CD's Connect the Dots...Who Speaks For Them?

These are the voices never heard. They may whisper behind clubhouse doors, and certainly they talk among themselves when no one else can hear. Mostly they remain silent, for fear that a negative word may doom them forever to the depths of the minors. Who are these silently voices? They are the players who hope for and deserve a chance to make their mark at the major league level. Sadly, the Phils have more than their share, and the question remains… who speaks for them? I will.

It is an unwritten rule in baseball that if you are at the minor league level, you accept your fate with grit, determination, and a staying power that would make most professionals green with envy. Yet, a most disconcerting theme has crept into our Philadelphia Phillie thought process, and it threatens to damage, or possibly destroy the very careers of some of their most promising prospects.

The theme has been slowly overtaking the parent team for several years, though it has become more pronounced over the past three years. A club long known for its proud development and promotion of its own, has become an organization more prone to bring in retread veterans from other organizations than take a chance on bringing up its very own players.

We are seeing it throughout the roster. Players like Roberto Hernandez, Shawn Wooten and Doug Glanville are on the parent roster because they provide a comfort zone for an organization that seems intent on ignoring the efforts of such youngsters as Chase Utley, Geoff Geary and Josh Hancock. Granted, a team with World Series aspirations may often deem it necessary to have veterans of the wars on a roster for stability and leadership.

Yet, this writer has become increasingly concerned about a philosophy that seems to be intent on burying the players that may well represent the very future of Phillie baseball.

Who speaks for the Chase Utleys, Geoff Gearys and Josh Hancocks of the world? I do.

I have been blessed for the past year with the opportunity to put in print what many Phillie fans can only vocalize. During this time of writing, I have received countless emails, most from die-hard Phillie fans anxious to connect with a fellow fanatic. Along also came another kind of email… thought-provoking mail from family members of many of the minor league players.

They have voiced a concern that I have often written about, a continuing frustration with the seeming reluctance of the Phillies to reward minor league performance with major league promotions. Oh, this is certainly not a blanket indictment of the team; Marlon Byrd, Brett Myers and Ryan Madson are testament to that. All performed with extraordinary skill at the minor league level, and all were rewarded with major league jobs.

However, the list of veteran major league players brought in to fill bullpen and bench roles with the Phils reads like a Who's Who list of players past their prime. Almost any Phillie fan can recite the names of bullpen retreads brought in to keep a Phillie team afloat. Names like Dennis Cook, Turk Wendell, Mike Williams, Dan Plesac, Hector Mercado, Valerio De los Santos and Jose Santiago are a welcome reminder of recent Phillie bullpen acquisitions.

Unfortunately, all but Plesac were grossly ineffective, and all had one more common trait… none had been born and bred in Phillie red and white. This is a damaging blow to a minor league player hoping for his chance at the big leagues, and certainly leads to organization-wide unrest, whether it is spoken or not.

Family members have written of their son's frustration and despair at constantly being bypassed by one veteran after another. I understand and echo their frustrations completely. Minor league players are much like any other employee of a company; they talk among themselves about opportunities for advancement, or finding themselves at dead ends with no light in the tunnel.

How would I be privy to this? As a former minor league player, I remember well the clubhouse banter that would take place among players, each with their own dreams and aspirations. I recall clearly how players would read with passion the box scores, in hopes of gleaning any information that might make their situation clearer. Players often talked privately of organizations that seem to reward minor leaguers with promotions, and those that didn't.

Philadelphia is a great baseball organization, with caring ownership, a wonderful fan base, and an exciting and talented team. However, a growing problem is emerging at the minor league level because of the seeming reluctance to promote worthy players.

Who speaks for a Chase Utley who did everything asked of him this spring, and is rewarded for his efforts with his third demotion to Scranton-Wilkes Barre?

It may be no coincidence that Utley is currently struggling to hit with the Barons. Who could blame him if he is less than thrilled with his surroundings?

Chase Utley can hit in his sleep, so it is doubtful he suddenly lost that talent. More likely, an overwhelming disappointment at his circumstances has lead to his struggles.

