Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies

Phillies’ future could hang on upcoming stretch


A quarter of the way into the season, the Phillies have managed to tread water in the not-so-rugged National League East (see story). Now comes a pivotal stage in the team’s schedule.

The Phils play 20 games in the next 20 days, a sizable chunk of baseball that on top of the 41 games the team has already played, could give upper management the read it needs in determining whether to keep the club together and hope it can play through its flaws and earn a playoff berth or break it up through a series of trades that would signal a retooling effort.

The 20-game stretch will take the Phillies into an off day on June 9. By that time, the draft will be over — the Phils have the seventh overall pick, their highest since 2001 when they took Gavin Floyd fourth overall — and GM Ruben Amaro Jr., notably hands-on in preparing for this draft, can take a good long look at his club as he makes the call on how to proceed.

It’s very possible that Amaro gets to June 9 and decides he needs to push back his decision several weeks. Whether he’s added or subtracted in the past, Amaro has done much of his in-season work close to the July 31 trade deadline, so he has some time on his side.

If Amaro gets to that off day on June 9 and decides to wait things out a little, it will mean his club fared pretty well over the 20-game stretch it is about to begin.

Fresh from two of their best games of the season (a pair of wins over Cincinnati by a combined score of 20-4), the Phils make their first of three visits to Miami beginning Tuesday night.

After that, the Phils return to Citizens Bank Park for an 11-game homestand that will include three against the Dodgers, three against the Rockies and five against the NL East rival Mets. When the Mets leave, the Phils head to Washington for three and on to Cincinnati for three, taking them to the June 9 off day and a convenient time to Amaro to take inventory of his club.

The Phils have caught some breaks in their schedule this season. They missed Yu Darvish on opening day because the Texas ace was on the disabled list. They did not see two-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles because he was on the DL. It didn’t hurt that the Reds were without sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce during their trip to Philadelphia over the weekend.

The trip to Miami finds the Phils missing out on another star. Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ 21-year-old pitching phenom, recently went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, a blow not only to the Miami ballclub but to all of baseball because it’s never good when a young, magnetic star, in any sport, goes down with an injury. Fernandez was rough on the Phillies last year, holding them to just one run and eight hits in 18 innings over three starts. The Phillies turned the tables and beat Fernandez earlier this season en route to a three-game sweep of the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.

If the Marlins’ pitching schedule had held up, Fernandez likely would have pitched against the Phillies and A.J. Burnett in Tuesday night’s series opener.

Instead, the Phils will face Anthony DeSclafani, a 24-year-old rookie right-hander who grew up about an hour from Philadelphia in Howell, N.J. DeSclafani, who took Fernandez’s spot in the rotation, beat the Dodgers with six innings of two-run ball in his big-league debut.

The Marlins are coming off a long, 11-game trip to the West Coast where they went 4-7.

They surely will be happy to get home, not just because they are tired of the road, but because they have been fabulous at home. The Marlins have the majors’ best home record at 17-5. They’re hitting .295 (the second-best home mark in the majors) with 21 homers in Marlins Park and their ERA there is 2.61.

The Phillies are 11-10 on the road, just 8-12 at home.

The Marlins’ offense is led by rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who leads the majors with 43 RBIs in 45 games. He is second in the NL in homers (12) and extra-base hits (25).

So this first leg of 20 important games in 20 days starts off with a challenge for the Phillies. Management is watching.

Tigers in discussions with Jordan Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that the Tigers are in discussions with free agent starter Jordan Zimmermann. His sources have told him that the talks have become “serious”.

Zimmermann, 29, has a career 3.32 ERA across parts of seven seasons in the majors. He finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award balloting in 2014, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio over 199 2/3 innings.

Among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings since 2009, only Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke have compiled a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Zimmermann’s 4.09. While he doesn’t have the star power of other free agents such as Greinke or David Price, the Tigers would certainly improve their rotation by bringing him on board.

Blue Jays still focused on upgrading their pitching

Marco Estrada
AP Photo/LM Otero

Having already added Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ to the mix and re-signing Marco Estrada early in the offseason, Blue Jays interim GM Tony LaCava said the team will continue to pursue pitching upgrades, as Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith reports. Nicholson-Smith added that LaCava declined to comment on free agent ace David Price. It is believed that the Jays will not pursue Price and other big-name free agent starting pitchers given their November activity.

The Jays re-signed Estrada to a two-year, $26 million deal on November 13, acquired Chavez from the Athletics in exchange for reliever Liam Hendriks on November 20 and signed Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal on Friday.

Nicholson-Smith notes in a column on Sportsnet that the Jays need to address the bullpen in particular. That is especially true after swapping Hendriks, who had a career-best 2.92 ERA out of the Jays’ bullpen in 2015, for a back-end starting pitcher.

Report: Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”

Jonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports spoke to an anonymous baseball executive, who said that Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”. The Nationals are hoping to trade both Papelbon and the man he displaced, Drew Storen.

Papelbon has a poor reputation in baseball, particularly after a dugout altercation with superstar outfielder Bryce Harper. Focusing strictly on what he does on the field, Papelbon still gets the job done. The 35-year-old finished the last season with a combined 2.13 ERA, 24 saves, and a 56/12 K/BB ratio over 63 1/3 innings between the Phillies and Nationals.

The Nationals owe Papelbon $11 million for the 2016 season.

Minor league home run king Mike Hessman retires

NEW YORK - JULY 29:  Mike Hessman #19 of the New York Mets bats against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 29, 2010 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 4-0.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reports that corner infielder Mike Hessman has retired from professional baseball after 20 seasons. Hessman hit 433 home runs in the minor leagues, an all-time record. He broke Buzz Arlett’s record this past August and with style as #433 was a grand slam.

Hessman, 37, was selected in the 16th round of the 1996 draft by the Braves and remained with the organization through the 2004 season. He then went to the Tigers from 2005-09, the Mets in 2010, then drifted into the Astros and Reds’ farm systems before returning to the Tigers for the last two years.

Hessman took 250 plate appearances at the major league level, batting .188/.272/.422 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI.