CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms

One of the fascinations of being a minor league phanatic is that for every prospect that exceeds expectations, another will struggle and cause phans to lose hope. It is against this backdrop that I touch on several "Phuture Phillie Phenoms" this week, and offer compelling evidence that one should stay the course with these players. The chances are that when the dust settles in September, the best prospects will have shown their wares, and the less talented players will have found their level.

We need look no further for proof than one Ryan Howard, erstwhile "Willie Stargell" clone, and a player that nearly won a Triple Crown at Clearwater last summer.  Advancing to Reading in Double A, Howard was expected to continue his steady rise through the system, and possibly hit 30 home runs in this hitter friendly park.

 

It may still happen, but after 32 at bats, Howard has a .159 average and an alarming 16 strikeouts.  At this point, the Phils are unconcerned as he is known as a very emotional player, and is probably putting undue pressure on himself to succeed.  It is worth noting that this is exactly what happened to him in his junior year in college. 

 

Expected to be a first round draft pick, Howard developed a bad case of "draftitis" and slumped badly.  It was only because of this yearlong slump that the Phils were fortunate to draft Howard in the fifth round.  While it is certainly the case that Double A baseball tends to separate the men from the boys, Howard is probably a home run away from reestablishing himself as a Phuture Phillie Phenom.

Other top prospects who are scuffling in the early going are starting pitchers Alfredo Simon and Eric Artiaga and infielders Chase Utley, Tim Moss and Carlos Rodriguez.  To be fair, Utley is only struggling by the outstanding standards expected of him, as his early .259 average and decent power are certainly not abysmal numbers.

 

Simon has displayed his outstanding 95 MPH fastball consistently but has struggled with his command, as his 7.56 ERA suggests.  However, he has a great arm, and is expected to help anchor an outstanding staff, led by Cole Hamels, Elizardo Ramirez, Nick Bourgeois and Francisco Butto.

 

As mentioned previously, for every disappointment, there tends to be an equal number of pleasant surprises and this year is no exception.  Clearwater's Ryan Barthelemy is hitting a resounding .429 and has shown solid extra base power.  This surge may justify the Phils 10th round selection of him in 2002 after an All-American career at Florida State.

While Clearwater, under Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, has struggled with a 3-6 record, Barthelemy has led the way with 15 hits in 35 at bats.  Anything resembling this for the rest of the season may well reestablish him as a hitter to watch, and a Phuture Phillie Phenom.

Other notable hitting performances in the first two weeks of play include catcher Trent Pratt and his .316 average, veterans Lou Collier and Jim Rushford at .400 and .379, respectively, and Bryan Hansen's .381 average at Lakewood.  All four are interesting cases that need repeating.

 

Pratt is a young catcher who wowed many coaches and fans this spring in Clearwater.  Not highly rated before this year, his off-season workout program has paid off handsomely and his improvement could not come at a more important position.  It has been well chronicled of the Phils organization wide deficiencies at this position, and the slow starts of veterans AJ Hinch and Michel Hernandez at SWB and Russ Jacobson at Reading only amplify this deficiency.

A strong season from Pratt could elevate him to the forefront of catcher prospects in the Phillie system.  Still only 24 years old, it has always been his weak bat that has held him back.  A solid work ethic and strong defense have always been his prime calling cards, and he will be closely watched this year.

Collier and Rushford are former major league players who well could see action in Philadelphia this year.  Both are versatile players, and might enhance a Phillie bench that is off to a very slow start.  Rushford in particular has always been a solid minor league hitter, and could fill a valuable role with the Phillies before too long.

Hansen is a prime example of a player who may finally be reaching the potential expected of him for several years.  A 6th round draft pick out of high school in 2001, he was always counted on to hit with authority, yet has been disappointing to this point.  A strapping 6'2" left-handed hitter, Hansen is off to an outstanding .381 pace, and has helped make the Lakewood Blue Claws the most exciting club on the pharm.

No less than six other youngsters are off to solid starts, and this team could set a few minor league records if the numbers continue.  Michael Bourn has stolen 9 bases in 8 games, and seems to have been given the "green light" to run at will.  If he continues this pace, he could challenge the 100-steal mark that has been reached by only a few players.

Equally impressive is Bourn's ability to hit and take an occasional walk.  He seems, along with teammate Javon Moran, to be the prototypical leadoff hitter that the Phils have lacked since the days of Lenny Dykstra. In fact, it is no coincidence that the greatest years in recent Phillie history coincided with the presence of a solid leadoff hitter.

Names like Dave Cash, Bake McBride, Pete Rose, Lonnie Smith and Lenny Dykstra are all associated with some of the top teams in the club's past.  If Bourn or Moran can continue this tradition, things may bode very well for the Phils in the future.

Slugger Jake Blalock continues to evoke excitement with his power bursts at Lakewood.  Hitting .286 in the early going, he already has 6 doubles in 8 games, many of which will become home runs when the summer breezes arrive in June.  Blalock continues to remind long time Phillie watchers of Greg Luzinski with his tape measure power, and it may not be long before he takes his place along side his brother, Hank, as a top player in the big leagues.

On the Blue Claws pitching ledger, starters Kyle Kendrick, Scott Mathieson and Joe Wilson have shown outstanding potential in the early going, although only Mathieson has come away with a victory. Wilson is someone to watch, a young lefty with outstanding control and a consistent 91-92 MPH fastball.  Lefties with this combination are few and far between, so his progress will be closely monitored.

As strong as the Claw's pitching has been, it pales in comparison to the outstanding hurling being seen in Reading.  From Gavin Floyd to Keith Bucktrot, from rehabbing righty Frank Perez to perennial prospect Rob Tejeda, the early going has been a nightly pitching masterpiece in Reading.

Floyd, after some late '03 concern, has regained the form that made him one of the top 5 pitching prospects in baseball.  After two starts, he has yet to yield a run, and even more impressive is his 12 strikeouts in 10.2 innings.  Despite all his talent, it was his low strikeout numbers that worried many scouts.  Not so, this spring, as his 93 MPH fastball and "drop off a table" curveball have proven almost unhittable.  If he continues this pitching, watch for a promotion to SWB this summer and a possible Philadelphia preview in 2005.

Bucktrot, Perez and Tejeda all sport 1-0 records and microscopic ERA's in the R-Phillies surprising 5-3 start.  Equally noteworthy are the bullpen slants of righty Yoel Hernandez, a pitchers with 2 saves to go along with his 2.70 ERA.  Hernandez is another example of a player who has ebbed and flowed through the Phillie system, and he seems once again about to count himself among the Phuture Phillie Phenoms.

On the injury front, lefty phenom Cole Hamels remains sidelined with elbow problems, as do infielders Terry Jones, Juan Richardson and Kiel Fisher.  The good news is that Richardson has begun to swing a bat and may be less than a month away from DHing at SWB.

The bad news is the announcement that lefty Bud Smith has had a recurrence of his arm problems, and once again been relegated to the disabled list.  This is particularly troublesome news as he recently returned after two shoulder operations.  If this latest injury should prove serious, it may well spell the end of Smith as a viable prospect at the still tender age of 24.

Stay with Phuture Phillie Phenoms all season as we chart the progress of some names that will one day be very familiar to Phil's phans everywhere!

 

Columnist's Note:  Please feel free to offer any comments, questions or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond.  Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast


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