CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Revival Time

Theories of the Minor League revival are everywhere. Is the philosophy of hitting guru, Charlie Manuel taking shape after a year on the job? Is it the addition of coaches Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone to the system? Is it the natural maturation of talented young players? Or is it Global Warming, the somewhat mysterious natural force that is given credit or blame for everything these days? All we know is that as we say good-bye to May and hello to June, our farm club bats are on fire!

Everyone, from Phillie coaches and scouts to fans and foes alike fully acknowledge the disaster that was Phillie Pharm Club Hitting 2003. It was so bad that many Minor league aficionados began screaming for change…and not the cosmetic kind. Charges that Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle had lost his vision, and that scouts no longer understood the changes in the game made Chicken Little feel justified in his claim that, indeed, the Phillie sky was falling.

Through it all, Arbuckle remained convinced that his vision, and those of his trusted scouts and coaches, would someday be validated. That day appears well in hand, as many of the very players that he placed such faith in, are renewing that faith with breakout performances in 2004. Let's examine a few of these players, and how this recent success might someday pay off big in Phillie Land, aka Citizens Bank Park.

Outfielder Chris Roberson was a little known ninth round draft choice in 2001 out of tiny Feather River JC in California. Drafted more for his athleticism than his on field success, Arbuckle remained convinced that with patience and proper coaching, Roberson could one day move from suspect to prospect. A skeptical public remained unconvinced, and with proper justification.

From 2001-2003, Roberson did little to elicit much confidence in his ability, though his speed on the base paths was impressive. Last season at Lakewood, Roberson hit a paltry .234, albeit with 59 stolen bases. Naysayers were quick to point out the difficulty in stealing first base, and Roberson was quickly dismissed as a prospect.

Still, there was something In Roberson that caught Arbuckle's eye, and he continued to insist the best was yet to come. That best may be coming as we speak… Roberson has been a veritable hitting machine in May and has seen his Clearwater average climb to .309. Even more significant is his power surge, seven home runs in a pitcher's league, 24 RBI and an impressive .489 slugging percentage.

What has caused this sudden transformation? Is it the watchful eye of manager Mike Schmidt, gently but forcefully guiding a young talent along the way? Is it the Manuel philosophy on hitting suddenly making sense to an intelligent yet green talent? Or is it just the normal progression of a youngster who finally realizes the nuances of a seemingly simple yet often difficult game?

Perhaps it's a bit of all three. Certainly the presence of Schmidt at Clearwater has been apparent. Called by many baseball "experts" one of the worst Phillie minor league teams in recent memory, the Clearwater Threshers, under the patience of Schmidt, has become a very respectable team. In fact, a four game winning streak this week, coupled with the strong pitching of youngsters like Cole Hamels, Nick Bourgeois, Alfredo Simon and Lee Gwaltney, promises a continued baseball revival in Florida this summer for the Threshers.

Leading the way will be the hitting of Roberson and first baseman Ryan Barthelemy, another Arbuckle reclamation project. After two relatively dismal seasons, Barthelemy had eye correction surgery, and his .305 average attests to the success of the surgery. A former collegiate All-American at Florida State, Barthelemy was a tenth round draft pick in 2002.

While Jim Thome and Ryan Howard block him along the path to Philadelphia, Barthelemy can only enhance his chances of being a valuable trading chip if he continues his fine hitting. Not so Roberson, who may someday battle Javon Moran or Michael Bourn as Phillie centerfielder and lead off hitter if his sterling performance continues.

Speaking of Moran and Bourn, these are two more examples of a system developing its own, and an Arbuckle philosophy being justified. In the 2003 June Amateur Draft, the Phillies paid the price for signing free agents Jim Thome and David Bell with the loss of draft choices in the first two rounds.

Arbuckle and his Rolodex file of coaches and scouts decided the Phillie's biggest organizational need was speed, speed and more speed at the top of the lineup. Enter top three draft picks Tim Moss, Michael Bourn and Javon Moran. While Moss has not sustained his college success at the professional level, Bourn and Moran have more than held their own, and should be considered co-heirs to the throne of Phuture Phillie Phenoms at the lead off position.

