Japanese lefty pitcher Yusei Kikuchi may be on Phillies radar

Yusei Kikuchi with Seibu Lions in Japan
(Photo: えすぱにぃ  via Wiki Commons)
This will be a big off-season for the Philadelphia Phillies as the club tries to take the next step forward in their return to contending status.
While controlling owner John Middleton and GM Matt Klentak will certainly be trying to woo familiar big names such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, they will also be exploring any other option possible to improve the roster.
One of the less conventional options will be the international market. There will be no Shohei Ohtani available this winter. However, there may be another Japanese player available who could help the Phillies step forward in the 2019 season.
Yusei Kikuchi is a 27-year-old left-hander who is an eight-year veteran of the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. Kikuchi has a career 73-48 mark with a 2.82 ERA and 1.176 WHIP, allowing just 830 hits over 1,028.1 innings across 162 games, 157 of those as starts. The southpaw also carries a 919/379 K:BB ratio.
Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports reported today that he “is expected to make the leap to the majors next year, and he should draw extensive interest. Most teams have been to Japan to see him this year.” Heyman listed the Phillies among those MLB teams with interest.
Heyman quoted a scout on Kikuchi’s repertoire and his potential fit in a big-league rotation:

“…he’s a good lefty who throws at 92-93 mph with a cutter, a slider and good straight change. He’s a solid three (third starter), maybe better than that.”

In a piece on the Arizona Diamondbacks attempt to sign Japanese high school pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa back in late August, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic for USA Today wrote that Kikuchi “was said to be close to signing with a major league club out of high school in 2009 but ultimately decided not to, in part because of advice from his high school coach.”

The Phillies could use at least one quality addition to their starting rotation next year to slot in between Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. That would theoretically leave Vince VelasquezNick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin to battle for the fourth-fifth starter roles.
Whether Kikuchi fits the profile of a #2 starter, which is what the Phillies could really use, is debatable. However, he could be expected to at least give them another #3 level arm, which would still be valuable.
Expect this to be a busy off-season for the Phillies management group. The team was in legitimate contention for most of the season before collapsing over the last seven weeks. That collapse should leave the club’s decision-makers eyes wide open to options such as Kikuchi, Harper, Machado, and a number of other new additions.

Phillies must smartly out-spend Braves to keep up with Atlanta’s young talent

Acuna (20) will be a thorn in the Phillies
sides for years to come

(Photo: By Thomson200 via Wiki Commons)
In the end, that the Braves first overcame and then pulled away from the Phillies should not have been much of a shock. Atlanta has played far better baseball all season long.
My first MLB Power Ranking back on July 1 had the Braves as baseball’s fourth best team, second in the National League, while the Phillies were 23rd. While the Phillies would get as high as 16th, the Braves never dropped lower than 6th overall.
Those rankings consider not only the team’s win-loss record, but also their performances on offense, defense, and on the mound. The Braves now hold a 9.5 game lead in the standings on the Phillies, who are in danger of being passed by the Washington Nationals for second place.
A position-by-position comparison of the regulars for the two teams reveals that the Braves are simply a more talented ball club. In most cases they are also younger, showing that the Phillies rivals won’t be going away soon.
First base: 29-year-old Freddie Freeman (ATL) over 32-year-old Carlos Santana (PHI)
Second base: 21-year-old Ozzie Albies (ATL) over 28-year-old Cesar Hernandez (PHI)
Shortstop: 24-year-old Dansby Swanson (ATL) over 24-year-old, out-of-position Scott Kingery (PHI)
Third base: 24-year-old Johan Camargo (ATL) at least a push vs 26-year-old Maikel Franco (PHI)
Catcher: 34-year-old Kurt Suzuki (ATL) at least a push vs 25-year-old Jorge Alfaro (PHI), though if 31-year-old Wilson Ramos returns next year the edge goes to the Phillies
Left field: 20-year-old Ronald Acuna (ATL) over 25-year-old, out-of-position Rhys Hoskins (PHI)
Center field: 27-year-old Ender Inciarte (ATL) over 26-year-old Odubel Herrera (PHI), though for me if 25-year-old Roman Quinn is the Phillies everyday center fielder, it’s at least a push, maybe even advantage Phillies
Right field: 34-year-old Nick Markakis (ATL) over 25-year-old Nick Williams (PHI)
The Phillies are appreciably younger only at catcher and in right field. They are better behind the plate if Ramos is the Phillies catcher, even though Hoskins (with the bat only) and Quinn keep the Phillies competitive at their positions.
On the mound, 25-year-old Aaron Nola gives the Phillies the best starting pitcher in either rotation. However, Braves top starter Mike Foltynewicz (26) is pretty darned close. Atlanta’s Anibal Sanchez (34) out-pitched the Phillies Jake Arrieta (32) as the aging veterans in each rotation this year.
The Braves have a veritable parade of starting pitching options with a wide range of experience including Julio Teheran(27), Kevin Gausman (27), Sean Newcomb (25), Max Fried (24), Touki Toussaint (22), Kyle Wright (22), Luiz Gohara(22), Mike Soroka (21), Bryse Wilson (20), and Ian Anderson (20).
It’s an embarrassment of riches that the Phillies group of Vince Velasquez (26), Nick Pivetta (25), Zach Eflin (24), Jerad Eickhoff (28), Ranger Suarez (23), Enyel De Los Santos (22) may have a hard time matching up against.

