CD's Connect the Dots... Classy Draft Act of 2002

Remember the excitement when Eric Valent was picked in the first round in 1998? You surely recall where you were standing when Ryan Madson and Jason Michaels were selected. You undoubtedly knew when the name Nick Punto was called that he would someday be worth an Eric Milton! Certainly, Phillie fans were singing "Happy Days are here again!" when the names Geoff Geary, Greg Kubes and Jorge Padilla appeared across the wire services. Yes, that draft class of 1998 certainly was memorable.

Of course, the simple truth is that other than Pat Burrell, selected with the first pick in 1998, the Phillies amateur draft that year was somewhat of a mystery, except to wise baseball scouts.  In contrast to the much-anticipated professional football draft held in April, the baseball draft is a study in delayed gratification.  Often, there is no gratification at all, though most teams consider a draft successful if 1-2 players make the majors.

Clearly, the '98 draft was the most successful in recent Phillie history with no less than six players having had a taste of big league life, and a few more on the way.  Burrell has become a full-fledged star, while Michaels and Punto have become serviceable talent.  Valent, Madson and Geary are still hopeful of making their mark and players such as Padilla, Kubes and shortstop Tommy Whiteman in the Astro system await their chance.

However, there is a recent class, the draft class of 2002, which may soon lay claim to the best draft in Philadelphia Phillies history.  While future projections are always fraught with uncertainty, and a failed career is only an injury away, it does appear that no less than five players from that draft will make it to the big leagues, and three have a decent chance of becoming legitimate stars.

Any discussion about this group begins and ends with the number one pick from that draft, smooth as silk lefty Cole Hamels.  Most scouts rate him as one of the best five prospects in all of baseball and he may well make his major league debut in late 2005.  Only 20 years of age, he already has a veteran's feel for pitching, and a change-up that is the envy of major leaguers like Randy Wolf. 

In fact, Wolf attributes his improved change up this spring to working with Hamels.  This is high praise indeed, coming from someone that is widely considered one of the best lefties in baseball.  Hamels light out debut t Lakewood last summer has been widely chronicled, so only continued good health and some much needed minor league experience stand in the way of his much anticipated major league debut.

 

When he makes it to Philadelphia, expect him to be an ace starter, the type that staffs are built around.  Phillie fans already salivate at the thought of a 2007 staff led by Hamels, Gavin Floyd and Brett Myers. This group may well rival any threesome in baseball by then.

If Hamels were the only top-notch draftee from 2002 it would be considered a solid draft, but he is merely the choice plum, and not the entire plate.  Two high school hitting standouts appear more than ready to someday grace the lineups of Phillie baseball.  Kiel Fisher, drafted in round three, and Hamels high school teammate, Jake Blalock, picked in round five look like the real deals with the bat and the glove.

Fisher was a surprise pick out of Riverside Poly High; a player so under the radar screen that Baseball American didn't even list him as a prospect.  Yet, one particularly perceptive California scout saw a left-handed bat with power and skill and a player of unusual athletic prowess. 

Drafted as a third baseman, Fisher was part of the pennant winning GCL Phillies in 2002 and displayed rare, if raw baseball skills.  Although he hit only .229, his power bat and sweet swing endeared him to Phillie brass everywhere and they anticipated a much better season in '03.  Truth be told, they got more than they bargained for.  After opening the season at GCL, his .323 average showed he was ready for tougher competition.

Promoted to Batavia in the New York-Penn League, he scorched opposing pitchers to the tune of a .340 average, and showed a solid glove and arm at the hot corner position.  With a solid 6'4", 220 lb frame, Fisher is expected to develop big league power from the left side and should continue his development in Lakewood this year.

Comparisons to Greg Luzinski don't come arbitrarily or often but Blalock has begun to receive such accolades this spring after putting on 20 pounds of muscle to an already solid 6'4" frame.  Although he only hit .245 at Batavia last summer, he showed the power potential that has Phillie phanatics drooling with 35 extra base hits in only 72 games. 

Recently converted to the corner outfield slots after playing shortstop in high school and third base in rookie ball, Blalock has a cannon arm and good range for a left fielder.  Along with Fisher, he is expected to continue his development at Lakewood this year.  With speedsters Michael Bourn, Tim Moss and Javon Moran at the top of the Blue Claws order, Fisher and Blalock should have ample opportunities for RBI in 2004.

Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle is notoriously conservative in his approach to promoting young talent so don't expect to see Fisher and Blalock in Philadelphia any time soon. However, do expect them to get there eventually, and when they do, expect them to be successful.  These are the type of middle of the order hitters that make the entire lineup more effective.

While these three top the charts of 2002, they are certainly not alone in making that class one to watch in the future.  A trio of pitchers, Zack Segovia, Nick Bourgeois, and Lee Gwaltney also appear to have the stuff to be successful at the big league level.  Though they have met with limited success so far in two years of pro ball, all three rate more than a cursory look when appraising the talented arms in a arm-rich organization.

