CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms...The Opposing View

Hey, are you joining the parade? You know…the one! The growing crowd of Phillie fans which has now joined the "Phillie Farm System Flounders" group. Oh, you can hear them in ever increasing numbers, and they are louder every day. They wail and gnash their teeth at the perceived inadequacies of a system that started slow, and seemed to have more under .200 hitters than McDonald's has hamburgers franchises.

Well, my friends, I am hear to tell you that I will NOT be parading with this group, regardless of how large they are, how loud they wail, or how much I love the same team as they do. Nope. I am here to say that this system is alive and well, and is about ready to turn the corner. How ironic that just when the parade begins to pick up momentum, it may soon need to disperse. This Phillie farm system not only has a pulse, but the heart is now beating strongly.

Optimistic words indeed, but with any words, the question becomes… can they be documented? Of course they can, and one need look no further than this week's action to see not only a light at the end of the tunnel, but perhaps a full blast of sunlight!

In fact, all four clubs had a solid week, and this didn't just have the look of a decent week, but rather the look of four clubs that are not only playing better, but are getting healthier. Trust me, there is a definite correlation between the two. Let's take a closer look at the four clubs.

Perhaps the most stable minor league club is the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Barons, a club with a strong mixture of youngsters and veterans. Led by minor league manager deluxe, Marc Bombard, they have been a model of consistency, and their 19-15 record is the best in the system.

The Barons have already helped a Phillie team beset by injury problems with the promotions of Chase Utley, Jim Crowell and Brian Powell to the big club. All three have played well on the current road trip, and they may not be the last of a stable of solid players to eventually make their way to Citizens Bank Park.

Keep a close eye on pitchers Clay Condrey, Josh Hancock and Geoff Geary. All three are pitching well, and could help the parent Phils before summer turns to autumn. Other players to watch keenly are catcher AJ Hinch (.279) and shortstop Anderson Machado, a player often compared to Davy Concepcion in his ability to gobble up anything that's hit his way.

Other players beginning to make their presence felt, are youngster Jorge Padilla and minor league veterans Pablo Ozuna, Jim Rushford and Mark Smith. While none may be star material, all have a chance to make a strong Phillie bench even stronger. This club is good, and should continue to get better when pitchers Eric Junge and Dave Coggin regain their form.

Speaking of the parade, one of the two teams that has become a poster child for a failed Phillie farm system is the Reading Phillies. And, honestly, if you base your judgments strictly on won-lost records, their 13-21 mark certainly doesn't evoke much confidence. Yet, a closer look behind the record shows a team with several young players who have a chance to not only make the Phillie team soon, but become stars while they are at it.

Of course, any talk about the R-Phils begins with young pitching phenom, Gavin Floyd, and in the irony of ironies, he continues to receive nothing but rave reviews, although his recent performances have not been as solid as his first few starts. However, Floyd is right on target for a late 2005 debut in Philadelphia, and chances are that when he gets there, he will stay for keeps.

Phuture Phillie Phenoms has often waxed enthusiastic about young slugger, first baseman Ryan Howard, and he continues his pace towards a 40 home run season. This gaudy number is nothing to sneeze at, for in the storied history of this Phillie minor league club, such sluggers as Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell have played here and not put up 40 home run seasons. Under the careful tutelage of a minor league coaching staff now fully indoctrinated to the Charlie Manuel Way to Hit, players like Howard, Padilla and Michael Bourn at Lakewood are starting to show excellent plate patience. Not coincidentally, the hitting numbers reflect this improvement.

While Floyd and Howard are the top names at Reading, another player has the unlikely title of " best hitter in the minor leagues", at least for the time being. While not a top prospect, journeyman minor leaguer John Castellano is now hitting over .500 with 15 hits in only 28 times at bat. Certainly, his hitting will cool off appreciably, but his strong bat has helped players like Jim Deschaine (.302) Scott Youngbauer (.276) and Danny Gonzalez at the plate.

Not to be outdone with the renewed hitting zest of Howard and Company, young pitchers like Keith Bucktrot, Matire Franco and Layne Dawson have shown great improvement and their records are beginning to show it. All three pitchers had sterling outings this week, and each had a victory to show for it!

If Reading has been the subject of countless barbs and blathers, then Clearwater has definitely received the most criticism of all four minor league clubs, and justifiably so. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt has found the going as tough in his first year as manager of this team as he did in his rookie year with the Phils in 1973. Few may recall that for all the heroics Schmidt performed in Philadelphia, few took place in his first year when he ended the campaign with a .186 average.

