Phils To Pace Themselves With Harper (www.mlb.com)

finished last season with a balky back, but he should be healthy and ready to roll when the Phillies have their first full-squad workout on Monday in Clearwater, Fla.

“We’re expecting him to come into camp healthy, but obviously we’re going to evaluate that when he gets here,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Friday afternoon. “If we have to slow down a little bit, we have to slow down a little bit. There’s plenty of time to get ready at Spring Training. I saw him last year and I thought he was ready [after] about a week of games. We’ll pace ourselves a little bit with Bryce to make sure he clears every hurdle, because you can do everything at home. You can hit, you can throw, you can run. But it’s different when you’re in spikes and you’re on a baseball field and the intensity is up. It’s something I will keep a watchful eye on. We have to make sure we keep him as strong as possible.”

Harper slashed .268/.420/.542 with 13 home runs, 33 RBIs, a .962 OPS and a 157 OPS+ in 58 games last season. He tweaked his back in late August in Atlanta and it affected him the rest of the season. He had a 1.192 OPS through Aug. 22, but that fell to an .827 OPS afterward.

1A, 1B and 1C
Girardi said he considers right-hander Zach Eflin an ace alongside Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Eflin believes he can be that guy, too.

“I really believe that … truly inside of me that the sky is the limit,” Eflin said. “I feel like I have a lot of feel and I can really kind of shape my pitches in any way I want to and really have a good feel for the zone with every pitch. With that said, finding the right times to throw pitches, setting pitches up, backing hitters off the plate, getting early contact when I need it, those are going to be the key factors for me to continue having good years and be a legitimate starting pitcher. So pitching at the top of the starting rotation is my clear goal.”

Eflin went 4-2 with a 3.97 ERA and a 3.39 FIP in 11 appearances (10 starts) last season. He took a step forward as he leaned more on his sinker and threw a more effective curveball. His strikeout rate soared to a career-best 28.6 percent.

But Eflin knows he cannot rest on last season’s successes. He worked this offseason on refining his changeup and slider. Specifically, the focus was on increasing his arm speed with his changeup — because he slowed down too much in the past, giving hitters a tell — and adding more depth to his slider.

“I feel like I’m in a good position with those two pitches,” Eflin said. “To be able to combine that with a four-seam, two-seam, a curveball that’s plus for me now, I think is going to be huge for me. Now it’s about finding the right times to set pitches up and set hitters up, but I’m extremely confident going into the season with all my pitches and just feel like I’m in a really good spot.”

Suárez behind schedule
Left-hander Ranger Suárez competed for a rotation job in Spring Trainings past, but he will not have that opportunity this spring.

He remains one of five Phillies not in camp because of visa issues. The others are Neftalí Feliz, Mauricio Llovera, Francisco Morales and Christian Bethancourt.

“Ranger is going to be somewhat behind because he’s not here,” Girardi said. “Had he been here on time, we probably would’ve built him up as a starter. But since he’s not here, I don’t think we’ll have time to do that.”

Pitchers at the plate
The possibility still exists that MLB and the MLBPA could bring back the designated hitter by Opening Day, but for the moment, pitchers will hit in the National League. The Phillies have pitchers working on bunting this spring, if for no other reason than they don’t want them to injure themselves by trying something foreign in a game.

“It’s an action that they don’t practice a ton,” Girardi said. “They’re focused on their pitching. We see mishaps when they bunt. We see mishaps when they’re on the basepaths. Once in a while, you see a rib cage strain. You worry about that. We’ll prepare them the best we can.”

Grapefruit League tidbit
Spring Training games through March 13 will be seven innings, but both managers can agree to shorten them to five innings or lengthen them to nine innings. Games from March 14 through the end of camp will be nine-inning games, unless both managers agree to shorten them to seven innings.

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