Even if the Phillies accelerate the development of top pitching prospects Sixto Sanchez (20) and Adonis Medina (21), something they never do, the depth and quality in Atlanta looks better.
In the bullpen the Braves have an excellent combination of righty Arodys Vizcaino (27) and lefty A.J. Minter (25) leading a solid group where most of the arms are still in their 20’s. That group includes a former Phillies top pitching prospect and Philly native in 26-year-old lefty Jesse Biddle.
The Phillies pen has some exciting young arms in Seranthony Dominguez (23), Victor Arano (23), Edubray Ramos (25), and Austin Davis (25). Veterans Pat Neshek (38), Tommy Hunter (32), and Adam Morgan (28) give the Phillies a chance to have at least as good a bullpen as Atlanta moving forward.
Considering their advantages across the lineup and the ages of their talent among their position players and pitchers, how can we expect the Phillies to compete with the Braves in the coming years?
The biggest reason is one of the oldest: money. The Phillies have the financial ability to out-spend Atlanta in the coming years. They also have a controlling owner in John Middleton who is not only willing to spend, but who is also extremely desirous to spend what it takes to make the Phillies a legitimate contender once again.
The Phillies have the money, the incentive, and the lineup positional needs to go hard after the two biggest free agent bats this coming off-season in shortstop Manny Machado and right fielder Bryce Harper.
They could also spring for a big free agent starting pitcher such as Patrick CorbinDallas KeuchelJ.A. Happ, or Gio Gonzalez. That might allow them to shift Velasquez to the bullpen as another late inning weapon.
Though the 2018 season is ending in disappointing fashion for the Phillies, the fact is that it was a definite step forward. After five years finishing near the bottom of Major League Baseball, the club will finish near the .500 mark. They will also have gained some valuable experience in a playoff battle that came down to the final weeks.
The challenge that the Braves will present over the next few years is very real. In order to match or beat them, the Phillies are going to need their own young talented players and prospects to continue developing.
But they are also going to need to open their wallets and push aggressively for the top free agents. Win the financial battle in the front office, and they can overcome the Braves own bright future on the field.

