CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms..."H" Boys Highlights

Not only can I continue to revel in the exploits of young sluggers like Ryan Howard and Jake Blalock, but also, there are updates on recent Phillie draft signings. The signings have been coming in fast and furious since I last wrote and unless my instincts betray me (admittedly a very real possibility!) it does appear as if the Phils have taken a very aggressive approach to getting their top picks signed, sealed and playing. Lets take a look at the Phuture Phillie Phenoms.

At last look, the Phils had signed no less than 28 of their 50 draftees, including 7 of the top 10. This includes top pick, speedy outfielder Greg Golson, as well as collegiate pitchers JA Happ and Andrew Baldwin. Also signed are young catcher Louis Marson, shortstop Samuel Orr and outfielders Andrew Mcfarlane and Sean Gamble.

The news is also good on catchers Jason Jaramillo (second round) and Charles Cresswell (tenth round) as well as high school lefty reliever James Adkins (thirteenth round). Jaramillo should be signed sometime this week, and Cresswell is given a better than even chance of signing. The Phils also expect to sign seventh round pick, shortstop John Hardy, after the College World Series, and Adkins will be aggressively pursued.

In my last column I speculated that recent Phillie history suggested that the Phils would sign eight of their top ten picks. I thought the Phils would sign one of the two shortstop prospects, either Orr or Hardy and one of the two catcher prospects, either Marson or Cresswell. In fact, the Phils hope to corral all four of them. This is welcome news, as it not only adds talent, but depth to a system that could use both.

I also mentioned that I was quite sure the Phils would sign Golson, Jaramillo and Happ, but the true test of their seemingly renewed interest in signing draft picks would have Cresswell, Adkins and thirty-sixth round pick Andrew Romine as the litmus tests. All three are high school players, with excellent college scholarships. If the Phils could find a way to sign at least two of them, then this draft would be a tremendous success. Early returns look like it may happen, with Cresswell and Adkins the two most likely to sign on the dotted line.

If and when this happens, the Phils will have pumped much needed new blood into an organization that appears to have developed some cracks in the most unlikely of places… namely the young minor league pitching prospects.

Only one year ago today, the Phils minor league pitching was the envy of major league teams throughout baseball. With mega-prospects like Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd, as well as youngsters like Taylor Buchholtz, Ezequiel Astacio, Keith Bucktrot, Ryan Madson and Elizardo Ramirez, the Phils appeared primed to have a rotation that might last for years.

Unfortunately, there is a wise old baseball adage that "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect." This adage implies that so much can go wrong with a young pitcher's arm that it is sheer lunacy to ever count on a young hurler to make it big. This is not meant to imply that they never do, only that the great numbers of solid young arms eventually fall by the wayside.

In the case of the Phils, Buchholtz and Astacio were traded to Houston for closer Billy Wagner, and Madson and Ramirez are having varying degrees of success with the Phils right now. Floyd appears as solid as ever at Reading, though lack of offensive support has left him winless since April. Bucktrot is currently sidelined with arm problems, but it is the left elbow of Hamels that is the most disconcerting news of all.

For those unfamiliar with Hamels and his history, it should be noted that he suffered a broken left arm in a football accident while in high school. Although no pitcher had ever fully recovered from a broken arm before, Hamels seemed to be a test case for a doctor's ability to rebuild what was once broken.

Hamels not only was a High School All-American as a senior, but also parlayed his talent into a first round signing bonus of two million dollars. He then set about to turn the baseball world on its ear with his ability and poise. Yet storm clouds were on the horizon this spring when he was shut down for a month with elbow soreness. When he returned, he appeared as good as new, as his 1-0 record and 1.13 ERA would seem to indicate.

However, a quiet concern has enveloped the Phillie organization over the recurrence of Hamels elbow tenderness. Although for public consumption the Phils are presenting a brave front and insisting that this problem is minor, the fact that they are seriously considering shutting him down for the remainder of the '04 season is cause for grave concern.

For all his talent and poise and skill, one simple fact remains. This is a pitcher who had a broken arm in high school and has yet to reach 100 total innings as a professional though he has been pitching for two seasons.

