The Week Ahead: Phillies primed to make a run

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Hold onto your hats Braves fans, the Philadelphia Phillies are finally hitting their stride.

The season has been a struggle for the Phillies. They’ve endured a host of injuries, questions about the preseason trade of Cliff Lee, some major slumps from outfielders Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, and even some questionable managing decisions.

All you have to do is Google “Fire Charlie Manuel” to see how quickly the bloom of consecutive World Series appearances can crumble from the rose.

But through it all, they’ve managed to keep contact with the Atlanta Braves, entering the week at 70-53, just 2 1/2 games back.

After all the injuries, they are finally healthy, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard rejoining the lineup last week. After the hand-wringing over the loss of Lee, Roy Oswalt is ensconced in the rotation. After all the criticisms of Werth and Ibanez, the pair of streaky outfielders are sporting an OPS of .917 and .770, respectively.

And now they’ve got four games at home against the Houston Astros (54-69) this week, a clear chance to make a move. After that it gets a little tougher, with a road trip to San Diego and Los Angeles, but the final month is filled with a whole lot of Marlins, Brewers, Mets and Nats – hardly frightening.

And in case you’re wondering, the Phillies and Braves have six games remaining against each other: Sept. 20-22 in Philadelphia, and Oct. 1-3 in Atlanta. Should be a great race.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Reds at Giants, Aug. 23-25:
I thought the Giants were supposed to have good pitching. What happened? They better figure it out quickly with the Reds coming to town.

Twins at Rangers, Aug. 23-26: Texas had a bad week and still didn’t see its lead in the AL West dented much. But after being swept by the Rays, a good showing against the Twins would be good for the Rangers’ confidence.

Red Sox at Rays, Aug. 27-29: The Red Sox aren’t out of it yet, but if they’re going to make a move this would be a good place to start.

Yankees at White Sox, Aug. 27-29: Ozzie Guillen says he doesn’t like playing against spoiler teams like the Royals because they “have fun and kick people’s butts (and) laugh.” I wonder if the struggling White Sox are going to be happier playing the Yankees.

Phillies at Padres, Aug. 27-29: You might not have believed this entering the season, but if the playoffs started today, these teams would be facing off in the NLDS. Even more shocking? The Padres would have homefield advantage.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 10:15 p.m. ET: Reds at Giants (ESPN2)
Wednesday, 8:05 p.m.: Twins at Rangers (ESPN2)
Wednesday, 10:10 p.m.: Rockies at Dodgers (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Phillies at Padres (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Twins at Mariners (FOX)
Sunday, 2 p.m.: Yankees at White Sox (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Red Sox at Rays (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Shohei Otani may come to the United States after 2017

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Last week it was widely speculated that Shohei Otani, the highly-touted Japanese pitcher/designated hitter who stars for the Nippon Ham Fighters, would not come to the United States to play due to changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The upshot: the new CBA caps money available to international free agents under age 25 at $5-6 million and Otani, 22, would be worth way more than that, so why take the pay cut?

Now, however, Jeff Passan of Yahoo reports that the Fighters are set to post Shotei Otani following the 2017 season. Passan says that his sources have told him that there are potential ways around the limit on spending for under-25 players like Shohei Otani and he links a Japanese article from Sponichi which says the Fighters would post him after the 2017 season.

It’d be interesting to see what that loophole is. Without knowing the exact terms of the CBA on this score it’s impossible to know, but one possibility is that there are different rules applicable to those with professional experience in other countries as opposed to amateur free agents.

Whatever the case, the notion that we could see Otani in the U.S. at age 23 or 24 is pretty exciting.

Report: Phillies close to signing Joaquin Benoit

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Joaquin Benoit #53 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the seventh inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim  at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 15, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reports that the Phillies are close to signing free agent reliever Joaquin Benoit. An announcement is expected before the winter meetings end on Thursday.

Benoit, 39, has quietly been among the better relievers in baseball over the past seven years. This past season with the Mariners and Blue Jays, the right-hander put up an aggregate 2.81 ERA with a 52/24 K/BB ratio in 48 innings. That included a 0.38 ERA in 23 2/3 innings after the Jays acquired him from the Mariners.

Benoit suffered a torn calf muscle during a benches-clearing brawl with the Yankees near the end of the regular season. He’s expected to be healthy for spring training.

The Phillies have now added three relievers this offseason with Benoit, Pat Neshek, and David Rollins.