Phillies should not shut Aaron Nola down with just two starts remaining

Nola has become an ace for Phillies
(Photo: By Arturo Pardavila III via Wiki Commons)
This 2018 season has been a true breakout campaign for Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola. In his fourth year at the MLB level, Nola has shown that he can be that rarest of commodities – a true ace.
The 25-year-old right-hander was chosen by the Phillies out of Louisiana State University with their first round selection at seventh overall in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft. As he developed professionally over parts of two minor league seasons, consensus expert opinions had him with the upside of a mid-rotation starter.
That is a fairly common tag hung on pitchers when scouts and other talent evaluators are not absolutely certain the pitcher has a top-of-the-rotation arm. However, that pitcher also has amateur and minor league performances and pitching repertoires which demonstrate a likelihood of reaching and sticking in a big-league rotation.
As a perfect example, Nathaniel Stoltz of Fangraphs summed up his own scouting report on Nola in August 2014 as follows:
…it’s hard to see him having more than a #3 starter’s ceiling. If he settles in at a #3/#4 level quickly, that won’t be the flashiest of payoffs, but it’ll also be hard to really take issue with his selection…There’s a solid chance he could get to that level of performance, but the line between it and interchangeable back-of-the-rotation, Kyle Kendrick sort of output is fairly thin, and he’s not guaranteed to end up on the right side of it.
Over Nola’s first two partial seasons with the Phillies, his results were indeed those of a solid #3 starter in the rotation. He went 12-11 over 33 starts during the 2015-16 campaigns, allowing 190 hits across 188.2 innings with a 189/48 K:BB ratio.
Last year, Nola reinforced that level of performance over a full season. In 27 starts during the 2017 campaign, Nola went 12-11 with 3.54 ERA and 1.208 WHIP. He allowed 154 hits over 168 innings with a 184/49 K:BB ratio.
Due to the fact that he was able to compete so effectively at just age 24, many began to adjust their evaluations up on Nola, feeling that he could develop into a solid #2 starter for a contending team.
One key for him to reach his potential was going to be for Nola to demonstrate longevity, that he could remain healthy over a full season.
His 2016 campaign was ended in mid-August when he was shut down for the year with a low-grade UCL sprain and flexor pronator tendon strain. In 2017 it was a strained lower back that kept him out of the Phillies rotation for a month from late-April through late-May.
In this 2018 campaign, Nola has ticked off all of the boxes and elevated himself to that “ace” or #1 starter level.
Following last night’s outing against the New York Mets, Nola has surrendered just 143 hits in 199.1 innings over 31 starts. He has a 16-5 record, and a dominating 210/53 K:BB ratio with a 2.44 ERA, 0.983 WHIP, 2.97 FIP, and a 173 ERA+ mark.
In his own piece on last night’s game, Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia pointed out that no Phillies pitcher in over a century has pitched at least 200 innings in a season while holding opposition batters below a .200 average. Nola has held hitters to a .201 average over his 199.1 innings this year.

Seidman quoted Phillies manager Gabe Kapler on those numbers and Nola’s performance in this 2018 season:

“It speaks to durability. Look, if you’re the best option for your team, more times than not, the manager is going to give you the opportunity to take down an additional inning. Almost always, Nola feels like the best option to get the next three hitters out. Piling up 200 innings is a huge accomplishment.”

Nola was also named to his first National League All-Star Team back in July, and pitched the 5th inning of that mid-summer classic. Nola punched out the first two AL batters that he faced in Salvador Perez and Mookie Betts, gave up a base hit to Jose Altuve, then got Mike Trout to pop out for a shutout frame.
Here in the season’s final month, it appears as if Nola may have slowed down a bit. In three of his four September starts including last night, Nola failed to reach the 7th inning.
While that isn’t a big deal for most starting pitchers – after all, he did go five or more in each – it was different for Nola. He reached at least into the 7th in 15 of his first 27 starts prior to this month.
There have been some calls lately for the Phillies to shut Nola down for the season. The club has all but mathematically slumped their way out of both the divisional and wildcard races, trailing in each by five games in the loss column with just a dozen left to play.
Even if the Phillies were mathematically eliminated from postseason play, the club should not stop Nola’s season short. At this point he is only scheduled to make two more starts, both against the division-rival Atlanta Braves. Those should come this weekend in the Sunday series finale in Atlanta, and then on Friday night September 28 at Citizens Bank Park.
Two more starts and 10-12 more innings are not likely to do any harm. What they will do is give Nola the physical, mental, and emotional satisfaction of getting through an entire season in Major League Baseball.
At some point, perhaps as soon as next year, the Phillies will expect Nola to lead their rotation into and through an October playoff run. With just two starts left in this 2018 season, especially with both coming against their likely biggest rivals in battling for those playoff positions in the coming years, now is not the time to start babying the young ace.
Originally published at Phillies Nation as “No reason for Phillies to baby Aaron Nola at this point

Fangraphs ranks Citizens Bank Park poorly for "walkability"

