I knew those eyebrows would rise with that painted scenario. This writer says the Phillies have suddenly developed a split personality within its farm system. On the one hand, they have a stable of young arms that is the envy of any organization, while on the other, they have assembled a cast of hitters that seems for the most part devoid of major league hitting skills. "C'mon,"…you seem to say, expecting some kind of proof? Well, let's see…
In 2007 the Phillies could have a pitching staff consisting of Brett Myers, Randy Wolf, Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd, Taylor Buchholtz, Ryan Madson, Elizardo Ramirez, Carlos Silva, Brandon Duckworth, Ezequiel Astacio and Scott Mathieson. This staff would make other teams drool...and is all homegrown. Did you just say, "well deserved, and so what?"…Well then, let's probe a little further. Ready for the second team? This, my friends, is the second team.... Jean Machi, Darrin Naatjes, Kyle Kendrick, Francisco Butto, Frank Brooks, Geoff Geary, Robinson Tejeda, Nick Bourgeois, Lee Gwaltney, Seung Lee, Zack Segovia! And before my minor league buddies send me nasty emails, I am not forgetting the likes of Layne Dawson, Keith Bucktrot, Greg Kubes, Taft Cable and Joseph Parraz (assuming he doesn't see this list and refuse to sign!)
This is pitching depth at its best. However, the old axiom that says you can't win if you don't score, was never truer than when examining the Phillies suddenly moribund offensive ensemble. In fact, fate has brought to my attention two examples within the past few days. On Tuesday, Hamels delivered 6 perfect innings, 18 batters up and 18 batters down. It is a tribute to the Phillies brain trust that they are more interested in pitch counts than perfect games at this level, and Hamels was removed after 90 pitches. It would not have surprised Phillie minor league followers if Hamels had left with the score at zero, the Lakewood offense is that bad. Fortunately they had their hitting shoes on and he left with a 2-0 lead...and an eventual win.
Fast-forward to Wednesday and the rookie league GCL club. The pitching was once again strong and shutout the GCL Tigers. Did they win? Barely, at 1-0!
This, then, is the split personality within an organization that is justifiably proud of its rebirth as a solid minor league operation after a decade of abuse. Under the careful eye of such talented individuals as Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever, they scout, draft, sign and develop pitching that is second to none. The philosophy of pitch counts, arm motion, strong leg action, and innings pitched, is a textbook example of how to develop a pitcher. Arm injuries are kept at a minimum, and the parent club is going to have an awfully imposing staff of hurlers in about three years. Indeed, the Phillies could have 4 number one starters in Wolf, Myers, Hamels and Floyd…they are all that good! Ah, but here's the rub.... will they have enough hitters as teammates to make their task less cumbersome?
For if the Phillies organizational philosophy on developing pitchers is a case study in how to do it right, honesty prevails upon us to acknowledge that there appear to be cracks in the philosophy on developing major league hitters. That this philosophy has even come to light is based on several factors: some fact, some rumor, some innuendo and in some, just plain bad luck.
Lets examine these factors and see if we can formulate a clearer picture of what's gone right, and what's gone wrong. This much is known. When the Phillies drafted and signed such players as Eric Valent, Jorge Padilla, Terry Jones, Carlos Rodriguez, Ryan Barthelemy, Anderson Machado and Russ Jacobson, their hitting potential was rated as very good. They all were projected as future major leaguers with solid hitting skills. Indeed, many of them may still make it to the big leagues but for various reasons, each has gone downhill in their hitting skills. This is not a ringing endorsement of the Phils ability to take a young hitter and make him better. To be fair - injuries, roster shifts, as well as visa & discipline problems, have caused some of the difficulties. Fact remains, however, that the Phils do suffer from an organization-wide lack of solid young hitters. Of course, the cupboard is not entirely dry, and to their credit, the Phils have attempted to address this concern in the recent draft.
Success stories can be found at the minor league level if one examines closely enough. Chase Utley has been a veritable hitting machine at SWB and will soon become a regular contributor at the big league level. His teammate, Travis Chapman, has done nothing but hit since he signed his first professional contract and continues to hit this season. Both are Triple A All-Stars and very deserving of the honors. Juan Richardson has shown solid power potential at Reading with 15 home runs. Ryan Howard and Danny Gonzalez have shown strong hitting prowess at Clearwater, and none less than roving hitting guru Charlie Manuel said Howard has 40 Home run potential at the big league level.
At the short season level two hitters appear to have outstanding potential. Jake Blalock has lightning-like power potential, and like his older brother Hank, great baseball genes. At the rookie league level, Kiel Fisher, last years surprise third round pick, has displayed a knack for hitting and has begun to demonstrate power potential. So the cupboard is not bare, and the Phils drafted hitters in no less than 9 of their top 16 picks this June. So far, the results have been mixed with this group. Javon Moran has started very well and appears to have justified his fifth round status. On the other end, Matt Hopper, drafted in the tenth round has struggled mightily with the bat. Others such as Jason Crosland, Joe Brunink and Jose Cortez have shown solid potential while Tim Moss has yet to play. Still unsigned are solid prospects Michael Bourne, Myron Leslie and Rob Johnson.
That these hitting woes, and the philosophy behind them, have come to light is based on two events. One points to the seemingly fine hitting prospects suddenly struggling so mightily at the minor league level. And the other is an intangible - based on a whisper, a rumor, a casual off hand remark made by an unnamed Oakland A's player and involves the struggles of Pat Burrell, the erstwhile slugger for the Phils. Several weeks ago the A's made their first ever visit to Veterans Stadium to play the Phillies in a weekend series and what this player saw, shocked him. His shock came from observing the total change in Burrell's hitting form, a form that has not worked out for the better. The season long struggles of Burrell are by now well documented, but the reasons for them are not.
What this player mentioned was that in attempting to make Burrell a stronger pull hitter, in theory increasing his power potential, the Phils brain trust had caused a player with a beautiful hitters stroke to abandon all of the techniques that had made him so successful in the past. Hitting is part form, part reaction, but in Burrell, you were witnessing a player whose hitting style was legendary; a style that dates back to his high school days in the Bay Area, and continuing at the University of Miami. Indeed, a list of the greatest college hitters EVER would not include many names before Burrell was listed. To watch Burrell hit now is to watch Picasso without his brush, or Mozart without his piano, certainly a sad sight to see.
The truth of these comments by an unnamed Oakland player are unverified, though they were thought legitimate enough to make it to the pages of some local Bay Area newspapers. What is known is that Burrell is struggling mightily, as are many of the Phillies tops hitting prospects, and careful study of the reasons for these struggles appear justified. Are the Phillies, in their exuberance to increase power potential, causing players to abandon proper hitting techniques, which in turn, is increasing neither power, nor hitting skill? Has this seeming split personality so enveloped the organization that it threatens to damage the growth potential of the solid group of young hurlers?
No one knows right now and it may take a few more years to provide plausible answers. What is known is this.... the split personality within the organization has become an alarming one, and must be addressed soon. If not, every future Phillie follower will be heard to ask after another brilliant pitching performance by Hamels, Floyd or Myers, "that's nice, did he lose?"
Columnist's Note: Questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome. Please send them to email@example.com, and I will respond! CD