24 Apr ROSTER ROUNDING INTO SHAPE
P.J. Phillips was named as manager of the New Jersey Jackals last Nov. 7. And, the more you get to know him, you get the feeling that he would have been ready to lead the team onto the field last Nov. 8.
You want a sit-back-and-relax kind of manager? This is not your guy. Phillips has been aggressive since Day 1, first on the phone and the internet to find and sign what he calls “his kind of players.”
Now, just a week away from the start of training camp, Phillips is beyond eager to get things going.
“It’s all been on paper until now,” he said the other day from his lifetime home outside of Atlanta. “I want to get out there and start winning games. I can’t wait to see what this team can do.”
The 36-year-old skipper has been busy for months now retooling the roster of a team that went 45-49 last season and finished sixth in the Frontier League’s East Division. There are still some holes to fill, he said, noting that the league’s annual tryout camp and draft occurring today and tomorrow at the home of the Gateway Grizzlies, just outside of St. Louis, could produce a roster candidate or two.
The Jackals will hold their own one-day open tryout next Monday, May 1, at Hinchliffe Stadium, coinciding with the opening of New Jersey’s 10-day preseason training camp. That will lead up to the first game of the year, on the road in Pomona, NY, facing the New York Boulders on Thursday night, May 11. Between now and then, Phillips must craft a roster of 24 active players, including any last-minute additions.
“You never know what you’re going to find out there,” he said. “A lot of guys are still being released every day from Class-A and Double-A teams. These are good players. They get released for a million different reasons.
“Right now, I think what we have is a very well-rounded roster, but there’s always room for improvement and we still have some needs to fill. That’s what these last few days before the season are all about, trying to find just the right guys to fill any gaps.”
A second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2005,
Patrick James Phillips played five seasons in that organization’s minor league system, then moved to the Cincinnati Reds, where he played at the Double-A and Triple-A levels before heading to the Long Island Ducks, of the independent Atlantic League.
In 2016, at the age of 29, he became player-manager of the Vallejo Admirals, of the Pacific Association. After revamping that roster in the offseason, he managed the 2017 Admirals from last place to a league championship. In 2021, he returned to the Atlantic League to win a championship managing the Lexington Legends, completing the 2022 season before taking the New Jersey job, made vacant by the resignation of former manager Brooks Carey.
Last year, the Jackals led the entire Frontier League in batting, but were third worst in pitching with a 6.00 team ERA, a stat that Phillips is well aware of. Improving the pitching staff has been one of his main objectives during the offseason.
“I like our potential lineup because we’ll have power up and down the order,” he said, “but we all know you can’t win without pitching and that’s definitely been a focus the past few months.”
As for that power, Phillips inherits a Jersey team that was third in the league in home runs last year, led by clubbing outfielder Josh Rehwaldt who hit 29, while Phillips’ former team in Lexington led the Atlantic League with 193 homers in 132 games.
And the pitching? Phillips welcomes several newcomers including 25-year-old John Baker, acquired in a trade with the Sussex County Miners, where he was 12-2 last year with a 2.66 ERA and 122 strikeouts with just 19 walks. Phillips will also have a handful of players he managed in Lexington looking for roster spots here in New Jersey, including 24-year-old righty Lance Lusk, who relieved in 13 games with a 1.80 ERA last year. Another transfer from Lexington, outfielder Phil Ervin, signed a contract with the Jackals on April 13.
“A lot of new players, new manager, new stadium, it’s an exciting time for this team right now,” said Phillips, who made his latest visit here last week. “I’ve talked to players, I’ve seen videos, but there’s nothing like getting out there on the field.”
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.