Citizens Bank Park isn’t an easy place to walk to for fans
(Photo: Matthew Veasey)
If you’ve ever been to Citizens Bank Park you know that it is a gorgeous ballpark. Tremendous sight lines, a 360-degree open main concourse that allows you to have a view of the action as you walk around nearly the entirety, and some of the best ballpark food in the game.
I wax nostalgic at times for Veteran’s Stadium. After all, it was there that I was introduced at age nine to the Phillies and Major League Baseball when the glittering new facility first opened near my South Philly home back in 1971.
But even that nostalgia isn’t enough to overcome the truth, one that I recognized the very first time that I stepped foot in the new place for an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of the 2004 regular season. Citizens Bank Park is better than The Vet ever was in every way imaginable.
Back in 2012 for a piece at Bleacher Report, Kyle Yahn describe it perfectly when he said: “There is not a bad seat in the entire stadium. Whether in the nosebleeds or right behind home plate, the fans are always right on top of the action” and “The food at Citizens Bank Park is incredible.
One concession made by the powers-that-be in the Phillies ownership group and with the city of Philadelphia was the actual location of the ballpark itself.
In the pre-planning stages, there were discussions regarding and even plans drawn up regarding the possibilities of moving the new ballpark out of South Philly to locations either near Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River or adjacent to the Center City area.
Those locations would have been in walking distance of restaurants, shops, and clubs already in place. And new such spots certainly would have opened up to service ballpark patrons for Phillies games, concerts, and other events.
However, traffic and parking infrastructure was already in place at what had become known as the Sports Complex. The Vet, the Spectrum, and JFK Stadium had stood for years in the location along Pattison Avenue just east of Broad Street.
As the now Wells Fargo CenterLincoln Financial Field, and Citizens Bank Park were planned, the final decision was made to keep each of the major sports facilities right there. As they sprouted up, the older facilities were torn down. Finally, a food and drink entertainment facility known as “Xfinity Live” was also opened up in the area.
The distance from the Sports Complex to any of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, including to those downtown shops and restaurants, is the main reason that Fangraphs just placed Citizens Bank Park at 24th of the 30 facilities in Major League Baseball in their “Walkability” rankings.
This was a major drop from just five years ago, when Citizens Bank Park ranked 14th in that same index. This time around, CBP was given a ‘Walk Score’ of just 38. This placed it in a tier called ‘Car-Dependent’, meaning that most errands from the immediate ballpark area would require a car.

Carson Cistulli put together the rankings for Fangraphs utilizing information from the “Walk Score” site. His main purpose was to find, as he stated:

“…which ballparks, by virtue of their location, might best lend themselves to human scale…because they are based on proximity to shops and cafes and other services relevant to daily life.“

The overwhelming majority of fans who make their way to Citizens Bank Park and any of the other venues at the Sports Complex do so either via car or by taking public transportation. There is an extensively used Septa ‘Broad Street Line’ subway stop right at the location, and a pair of entrances/exits for I-95 within a short drive.

Ashburn Alley along the CBP outfield is an open-air food court and kids entertainment area.
But walking to a neighborhood or downtown restaurant, bar, or shop outside of the Sports Complex is a bit of a hike. Center City is roughly six miles to the north. You would have to walk over three miles to reach the clubs and shops along South Street. And those types of sites along Penn’s Landing are at least five miles away.
Fortunately, Citizens Bank Park has enough of a variety of restaurants and other eating establishments inside to satisfy the need of any fan. And if it’s a sports bar-clubbing-party vibe that you want, you can walk right across Pattison Avenue to Xfinity Live.
When I was a pre-teen and teenager, my friends and I frequently hiked up to Veteran’s Stadium to take in a game. It was only about a mile-and-a-half or so from our homes along the 2nd Street neighborhood of South Philly. Folks from that area can and do still take that walk today.
While our gorgeous South Philly ballpark might not rank high in “walkability” by some measures, while you won’t find folks walking to or from the park from places outside of South Philly, it has everything that any baseball fan could possibly want.
Whether the Phillies are doing well or playing poorly, Citizens Bank Park is one of the most beautiful places to watch a game in all of baseball. With some of the best food and nicest amenities available, don’t let a poor ‘walkability’ score ever keep you away.
Originally published at Phillies Nation as “Citizens Bank Park finishes 24th on Fangraphs ‘Walk Score’ Index

Phillies can only hurt themselves by finishing the 2018 season strong

Phillies need roster changes to become true contenders
(Photo: Keith Allison via Wiki Commons)
As recently as one month ago it was a foregone conclusion that the Philadelphia Phillies would finish with a winning record in the 2018 season.
On August 18 the Phillies were 68-55 and just one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the loss column in what seemed to be a spirited race between the two rivals for the National League East Division crown.
The Phillies led the NL Wildcard standings on that day, but had a bunch of teams right on their heels. The Saint Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies were just a game behind them, with the Milwaukee Brewers two back and the Los Angeles Dodgers three games behind.
As every Phillies fan now knows, the team would not remain in either race. Instead the Phillies have collapsed over this past month, going 8-19 in that time.
It’s just not going well all the way around,” Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia following last night’s loss to the New York Mets.