Who speaks for pitchers like Geoff Geary or Josh Hancock, young hurlers who have more than paid their dues with grit, determination, sweat… and talent? Both are solid prospects, and are beginning to reach the age where prospect gives way to suspect. This is not only unfortunate, but also unfair, as neither has done anything to rate the suspect tag.

Geary in particular deserves a chance to pitch with the Phillies. A collegiate All-American, he has been a solid starter, a dependable middle reliever, and a top notch closer since entering the Phillie system. Now 27 years of age, Geary seems at least as capable of retiring major league hitters as Roberto Hernandez, he of the straight fastball and $500,000 dollar contract.

Hernandez has had a great career, and deserves the respect and accolades due a player of his class and distinction. However, baseball is a game of performance, and Hernandez has not been an effective reliever for over two years. Why would the Phils not take a chance on one of their very own, and give hope to the entire farm system? This is a question that begs an answer.

Is it any wonder that Phillie prospects like Anderson Machado, Jorge Padilla, Robinson Tejeda and Carlos Rodriguez have regressed as players? Is it more than likely that they are aware of the fact that the Phils seem slow to promote players from within, preferring the comfort and safety of veteran major league ready talent?

Who speaks for these players? I am.

Of even greater concern are the players who are performing well, yet have been told they stand little chance of ever playing a game on the green grass of Citizens Bank Park. We need look no further than a young slugger currently on a home run tear at Reading. Ryan Howard is the name, and we will know about him soon enough.

All he has done is nearly won a Triple Crown at Clearwater last year, and continue his booming hitting this year in Double A. Howard is a power hitter deluxe, a player often compared to a "young Willie Stargell" by none other that Phillie hitting coach guru, Charlie Manuel. For those too young to remember, Stargell parlayed a near 500 home run pace into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At last look, Howard already had 8 home runs in merely 22 games, a pace that would seem to guarantee between 35-40 home runs for the season if he remains injury free. Yet the Phils have already made it abundantly clear that Howard, a first baseman by trade, is blocked by the imposing figure of Jim Thome in Philadelphia, and will need to be traded in order to ever reenact his Willie Stargell routine. Why could the Phils not at least give Howard an outfielders glove and attempt to make him serviceable there? It worked for Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell, why not Howard?

There is no rarer jewel in professional baseball than a genuine power hitter, and the Phils have one within site of Philadelphia. Yet the team seems content to take their chances with Shawn Wooten, Doug Glanville and Tomas Perez, stout and willing players all, but limited in their potential and long-term value.

Who speaks for the Ryan Howards of the organization? I can.

Amid the euphoria of a new stadium, a team picked by many for post-season greatness, and a payroll near the top of the charts, a growing problem lies just below the surface. Oh, it will not rear its ugly head this year, and next year may come and go with nary an outcry. However, the fact remains that regardless of the current talent on this Phillie team, it is an old team, and probably has a limited window of opportunity.

At the end of this season, the Phils will need to address the catching future of Mike Lieberthal, the free agency of Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton and Placido Polanco and health of players like David Bell and Todd Pratt. It is extremely possible that the Phils will be looking at a roster with about 6-7 spots to fill. Who will take their place from among the minor league crop?

Will the Phils finally open the gates and allow deserving players like Utley, Geary, Hancock and Eric Junge a chance to compete at the big league level? Will these promotions give new hope to a system that seems intent on swallowing its own? Or will the Phils continue their recent history of scouring major league rosters for veterans, players that don't and never will bleed Phillie red?

This is a question in need of an answer and it demands watching this summer. At some point in July GM Ed Wade will address the Phils need for another arm in the bullpen or another bat for the bench. Will he call Baron manager Mark Bombard and ask for the latest scouting report on a Phillie phenom? Or will he call a rival GM and ask about the availability of the latest struggling veteran major league player?

Many will be watching with more than a passing interest. Fans. Players. Parents. Who speaks for the current crop of stalled Phillie prospects? I did.

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

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