CD's Connect the Dots... Young Guns Revisited

It was the Summer of ‘96 and there was not much to cheer about if you were a Philadelphia Phillies fan. A rookie named Scott Rolen was an up and coming player. True Phillie fans, however, were more interested in four young hurlers pitching at Piedmont in the South Atlantic League. Everyone knew their names....Coggin, Burger, Knoll and Kershner, aptly called...the Young Guns.

The Young Guns…quite brash, very talented and very well known - Dave Coggin, Rob Burger, Randy Knoll and Jason Kershner. All starting pitchers with great stuff and even better futures. Surely, they would be the starters in Philadelphia in the early 2000's. Though it has not quite worked out that way, it is also a myth that the Phillies ruined their careers by over pitching them at such an early age. Only Knoll, possibly the best of the bunch, suffered a career ending arm injury. Burger lost his control, and was out of a baseball a few years ago. Kershner is now a decent reliever with the Toronto Blue Jays and Coggin has shown strong potential out of the bullpen when he has been healthy.

It is difficult not to look back and think about that group with the announcement last week that the Phillies had just promoted teen-age wunderkind Cole Hamels to Clearwater in the Florida State League. With Hamels making his starting debut at Clearwater later this week, this team has now assembled a rotation that not only rivals, but also probably surpasses the Young Guns of 1996.

In lefty Hamels, and righties Gavin Floyd, Ezequiel Astacio, Elizardo Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda, the Phillies have five pitchers with the potential to not only make it to Philadelphia, but also to be successful once they get there. It will be fascinating to watch the final month unfold, and it is not premature to say that a large amount of the Phillies future success is wrapped up in how many... and how quickly, these five Young Guns make it up the coast from Florida to Philadelphia. Lets take a look at this rotation, and the chances of each to someday make their home in the City of Brotherly Love.

Talk to any baseball scout about the best minor league hurlers and they will quickly mention Scott Kazmir of the Mets and Zack Greinke of the Royals. Then a most astounding thing will occur next. Two of the next three names mentioned will undoubtedly be Hamels and Floyd. Think of this for a minute. Two of the very best, most talented arms in all of minor league baseball belong to the Phillies...and they are now teammates! Amazing you say? Phantabulous is more like it!!! And to decide which one is better is like trying to decide between a Lexus and a Benz. Either way, you will travel in style and flair.

Now Gavin Floyd has been at his craft longer...by a bit over a year. In that time, he has shown great ability at Lakewood, has more than held his own at Clearwater...and fairly dazzled the scouts at the Futures Game a few weeks ago. Floyd is a top of the rotation starter, who was so good at an early age that the Phils denied him his best pitch, a wicked curve ball, so he could learn to pitch with adversity. It barely put a dent in his arsenal. Watch for him at Reading next Spring, and once you make it to AA, things can happen quickly. Floyd should be in a Philadelphia uniform by 2006.

To talk about Cole Hamels debut at Lakewood is to almost visit the surreal. His statistics border on phenomenal.... and that is not even close to a stretch. In Hamels' 13 starts he was 6-1 but that barely touches the surface of his domination. How about these numbers? In 75 innings pitched, he struck out a mind bending 115 batters while allowing only 32 hits. One needs a microscope to study his ERA.... a miniscule 0.84. He literally turned around a franchise as he turned around heads. The Lakewood team came alive once Hamels made his debut back in late May and have played well ever since. Certainly, he will be tested in the Florida State League. Hitters are more mature, the lighting is better for the hitters, and batters are more equipped to deal with crafty lefties. But don't be surprised if Hamels continues to dominate... he is that good. Scouts rate his changeup as among the best in baseball, and Hamels seems to have that God given understanding of what it takes to be a successful pitcher.