This comment is not meant to deride Schmidt, but rather to remind a seemingly hostile crowd of fans, that Schmidt is hardly the type to let early frustrations get in the way of ultimate success. Clearly, this team has challenged Schmidt mentally, with no less than seven hitters batting below the Mendoza line of .200. It has not helped that his two top players, pitcher Cole Hamels and third baseman Terry Jones have yet to play due to injuries.

However, the C-Phils have been playing better lately, and it may just be a harbinger of things to come. Good news in the return of Hamels to the mound next week promises to make a rotation of Hamels, Nick Bourgeois, Elizardo Ramirez and Alfredo Simon a most imposing one. If Hamels has the same effect on this group that he had at Lakewood last summer, all the hurlers will benefit from his dominance.

And while the news on the hitters remains grim, all is not lost at the bat either. First baseman Ryan Barthelemy continues to be a revelation at .315 and shows no sign of slowing down. Further enhancing the prospects of a hitter's revival is the sudden power numbers of outfielder Chris Roberson. Long considered one of the best athletes in the organization, Roberson was widely known as a speedster with limited power skills.

Now, it appears that he has down an about face, as his stolen base totals are way down, but he has hit three homeruns in the past few weeks. If Roberson's hitting skills ever catch up with his athletic skills, the Phils will have another outfield prospect in their system. Keep a close watch on him this summer.

Quick prediction department: Schmidt will have this team turned around by July and they will be a respectable team for the rest of the year. If Hamels and Jones return with the skills they exhibited last year, this team may yet make Schmidt's managerial debut a successful one. Stay tuned!

If there has been any halt in the "Bash the Phils System" parade, it has been a grudging acknowledgement that all was not lost in Lakewood, the club with several fine prospects. Indeed, this club now has a most respectable 16-20 record, and seems on the cusp of becoming an outstanding team.

Led by speedsters Michael Bourn (23 steals) and Javon Moran (.299 average and 13 steals) this team has been exciting since Day One. Now, the wins are beginning to follow the thrills and it would surprise few in the organization if Lakewood soon joined SWB as a team with a better than .500 record.

Besides the speed antics of Bourn and Moran, this team has been led by the power hitting of Jake Blalock and the improved play of shortstop Carlos Rodriguez. All four players are considered premium prospects by Phillie minor league brass.

Perhaps even more promising for the future of this organization, Kyle Kendrick, compared favorably to a "young Jason Schmidt" recently won his first two professional games and now sports a 2-3 record. This bodes well for him as he is considered to have solid pitching skills, and a bulldog mentality to go with it.

As talented as Kendrick appears to be, he is not the best pitcher on the staff, righty Scott Mathieson earns that honor. Most people come away in awe of Mathieson's smooth delivery, wicked stuff, and cool demeanor on the hill. While it is widely acknowledged that Hamels and Floyd are the top two hurlers in the organization, Mathieson certainly deserves mention in the next group.

In fact, he along with Ramirez, Bucktrot, Simon and Kendrick all appear to have the talent to one day pitch in Philadelphia. And, although it's still a long shot, the Phils are attempting to add another young arm to their stable of talented hurlers. They are now in negotiations with Draft and Follow Pitcher Jordan Parraz, last year's sixth round draft choice.

While the Phils recent history suggests that they rarely sign a D & F player, they may break precedent with Parraz, since he is that promising. He spent the season in Nevada, playing at a Community College, and was athletic enough to play the outfield when he wasn't on the hill. However, the Phils have made it clear that Parraz has a future as a pitcher, and they hope that future will be as a Phightin. The team has until June 1st to sign him, or lose his rights to the 2004 draft.

Of course, Phuture Phillie Phenoms will keep abreast of the latest negotiations and inform everyone if this latest negotiation is a home run… or a strike out!

So, my Phrustrated Phillie Phan, join the parade if you still wish, but it is said here that you will soon tire of the exercise, and realize how irrelevant it is. Far from being a washout system, this organization may soon be "awash" in prospects waiting to make their presence felt in Philadelphia. While no wide-eyed Pollyanna, I am fully aware that my take is still in the minority view.

Most followers of the Phillie minor league system believe an overhaul is overdue. I say the teams will overcome this seeming overindulgence in pessimism, and once again rank among the top 10 systems in baseball, and very soon. With talented youngsters Hamels, Machado and Junge back in action, and Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher due back soon, my advise would be to ignore the Parade of the Phillie Phlounders Crowd and wait for a following Victory Parade of the Successful, one guaranteed to happen sooner rather than later.

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

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