Reading Fightin Phils set to open 2024 season on the road on Friday

Apr. 4—The 2024 season gets underway for Reading on Friday at 7:05 p.m. as the Fightin Phils open a three-game Eastern League series at Bowie.

Second-year manager Al Pedrique is back at the helm after leading the Fightin Phils to a 59-77 overall record in 2023.

"It's my pleasure to be back," Pedrique said during the Fightin Phils' media day press conference on Tuesday. "And I'm sure the team can't wait to get on the field to start playing and winning some games."

Reading's home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium is set for Tuesday at 6:45 p.m. against Portland, which will serve as the opener of a six-game series. Fans will notice the progress that has been made on the Redner's Event Center, which sits beyond the outfield wall and is not yet open to the public.

The first floor of the building is complete and will be used by the Fightin Phils and their opponents this season. The building houses the home and away team clubhouses, batting cages, weight rooms, female locker rooms, dining areas and kitchens and training room facilities.

"I've been in this game now for 45 years as a player coach and I've done everything in the game and I can honestly say that this clubhouse has everything," Pedrique said about the new facilities. "Is it top of the list? 'Yes.' Great facility, we got weight rooms, training rooms for the players and rooms where they can recover or they can rest. Everything is top of the line, so I'm sure we're gonna enjoy it."

24-year-old left-handed pitcher Matt Osterberg will take the mound against Bowie on Friday night. He went 9-6 last year as a starter, including 1-1 with the Fightin Phils.

Osterberg will be opposed by Alex Pham. The righty went 3-5 last season and 0-2 with the Baysox.

"We have (Matt) Osterberg — he was here last year towards the end and did a great job for us," Pedrique said. "And the one thing I like the most about him is his composure. Doesn't matter if he has runners on or not, he's the same guy. Pressure, he can handle it."

Heading into the season, Reading is strengthened by several prospects looking to make an impact, including four of Philadelphia's top 30, according to MLB Pipeline.

Outfielder Gabriel Rincones Jr. (ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the Phillies farm system), outfielder Carlos De La Cruz (No. 13), catcher Caleb Rickets (No. 21) and Robert Moore (No. 26) highlight the roster.

De La Cruz returns to the Fightin Phils' lineup after posting a .259 batting average and a team-leading 24 home runs in 2023. The 24-year-old also had 67 RBIs and 25 doubles over his 129 games played.

Standing at 6-8, De La Cruz spent some time playing first base a year ago, but will stay primarily in the outfield in 2024, according to Pedrique.

"He's gonna have to improve on his defense this year," Pedrique said. "This year he is going to play all three outfield positions, you won't see him play first base very much. The main goal for him is to increase (his) walks and cut down on the strikeouts."

De La Cruz struck out 160 times in 2023, the most he has struck out in a season since being acquired by the Phillies organization as an undrafted free agent in 2017.

Hoping to make the jump to Triple-A Lehigh Valley and perhaps the majors, De La Cruz said he is well aware of what adjustments need to be made in his game.

"My main thing is trying to work on my stamina and not tiring myself out too early," De La Cruz said. "And then after that, I'm just trying to stay on top of the ball and work on my approach, which I know that's going to be a main thing for me to refine that.

"With my strikeouts, once I can cut those down, I think I should be in a good place."

De La Cruz will have the assistance of new hitting coach and former member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Brock Stassi, to help strengthen his approach.

Stassi played for Reading in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2021. This year will be Stassi's second season as a coach in the Phillies organization, as he served as High-A Jersey Shore's hitting coach in 2023 and helped guide the BlueClaws to a postseason appearance.

"I absolutely love it, I love being on this side," Stassi said about coaching. "It's a lot of fun being back here. I spent a lot of time in Reading and the message I convey (to the players) is just enjoy every single day and I'm here to work for you guys.

"(De La Cruz) had a great year here last year and he had a lot of homers. He had a good spring and got to go to big league camp this year, which is an accomplishment. So hopefully we can keep it rolling and have an even better year than he did last year.

While at spring training, De La Cruz learned to emulate one of Philadelphia's strongest power hitters — Kyle Schwarber. With veteran wisdom backing him up, another strong season seems to be building for De La Cruz.

"Learning (from) and seeing Kyle Schwarber," De La Cruz said was most memorable part of spring training. "You can say we have the same batting stance but different body types. Trying to see what he does and picking up the good things out of him should help me with my approach.

"Whenever we would run into each other, I was picking his brain and seeing what he had to offer.

"He was always preaching (the importance of) the team. He would have a team pregame ritual to build up to the game."

Also with the potential for a breakout year, Rincones Jr. should provide a threat on the base paths, as the 23-year-old third-round pick from the 2022 draft had 32 total stolen bases last year (24 with Single-A Clearwater and eight with High-A Jersey Shore).

He batted .248 with 31 doubles, 15 home runs and 60 RBIs over 120 games.

"He is another kid with a lot of power and he's going to be working on cutting down strikeouts," Pedrique said about Rincones Jr. "He can steal some bases. He runs well and has a good feel for what he is doing in the outfield, but offensively he is going to be consistent."

For Rincones Jr., success in 2024 will be measured by his ability to maintain a good mindset throughout the season. Though continuing his climb up the organizational ladder is surely a priority, for now, Rincones Jr. said he is looking to make the most of his time in Reading.

"I'm really not looking at numerical stats — those kind of take care of themselves," Rincones Jr said. "If I chase those things, I'm not going to have a good season. Mentally is what I'm striving for to have a consistent season, and obviously if I take care of that, the numbers are going to be there.

"I'll just dominate my level where I'm at right now and that's really all I can control. That's all I'm focused on. Whether I get moved up or not to the big leagues, or Triple-A, it'll take care of itself as long as I dominate where I'm at right now."

Wins and losses aside, Pedrique said he is focused on growing the club and instilling a culture that creates soundly prepared players for the Phillies organization in 2024.

"Me and the coaching staff, we're going to make sure they know how to play the game the right way," Pedrique said. "Obviously, if we can do that on a consistent basis with the talent that we have in the room, yes, we're gonna win more games.

"(The players) have to understand that these days you can go up to the majors, you can skip Triple-A overall, but if you do prove and show the organization that you can handle the game at all levels and be able to slow the game down and contribute, you'll get a chance."