Unfortunately, Segovia, who had a standout rookie season at GCL in 2002, will miss the '04 season after arm surgery this past off-season.  Arbuckle is quite confident of a full recovery for Segovia and he may be able to pitch in the Florida Instructional League this fall.  Blessed with a 94 MPH fastball and a bulldog mentality, Segovia has tremendous makeup for a pitcher.

Not yet 21 years of age, he is still young enough to make his mark at the big league level and a successful fall league might see Segovia in Clearwater to open the 2005 season.  If this happens, he will remain on track to make it to the major sometime in 2007.  Clearly, that '07 group could be a team Phillie phanatics will relish for years to come.

Unlike the previously mentioned prospects, Bourgeois and Gwaltney were talented college players when selected by the Phils in '02.  Bourgeois played at Tulane University and Gwaltney toiled at Louisiana Tech.  Both are polished hurlers and Bourgeois may already be the second best lefty in the minor league organization.

 

Although both made their professional debuts at Batavia in 2002, neither tasted a victory in their opening season.  Bourgeois finished at 0-3 while Gwaltney suffered two defeats without a victory.  Nevertheless, the Phils minor league coaches were quite impressed with both hurlers, and they rewarded this faith with solid seasons in '03.

A record of 7-10 might not sound impressive, but there was no finer hurler at Lakewood last August than Bourgeois.  Finishing with a flourish, he won 5 of his last 7 decisions and struck out an impressive 108 hitters in 110 innings. Better yet, opposing hitters struggled with a .228 average against the physically imposing lefty.

Expect him to surface in Clearwater this spring and with a solid summer, could be ready for the jump to Double A by August.  Once at reading, his talent will dictate how quickly he migrates to Philadelphia, but a debut sometime in 2006 would surprise no one.

Gwaltney, the tall and lanky righty, had a deceiving 8-8 record at Lakewood last year.  It was deceptive because he was much more effective than his record would indicate. Constantly burdened with pitching for a team that struggled to score runs, he nonetheless displayed a thorough knowledge of pitching and a real ability to keep his team in every game.

In an organization with as many starter types as the Phils have, expect Gwaltney to be moved to a relief pitcher soon. With a solid array of four decent pitches, he could just become a decent major league set up man in Philadelphia.  He is expected to pitch in Clearwater all season in 2004.

Philadelphia, under Arbuckle, has become well known for plucking late round gems out of nowhere and the Class of '02 appears to be no exception.  Two later round picks have shown more than enough talent to warrant careful scrutiny as they make their way up the Phillie organizational ladder.

Pitchers Scott Mathieson, a Canadian born youngster, may actually be the second most talented pitcher in this group. After a very successful rookie year on that title winning GCL team in '02, he remained in Florida last year for some fine-tuning.  Although his record of 2-7 for a poor rookie team was nothing to write home about, scouts marveled at his mound presence and knowledge of the art of pitching.

As if to justify these appraisals, Mathieson made a late season appearance in Batavia and wowed teammates with a 3 inning save in which he struck out 6 opposing hitters.  It is this skill that makes this 20-year-old a player to watch in the future.

Perhaps the most skilled athlete of the bunch is the giant, Darin Naatjes, a former tight end at Stanford University.  At 6'7" and 240 pounds, he makes an imposing figure on the mound and his 95 MPH fastball is at times nearly unhittable.  More a project than a prosect at this time, the Phils will be patient with this high-ceiling player.

Because of the riches of the system, the Phils can afford to be patient with the former football star and are in no hurry to accelerate his development.  With visions of former monster relievers like Dick Radatz and Goose Gossage clearly in their heads, it behooves the Phils brass to preach patience with Naatjes.  He well may be worth the wait!

Clearly, these are the elite eight of the Class Act of 2002 but are not the only players capable of making their major league mark someday.  Other draftees of note from that year are catcher Trent Pratt from Auburn, shortstop Victor Menocal of Georgia Tech and lefty reliever Beau Richardson, a college teammate of Bourgeois's at Tulane.

 

Though the big news this year will undoubtedly emanate from Citizens Bank Park as our Phillies attempt to ride roughshod over the NL east, they will not be the only game in town.  A bit further down the road, and several years removed from the spotlights of CBP, players like Hamels, Fisher, Blalock and Mathieson will be honing their wares for a less demanding audience. 

Cheer loudly, my friends, for the hitting exploits of Messrs. Thome, Burrell and Abreu, and clap handsomely for the pitching magic of Gentlemen Millwood, Milton and Myers.  Nevertheless, please don't fail to cast an occasional glance southward towards the minor leagues for the chances are excellent that today's farmhands are likely to be tomorrows Phantastic Phillies.  

Especially for that Classy Draft Act of 2002!

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


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