CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms

A week away and seemingly all of our minor league clubs have begun to struggle. Yet through all the darkness, some dim lights continue to shine just bright enough to give us hope that this summer still may portend an awakening of the organizational promise we all saw over the past several years. Ironically, the light may have shown brightest for a player named Brian Dallimore, a 30 year old career minor leaguer, and what his performance means to several Phillie farm hands.

Jim Rushford. Mark Smith. AJ Hinch. Randy Ruiz. Jeff Phelps. None exactly household names, and all are veteran minor league players currently gracing the Phillie's farm rosters. All must have taken heart from Brian Dallimore's performance on Friday night in San Francisco when this 8-year career minor leaguer not only finally made it to the big leagues, but also celebrated with an amazing performance. Not only did he reach base five straight times, but went 3-3 and hit a grand slam home run for his first major league hit!

This performance must have warmed the heart of players like Rushford, Smith, Hinch, Ruiz and Phelps, players just below the radar screen in terms of major league potential, but all talented performers. It is with this in mind that I highlight these players… the Brian Dallimore hopefuls. Certainly, no player greater emphasizes this similarity than Rushford, a 30 year old who has done nothing but hit since he signed a professional contract.

Since 2001, Rushford has had averages of .311, .316, .342 and .363 in minor league stints with the Milwaukee Brewers. The question of "what gives?" is a logical one, and talk of slowness afoot, weak defensive skills and limited power always get mention. Yet, a player of this hitting prowess seems a perfect fit for some major league teams bench corps and this is a role he hopes to someday fill with the Phils.

As if to emphasize this point, Rushford is off to a solid .329 start with the SWB Barons, and if he continues this zestful hitting, it would not be a surprise if he appears in a game at Citizens Bank Park. Certainly, he deserves more than a passing glance, a strong left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder… perhaps a Brian Dallimore clone.

The name Mark Smith may come to mind when Phillie fans contemplate the late August road trip meltdown that ultimately proved decisive in their lost wild card attempt. Bringing back a painful memory, it was Smith who began the Phils terrible 9 loss in 10 game slide by hitting a 2 run pinch hit home run to decide a Brewer 5-4 victory over the then Phutile Phillies. Though this game is better remembered for the pinch-hitting of ace Kevin Millwood in the 6th inning of a 3-2 game, and the removal of slugger Pat Burrell with the bags loaded in the 7th, Smith proved the ultimate culprit.

Smith, much like Rushford, has been a long time minor league player, though he has had more than a cup of tea with organizations like the Pirates and Brewers. His weakness has not been limited power, but rather an inability to hit major league pitchers consistently. Injuries have also played more than a small role in Smith's struggles. Yet, he remains hopeful that the Phils will call his name soon, and he will seize this latest opportunity to prove that Brian Dallimore's exist throughout the minor league landscape.

The story of Hinch has been well chronicled, most recently in a Connect the Dots article in March. When veteran Todd Pratt went down with a knee injury in early March, Hinch seemed assured of a major league spot with the Phils. Truth be told, he performed well in the spring, and nearly made the Phillie roster. But a quick recovery by Pratt, coupled with a need to have Hinch tutor some of the young Phillie pitching prospects led to his demotion just before the opener.

The Phils have some decisions to make about their future catching position and Hinch is now involved in a spirited dual with Michel Hernandez for the number one spot in the Barons catching rotation. Hernandez is more than just an interested bystander in this Brian Dallimore play-a-like story, as he is the catcher who was brought over from the New York Yankees after several years in the bushes.

Interestingly enough, Hernandez is displaying some much-needed power to a "barren" Baron offense, with 3 home runs in 10 games. If he keeps this up, Hernandez well could figure in Phillie summer plans if veteran Mike Lieberthal continues to struggle. As if Hinch and Hernandez needed any more incentive, they no doubt are keenly aware of the injury woes to current Phillie third string catcher, Shawn Wooten. If these injuries continue to plague Wooten, watch for the Phils to contemplate life with Rushford, Smith, Hinch or Hernandez very soon.

The story of Jeff Phelps is a fascinating one; a tale of a player who has played over three years in the organization, yet never caused even the slightest hint of a prospect watch. Perhaps being a 38th round draft pick out of college will cause people to overlook a player, yet Phelps is causing people to take notice this season. Performing at third base for a weak Reading Phillie team, he has turned his game up a notch and is currently hitting a cool .310.

Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle has always said that Reading is the place that "separates the men from the boys" and if Phelps continues to hit, he may soon elevate his status to manhood… and quickly. Stay tuned to Phuture Phillie Phenoms for updates on Phelps.

So, there are my nominees for the Phillie players most like to emulate Brian Dallimore in the near future. And though these players deserve special mention, it is most imperative that we continue to sight the top Phillie prospects, if for no other reason than this week's major league box scores have been inundated with past Phillie minor league stars.

Yes, indeed, players like Eric Valent, Nick Punto, Adam Eaton and Carlos Silva once graced the Phillie landscape, and now toil successfully for other teams. It is both painful, yet comforting to know that the talent the Phils once recognized is being proven correct at the major league level. If this trend continues, watch for such currently struggling Phillie phenoms as shortstop Anderson Machado, Ryan Howard, Jake Blalock and Chase Utley to soon turn it up a notch and reestablish themselves as major league contributors in the future.

Machado is a Davy Concepcion clone defensively, but has been slow to develop with the bat. After successful appendicitis surgery, he is now back in action at Clearwater, but soon should surface in Scranton at the Triple A level. This is a very important season for Machado. With Jimmy Rollins struggling, and arbitration eligible after the 2004 season, it is imperative that Machado regain his lost skills, so the Phils have options if they should choose to consider swapping Rollins.

Howard and Blalock continue to struggle to make contact, though Howard has displayed his well-known power, to the tune of 6 home runs in only 20 games. Expect him to recover quickly, and hit 30 home runs at Reading if he remains healthy.

The case of Jake Blalock is a more frustrating and confusing one. Gifted physically and emotionally, Blalock presents a solid presence on the field of play. By all accounts, he should have little trouble hitting the ball for both average and power. And he may yet. But for now, the Phils must hope that his present low .220's average and no home runs is merely a mirage, and that the best is yet to come.

Speaking of the best is yet to come, lefty Phenom Cole Hamels is on course for a late May return to the hill for Mike Schmidt's struggling Clearwater club. Hamels return will be a welcome sight for a team in need of a pick-me-up after a slow 7-16 start. Still, Schmidt remains optimistic that a staff that includes righties Elizardo Ramirez, Francisco Butto and lefties Nick Bourgeois and Beau Richardson will only become stronger with the soon arrival of Hamels.

If and when Hamels is ready to dominate again, he may well have to take his place next to current top Phillie Phenom, pitcher Gavin Floyd of Reading. Sportsticker, a syndicated minor league web site, recently selected Floyd as the top minor league pitching prospect in baseball for April. Please keep in mind; this award was for the entire minor leagues, not just the Phils! Floyd is currently 2-0 with nary a run allowed in 17 innings of pitching.

Even as many would wish for more strikeouts from the devastating slants of Floyd, most scouts continue to rave about his pure stuff and ability to throw four pitches for strikes. If Floyd continues to blossom, and Hamels is no mirage, the Phils will soon have a talent-laden top of the rotation at the major league level.

No Phuture Phillie Phenom story would be complete without the latest update about the speed twins, outfielders Michael Bourn and Javon Moran of Lakewood are both currently struggling at the plate. In fact the Phils entire minor league system is suffering from a lack of hitting prowess, yet they continue to run the bases with alarming regularity.

Bourn has an incredible total of 18 stolen bases, while Moran is saddled with a more mundane 9. Of equal importance, they are both fine tuning the art of batting leadoff at the minor league level, in hopes that one will soon emerge as a future .400 OBP player. Again, stay tuned.

Speaking of Lakewood, four very young hurlers continue to impress though their records may not indicate it. Scott Mathieson, Kyle Kendrick, Kyle Parcus and Joe Wilson have all shown the talent necessary to move up the system quickly. This week they were joined by another young flamethrower, righty Nate Cabrera. Drafted in the mid rounds in 2003, Cabrera can often hit 95 miles per hour with his fastball and is another youngster to watch this summer.

As the weather heats up, it is hoped that the Phillie bats will follow suit, especially at the minor league level. However, be it a Rushford promotion or a Floyd commotion, stay with Phuture Phillie Phenoms for the very latest in minor league happenings, be they good or bad. After all, a Brian Dallimore story lives anew in every Phillie farmhand, and if a Rushford or Smith can help seal a Phillie title, the wait will have been well worth it!

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

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