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Mackanin sees improved club heading into '17

March 31, 2017

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has confidence that the Phillies will improve in 2017.Despite not making big splashes this offseason, the Phillies acquired two experienced bullpen pieces in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, added two starting outfielders in Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick, improved their bench from 2016,

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has confidence that the Phillies will improve in 2017.
Despite not making big splashes this offseason, the Phillies acquired two experienced bullpen pieces in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit, added two starting outfielders in Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick, improved their bench from 2016, and added a veteran to the starting rotation.
"If we can start strong and start believing in ourselves like we did last year -- hopefully this year we can continue that -- something really good might happen," Mackanin said Friday.
The bench battle, which concluded Thursday with the additions of Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi, had a markedly different tone than last year's.
"You think about last year and the bench -- we took Cedric Hunter because he had such a good spring," Mackanin said. "The choices weren't as good as they were this year. I think that's going to improve us."
Mackanin noted that the team has two groups of prospects: The highly-touted Minor League guys on the cusp of cracking the big league team and a core of young players who played in the Majors last season.
One of the most important factors in this team developing, in Mackanin's eyes, is for those prospects already on the 25-man roster to take the next steps and continue to improve. The Phillies saw this last season with their young starting rotation.
While righty Aaron Nola struggled late and was shut down with elbow problems, Jerad Eickhoff proved his consistency, and Vince Velasquez showed his stuff plays at the Major League level. Velasquez ranked eighth in the Majors last year in strikeouts per nine innings among starters who threw at least 130 innings. These are akin to the improvements Mackanin hopes to see from his young position players.
"That's what I'm looking for from all these guys is incremental improvement," Mackanin said. "And if we do that, we're going to be a much better offensive unit."
Another contributing factor to an improved offense could be the veteran presence in the clubhouse. Kendrick and Saunders have played over 2,000 games across 19 years of MLB service time combined. They will shore up left and right field positions that ranked second-to-last (.615) and last (.634) in OPS in the Majors last season, while hopefully providing guidance to younger players.
Maikel Franco, a crucial part of the rebuilding process and a potential cornerstone of the franchise, said just a few weeks into camp that Kendrick's veteran leadership and experience had already helped him.
"As a young player, that's what I'm looking for," Franco said.
Another veteran presence came when the team added former Phillie Matt Stairs as the club's hitting coach. Stairs himself played 19 years in the bigs.
"We started swinging the bats much better later in the spring, and that was good to see," Mackanin said. "I learned that I really like what Matt Stairs has to say as far as hitting is concerned."
The cherry on top of Spring Training was that, unlike last season, the Phillies suffered no significant injuries that impacted the roster.
"I recommended that we fire a couple trainers," Mackanin joked to head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan.
"In that respect, it was a really good spring."

Ben Harris is a reporter for MLB.com.