The race to Philadelphia between Floyd and Hamels will be an interesting one. The joy and excitement of watching them pitch back to back in Philadelphia will be even greater. It is a tribute to the abilities of Floyd and Hamels that Elizardo Ramirez, nicknamed "the Lizard", falls to third place on the list of pitching prospects at Clearwater. On many teams, he would be the number one rated pitcher, such are his abilities. His greatest attribute is his incredible ability to throw strikes; he almost never walks a hitter. Last year, in the rookie GCL he was merely 7-1 with a 1.10 ERA and only two, yes count ‘em, two walks in 73 innings pitched. This is phenomenal, even in a league where youngsters begin swinging as soon as they wake up in the morning.

Ramirez, who has been compared favorably with Greg Maddux in his ability to put a ball where he wants it, made the almost unheard of leap of - not one, but two leagues - this year. Instead of pitching at Batavia or Lakewood, he made the jump to Clearwater and his current 11-8 record demonstrates this was more than just a leap of faith. Such is the talent of the pitcher-rich Phillies that there is talk of having Ramirez repeat a season at Clearwater to refine his talents. One suspects this will not happen if the challenge of pitching with Floyd and Hamels inspires Ramirez to a strong August.

Almost an afterthought when discussing the Phillies minor league pitchers is one Robinson Tejeda, but is certainly not an afterthought to the Phillies minor league staff. Tejeda has always been considered to have one of the best arms in the organization. His problem has been staying healthy, and staying away from visa difficulties. When Tejeda was signed out of the Dominican Republic in late November of ‘98, it was hailed as an outstanding catch for a Phillie team in need of restoring their credibility in Latin America. And he has not disappointed the Phillies when healthy. Indeed, his performance at Lakewood in 2001 stamped him as a future starter with the Phillies.

A memorable 14-strikeout game in July of that year seemingly cemented his status as a top prospect. But arm injuries, coupled with visa problems, set Tejeda back a bit this year. However, since returning to health and slowly recapturing the fastball that often touches 92-94 miles per hour, Tejeda is a pitcher again worth watching. Given the wealth of talent available to the Phillies starting core, a trip to the bullpen may eventually be Tejeda's ticket to the big leagues.

The least known, and yet most successful of the Clearwater five is Ezequiel Astacio. His record is a stunning 13-4 and this record has been earned on merit. Another prize from the Dominican Rebublic, Astacio's rise has been slow but steady. In fact, his greatest strength has been his incredible consistency and ability to be successful wherever he has pitched. Slowly advancing to the US via the Dominican Summer Leagues, Astacio made his stateside debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2001. After a solid season there, he was equally successful last season in Lakewood, going 10-7 as a starter in 25 games. Though he was on the Phillies radar screen before this season, it would not be unfair to say that it was just a bit more than a blip.

Astacio's breakout season, however, has caused the Phillies to be faced with a dilemma come December. The Phillies suddenly have a plethora of outstanding pitching prospects and how to protect Astacio and Tejeda on the 40-man big league roster may prove challenging. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to ignore Astacio's season. He may never possess the lights out stuff of Hamels and Floyd, and will probably always be rated a step behind Ramirez and Tejeda, but fact remains he is the winningest hurler on a hurler rich team. Of such problems, many teams only could dream of.

Although the Clearwater five, the Young Guns revisited, will get most of the ink, this team has several other fine hurlers. Relief ace Bobby Korecky has amassed 18 saves in merely 35 appearances, Eude Brito, still another Dominican dandy, has an ERA of 2.00 and righty Taft Cable is more than able, to the tune of 11 wins last year at Lakewood. Oh, and let us not forget lefty relief specialist Matt Squires, he of the 1.59 ERA.

In the euphoria that now masks our better judgment, it is wise to remember that for all their talents, the original Young Guns of Coggin, Kershner, Burger and Knoll have had mixed success in the big leagues. And it is common knowledge that the mortality rate of minor league arms is only slightly higher than the national debt.

But, if you listen closely enough, and tilt your ears slightly southeasterly, the popping sound you hear may just be another fastball rushing into the catcher's glove...compliments of the Young Guns Revisited.

Columnist's Note: Suggestions, questions and comments welcome. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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