“It’s kind of plain and simple. Yeah, the Braves lose and that’s great, but we have to win some games. We haven’t done that consistently and that’s why we are where we are.”

The foregone conclusion of a winning season is now a thing of the past. Yes, the Phillies are still three games over the .500 mark. Yes, with just 13 games left to play there is a chance that 2018 still turns out to be a winner. Yes, they are still mathematically alive in both the division and wildcard races.
But let’s take off the rose-colored glasses and get real for a minute. This 2018 Phillies team was always doing it with smoke and mirrors.
Educated fans didn’t need me to point out – though I did a number of times – that this team as currently constructed was not good enough offensively or defensively to sustain their place in the standings without some dramatic, significant changes.
Had they actually wanted to win this year, that need for change needed to be recognized by management a couple of months ago, despite the winning record. They either failed to recognize it, refused to believe it, or decided to ignore it.
If either of those first two possibilities were the Phillies actuality, then the worst thing that could possibly happen now would be for the team to suddenly start winning again.
The Phillies would now need to finish the season 6-7 over their final 13 games in order to finish with a winning record at 82-80. Of course, anything better would also do the trick.
However, should they continue at their pace of this past month, the club will actually finish more like 4-9. That would give them an 80-82 mark at the season’s conclusion. While it would be a 14-game improvement over last season, many fans would feel disappointed. Don’t count me among them.
My concern would be that the Phillies somehow catch fire and finish with something like a 10-3 record. Such a positive sprint to the finish would leave them with an 86-76 mark. And since seven of those games are against the Braves, it would likely mean that they fall just a couple games short of a division title. Probably just a few shy of a wildcard berth.
Now why would that concern me? Shouldn’t that actually be exciting?
I believe that if the Phillies management has truly failed to recognize the shortcomings in the current construction of the roster, if they continue to mishandle some players and over-value others, then they will pay the price next season and well into the future.
I have been doing MLB power rankings of all thirty teams on a fairly regular basis. My rankings are not subjective. They are not based on my opinion. I utilize four categories: winning percentage, runs scored, pitching OPS, and fielding percentage. Imperfect, sure. But certainly better than some writer or “insider” personal opinion.
Those statistics reflect on how the team is actually performing at the plate, on the mound, in the field. I research how each team ranks in those categories, assign a 1-30 value, and add up the totals to get my rankings.
On July 1, the Phillies were eight games over .500 and were tied for the ninth-best record in all of Major League Baseball. And yet my rankings had them at just 23rd among the 30 ball clubs.
At the MLB All-Star Game break the Phillies had moved into first place and had pushed to 11 games above that .500 mark with the eighth-best record in baseball, third-best in the National League. And yet the power rankings had them just 16th at that point. It would be their highest ranking of the season.
The next power ranking wasn’t released until August 15, which is about when the Phillies were at their peak in the standings. They were fourteen games over .500, held the top wildcard position, and had still been in first place in the division as recently as four days earlier. And yet the power ranking had dropped them to 17th, down a notch from a month earlier.
By the Labor Day power rankings, they were tied for 18th. In the most recent published just days ago, they had sunk to 21st as the collapse continued.
What should all of this reveal? That despite some believing there was a contending Phillies team in town, that was never really the case. What the team was doing was out-performing their statistics. Over the long course of a six-month, 162-game season they rarely, if  ever, works out well.
These Phillies are what they are: better than the last five years, but not yet good enough to truly contend. A hot streak now, one in which they give false hope to fans and perhaps even trick management into making foolhardy decisions in planning for 2019, would do more harm than the good found in watching a few more wins here at the end.
I am honestly sorry for coming across as a downer. It’s not my usual nature, which is to be the original “glass half-full” guy. But I’m also never going to be a Pollyanna, lying or misleading fans. The best thing for the future of the Phillies would be to continue being what they are, and finish as no better than a .500 team for this year.