Both have helped make the Lakewood Blue Claws one of the most exciting teams in minor league baseball, and have added power to their growing repertoire of baseball skills. Bourn has seen his average climb to .301 and has an impressive total of 26 stolen bases in only 41 games. Even more impressive is his .423 slugging percentage, a testament to his ability to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

Moran has been a consistent thorn in the side of South Atlantic League teams all year with his hitting, fielding and speed. Defensively, most scouts consider him to be a major league center fielder already, and though his plate patience isn't as well developed as Bourn's, he still makes good use of his speed and hitting skills. Moran seems to have a bit more power than Bourn, as his .442 slugging percentage would indicate.

Yet, both Bourn and Moran understand that it is their speed, and ability to generate runs from the top of the order that will ultimately determine their ticket to Philadelphia. That they are both doing well at the minor league level seems to justify the faith that Arbuckle and Company had in these players, and indeed, their entire 2003 draft.

One of the major mistakes that amateur draftniks make in evaluating a baseball draft is to jump to quick conclusions about a particular draft. Most baseball pundits considered the Phil's 2003 draft to be an extremely weak one. In fact, many fans and scouts considered the entire draft to be a washout. Yet the performances of '03 picks Moran, Bourn, Joe Wilson, Marc Tugwell, Kyle Kendrick, and Nate Cabrera seems to disprove this theory.

In fact, when the Phillie short season teams at Batavia and GCL begin play in mid-June, a few other '03 draft picks will command watching. Youngsters like slugger Jason Crosland, and pitchers Matt Linder and Derek Griffith may someday make the 2003 draft a bountiful harvest for the Phils. Certainly, Chicken Little seemed a bit premature in his evaluation of a Phillie Falling Sky at the minor league level.

Other players who have seen their once sketchy resumes become impressive portfolios include former shortstop mega prospects Carlos Rodriguez and Anderson Machado as well as former Padre pitching prospect Clay Conderoy and relative unknown infielder Omar Bramasco.

It was not so many years ago that the Phils were thought to have a three deep depth chart at shortstop. Incumbent Jimmy Rollins seemed a fixture in Philadelphia, yet there were more than a few baseball scouts who felt that someday Machado might be even better. Not to be outdone, Rodriguez was considered one of the crown jewels of the system, with his smooth stroke, silky glove and outstanding speed.

Yet in 2003 the Phils saw none of the previous brilliance or potential from Machado or Rodriguez. Personal problems and some immaturity on their part contributed to very forgettable seasons for both. And while the results are still being watched carefully, the early returns on both Machado and Rodriguez are promising as we enter the hitting months of June, July and August.

Machado has recovered from a spring appendectomy to once again stamp himself as a future major league shortstop, be it in Philadelphia or parts unknown. In fact, if Machado's average and on-base percentage continue to rise at Scranton Wilkes-Barre, it would not be a surprise for the Phils to begin the entertain trade talks for either Machado… or Jimmy Rollins.

In the case of Rodriguez, it is more a case of redemption than resurrection for him. One of the highest paid Latin American signees in Phillie history; Rodriguez and his .196 average at Lakewood in '03 were bitter disappointments to the organization. Worse yet, rumors of insubordination and rule transgressions caused his name to be changed from Phillie prospect to Phillie suspect.

However, he came to camp with a completely new attitude, and his recent hitting surge from the .150 range to his current .242 and 15 stolen bases shows that the Phils may not have been wrong in their evaluation that he was a future major leaguer in the making. You can be sure the Phuture Phillie Phenoms will be reporting his progress all summer!

Along with these seeming revival stories, the Phillie Minor League Notebook continues to talk of the power exploits of Jake Blalock (.293, 7 HR, 34 RBI) and Ryan Howard (.263, 13 HR, 34 RBI) and the steady bats of minor league veterans Lou Collier (.329), Jim Deschaine (.322) and John Castellano (.431). It also contains rave reviews for young hurlers like Gavin Floyd, Yoel Hernandez, Geoff Geary, Layne Dawson and Scott Mathieson while updating the progress of former Phillie hurler Dave Coggin.

With the recent recalls and success of youngsters with the likes of second baseman Chase Utley and hurlers Geary, Elizardo Ramirez and Josh Hancock, it would appear that the anticipated demise of the Phillie farm system was greatly exaggerated. In fact, it appears a Phillie Pharm Revival is just around the corner.

Stay with Phuture Phillie Phenoms to enjoy the ride!

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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