This is a major story, though the Phils will try and hush it up for a myriad of reasons. Number one, this is a young man who cost the organization two million dollars, and appeared talented enough to lead a Phillie staff for the next ten years. Number two, more than a few trusted employees have staked a large amount of their professional reputations on the fact that they believed Hamels was completely healthy when drafted, and would stay that way.

One more point about Hamels, and we are now entering the realm of the speculation area, which is always a gray area to enter. Nevertheless, it needs to at least be addressed. For all his skill, there have been more than a few whispers that Hamels and his casual California style has caused some of his problems.

His high school injury playing football is still clouded in mystery and will probably forever stay that way. Then, when he reported to Fall Instructional Camp in September of 2002, the Phils were more than a bit disturbed by his lack of conditioning over the summer while high-level negotiations were taking place.

Finally, the Phils readily admit that the main reason he began the 2003 season in extended spring training instead of at Lakewood was because he didn't report to camp ready to pitch. When he finally showed he was ready, mentally as well as physically, he was the dominant hurler that the Phillie brass had hoped for.

Yet, when invited to spring training with the major league club this spring, Hamels displayed great ability, and an elbow injury that he attempted to conceal. If all this adds a cloud of mystery to the story, it should. The story of Cole Hamels is one well worth watching, as its eventual outcome will influence future Phillie decisions for years to come.

If Hamels returns healthy and a bit wiser, then the Phils current minor league pitching woes will receive a quick turnaround. If, however, Hamels eventually becomes another failed high school pitching prospect, this may cause the Phils to completely revamp the way they evaluate young pitching talent before the draft.

Indeed, it may be with Hamels in mind that the Phils draft in 2004 appears so top heavy with collegiate players. More than one organization believes that high school players are too great a risk to spend millions on signing them, and that college players come in more ready for the rigors of professional ball. At any rate, this is a story that all Phillie fans will be watching with keen interest. Of course, Phuture Phillie Phenoms will keep up with the Hamels watch and bring you updates as it continue to unfold. Stay tuned!

On a more positive note, the continued power exploits of Reading first baseman Ryan Howard are becoming the talk of baseball. His power numbers are beginning to evoke images of former minor league sluggers like Richie Allen, Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt. It is no coincidence that these three are among the greatest Phillie power hitters of all time.

It is not as if Howard was an unknown… not with a near Triple Crown at Clearwater on his resume. Yet, most baseball scouts will readily acknowledge that the jump from Single A to Double A baseball is what separates the men from the boys, and more than a few wondered how Howard would handle the promotion.

Happily for the Phils, he has handled it quite nicely, thank you. Indeed, handled it to the tune of 22 homeruns and 58 RBI in only 64 games, while seeing his batting average rise to .290. Simply put, his numbers are staggering, and at his current pace he will set a single season homerun record for the Eastern League. The current record is 40, and if Howard continues his onslaught he will approach 50 home runs before the season ends.

As with most Phillie news stories, there is always a caveat to any good news. The caveat is that Howard plays only first base, and that position is currently occupied by one Jim Thome, a fellow power hitter of some renown. Unless Howard can learn a new position, and Assistant GM, Mike Arbuckle says this is not going to happen, then the best the Phils can hope for is to parlay Howard's jumbo numbers into a trade for a very solid player, possibly a starting pitcher.

Advocates of a July trade are a bit misguided in my opinion. It is this writer's feeling that the best thing the Phils can do is let Howard's season play out and then take out a For Trade sign on a 40+ homerun hitting phenom during the Winter Meetings. It is inconceivable that more than a few teams will not lust at the prospect of telling potential season ticket holders back home that they have just acquired a player with "Willie Stargell like power."

No less than hitting guru Charlie Manuel has called Howard a "Stargell clone." This is high praise indeed, and if the Phils fail to market Howard into a top talent in return will have done themselves no favors. Howard's numbers come along much too rarely for teams to not maximize the return on such a talent. And if the offers are not sufficient, then the Phils should be content to move Howard to Scranton Wilkes-Barre next spring and watch the power onslaught continue.

While Howard may be defensively challenged, power hitters are a rare breed and must not be lost unnecessarily. Besides, if Thome and his bad back ever act up again, it would not be the worst news in the world to be able to call up such a slugger as young Ryan Howard. As with Hamels, the Howard story is a fascinating and telling one, and Phillie fans should follow both with extreme interest.

