that spring has sprung: an arrhythmic volley of whiplike cracks and dull leather thuds echoing across a vast expanse of green. In the distance, on a long mound of compacted sand, a red line of pitchers will aim and fire as they dutifully complete the bullpen workouts they need to rebuild the strength in their arms after a winter of rest.

The sessions are not designed for theater, but there is a certain amount of drama inherent in the physiology-defying act of throwing a baseball, especially when the thrower faces questions about the health of his arm. Present among the pitchers who will be in camp for the Phillies’ first official workout of spring are several arms worth monitoring throughout the spring in an attempt to gauge the overall adequacy of the voluminous but question-riddled staff the front office has assembled in advance of the 2017 season.

Like the NFL preseason, baseball’s spring training typically yields more illusions than it does answers. In Grapefruit League play, the sample size is far too small to draw any meaningful conclusions from the statistics that result. One year ago, Maikel Franco was one of the hottest hitters in all of the big-league camps, finishing the spring with nine home runs, a 1.054 OPS and a .294 batting average. One of the big questions heading into that spring was whether Franco would build upon his impressive rookie campaign. Turns out, Franco’s spring did not provide the answer, as he finished the regular season with a 37-point dip in on-base percentage and a 107-point decline in OPS from the year before (though he did hit 25 home runs).

To glean the most accurate information out of spring training, you must look in the right places. You must know what you can’t know, and know what you can.

With that in mind, here are three issues that will be worth monitoring this spring, the collection of which will play a significant role in the success or failure of the Phillies’ pitching staff:

1) Aaron Nola’s progression as he builds arm strength

The last time anybody outside the Phillies organization has seen the 23-year-old righty pitch was July 28. Nola seems to think he has completely overcome the elbow soreness that ended his season and prompted a visit to renowned specialist Dr. James Andrews. That said, manager Pete Mackanin probably echoed the Phillies’ fan base when he acknowledged last month that he’s “going to be nervous all year” about the health of Nola’s arm. The early weeks of camp will be a time to monitor Nola’s progress as compared to the other pitchers in camp.

2) Clay Buchholz’s personality and mentality

The Phillies don’t have a lot of newcomers, but they do have an intriguing one in Buchholz, the 32-year-old righthander acquired from the Red Sox in exchange for a low-level minor leaguer in December. Buchholz, who will earn $13.5 million in the final year of a seven-year, $56.75 million deal, is still young enough to be gunning for one last decent-sized contract. The biggest question with Buchholz has always been his health – he’s never reached 30 starts in a season and has averaged just 21 in nine full seasons in the majors – but he’s also coming off a season in which he was bounced from the Red Sox rotation due to some epic early-season struggles. It will be interesting to get to know Buchholz’s personality, particularly given the youthful teammates who will surround him. He’s coming from a place where he was credited with a win in 57 percent of his starts and where he won a World Series in 2013. How does he feel about getting traded to a team that is still very much in rebuilding mode?

3) Does Joaquin Benoit look like he has enough left in the tank?

The reliever will turn 40 in July, and he very much looked his age the first half of last season, posting a 5.18 ERA in his first 26 appearances before the Mariners traded him to the Blue Jays. But after the trade, he struck out 24, walked nine and allowed just one run in 232/3 innings. That wasn’t enough to land him a major league deal this year, but it could be enough to land him a job as the Phillies’ primary setup man or closer. Like Nola, the spring-training progression of his arm strength and life on his pitches could provide an early indication of the viability of the club’s bullpen. A healthy and effective Benoit would give the Phillies a third righthanded power strikeout arm to go with 27-year-old Hector Neris (2.58 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 801/3 innings last year), and 24-year-old Edubray Ramos (3.83 ERA, 40 strikeouts, 40 innings). That would offer some reason to think the Phillies could pick up some wins at the back end of the bullpen, which struggled down the stretch last season.

dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy

Blog:philly.com/Philliesblog

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Published at Mon, 13 Feb 2017 04:55:00 +0000

Categories: Phillies

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