Though the Hamels and Howard stories dominate the Phillie Pharm news, they are not the only players making headlines on and off the field. Not with players like Chase Utley, Anderson Machado, Danny Gonzalez, Chris Roberson and Jake Blalock having banner weeks.

The name Utley should conjure up images of homeruns at Citizens Bank Park, and a veritable bushel of RBI in May, for that's exactly what Utley delivered. Yet, when incumbent Placido Polanco returned from a lengthy stay on the disabled list, GM Ed Wade felt Utley would best be served with a return to Scranton. This may or may not have been a wise move, but Utley appears not to have let it bother him.

In Scranton's double-header on Friday night, Utley hit two homeruns, and raised his average to .283 while continuing to display the short stroke that will someday catapult him into the middle of the Phillie batting order. In fact, it would not be a surprise if Polanco were allowed to leave via free agency after the '04 season so a place can be made for Utley's talents at second base.

Apropo future surprises, once Utley becomes established at second base with the Phils, his double play mate might not be incumbent Jimmy Rollins, but rather defensive whiz, Anderson Machado. As good as Rollins is defensively, Machado is potentially even better, and his ability to coax walks out of the leadoff spot make him a player the Phils fancy very much.

Also playing well this week were Roberson, who was voted the MVP of the Florida State League All-Star game and Blalock, who continued to put up impressive power totals at Lakewood. While seeing his average rise to .291, he raised his homerun total to 12 in 65 games, while increasing his impressive RBI total to 48.

Gonzalez also had a solid week at Reading after a disappointing start to his campaign. Although the least talented shortstop of the minor league troika of Gonzalez, Machado and Carlos Rodriguez, Gonzalez has long been admired for his work ethic and ability to maximize his talents. He seems once again to be maintaining his reputation, as a very impressive offensive week saw him raise his average over twenty points to a season high of .255.

If he can continue this rise and finish anywhere near .270, Gonzalez will become a player to be reckoned with next season at Scranton. At any rate, the Phils are relieved to see the improvement in a player they have long admired for his efforts.

The speed twins, Javon Moran and Michael Bourn continued to exhibit plus .300 batting averages and ample stolen base skills, though Bourn has been sidelined with a hamstring injury for about a week. Moran is hiting .302 and increased his stolen base total to 27, while Bourn is stuck at .306 and 29 steals. He is expected back next week.

One more bit of ironic good news involves the Phillies and their current crop of minor league catchers. In a system that has been steadily improving for the past five years, there was no greater black hole than a position that many refer to as the "tools of ignorance" spot. In fact, the spot was so devoid of talent at the lower levels that the Phils willingly brought in minor league veterans like AJ Hinch and Michel Hernandez to help stem the tide.

However what once was empty is now potentially brimming to the top with talent. In the first things first department, young catcher Chico Cortez, a fourteenth round pick in 2003, has been a revelation at Lakewood as his .288 average and four homeruns in 34 games should indicate. Even more impressive is his defensive skills and the way he is handling a very young Lakewood pitching staff.

While Cortez has elevated himself into the "prospect" category with his fine play, the Phils '04 draft provided a bountiful harvest of catching prospects in Jason Jaramillo, Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell. With Marson signed, Jaramillo on the way, and Cresswell a good bet to join them soon, the Phils now appear four deep in young backstop talent.

After years of bemoaning the fates of having too few catching prospects at the minor league level, the Phils appear to have in one full swoop changed that perception completely. Again, as with the Howard and Machado scenarios, this either makes for great talent at the big league level, or solid excess to trade for premium major league talent from other organizations.

All in all, this two week respite from the rigors of prospect reporting has given me ample opportunity to provide a very positive report on the current doings of a Phillie Pharm system adding to the talent base almost daily. As always, stay with Phuture Phillie Phenoms through the summer as we follow the latest exploits on Howard and Hamels, as well as report on the latest signings and trade rumors.

With Golson and Jaramillo set to make their professional debuts, it promises to be a very newsworthy summer of Phillie minor league news. Phuture Phillie Phenoms will be there every step of the way with the latest exploits and happenings in what promises to be an exciting and successful summer for the minor league clubs.

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

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