CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms...Last Shall Be First

It is one of the more famous lines in the bible, the line that the last shall be first. Since nowhere is Abner Doubleday mentioned in this holiest of books, it can safely be said that baseball was not the topic of this phrase. Yet, a more than cursory study of the Phillies six minor league ball clubs proves that there is more than a mere semblance of truth to this phrase when studying the relative future talent base, big league style.

Certainly the AAA Scranton Wilkes Barre Barons not only have the best record in the Phillie minors, but have played the most consistently. But for a late season stumble, this team might well have finished with the best record in the International League. Still, under the watchful eye of Manager Mark Bombard, and buoyed by the additions of young stars Ryan Howard and Gavin Floyd, this team could well surprise and win the IL playoffs.

Yet, in the long term, this club rates no better than probably fourth on the Phillie minor league scale, and only because Howard and Floyd now grace their roster. Howard seems the real deal, he of the 37 homeruns and 102 RBI at Reading, and now .353 batting average and four doubles in his early auditions with the Barons.

A good friend of mine, a man I trust, saw Howard play last weekend at Richmond came away dazzled with the size and power of Howard. In this writer's opinion, forget the trade talk concerning Howard… power hitters are much too hard to find. He should be given an outfielder's glove over the winter and hit 500 fly balls a day in left field.

Even if he becomes no more than barely adequate, I prefer a barely adequate defensive player with a power bat like Howard in my lineup, than in the opposing team's batting order. Keep in mind also that current Phillie first baseman Jim Thome is nearing 33 years of age, and has been nicked up more than a little this year. It behooves the Phils to play the Howard trump card as soon as possible at CBP, perhaps by August of 2005.

When he makes it, he will no doubt be joining Floyd, who seems all but certain to be in the Phillie rotation early in 2005. With the injuries to Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, and the impending free agency of lefty Eric Milton, it only makes sense to give Floyd a crack at the big league rotation soon. If there was any doubt about his ability, it was defused by the recent voting of all Eastern League coaches and managers, who voted Floyd the top pitching prospect in the league, high praise indeed.

Still, after these two, the major league talent base dries up quickly at SWB. A case can be made that outfielder Lou Collier or catchers Michel Hernandez or A.J. Hinch could help the Phils in a pinch. Yet their long term prospects are dim, and the same will soon be said of former Phillie Phenom outfielder, Jorge Padilla.

Billed as a "Sammy Sosa" clone out of high school, Padilla just can't seem to stay healthy, and his status from prospect to suspect grows larger by the day. The same can be said of pitchers Greg Kubes, Seung Lee and Frank Perez. Although it will surprise no one if any or all of these hurlers someday make it to the majors, their stay might well be short if they don't soon regain the ability that once made them shining lights in the organization.

Let's place SWB as the fourth most talented club, potential wise, in the organization.

There can be no doubt that with the promotions of Howard and Floyd to AAA, Reading remains the weakest of the six clubs. In fact, on most days, the every day lineup consists of but one major league prospect, shortstop Danny Gonzalez. This in no way detracts from the steady play of veterans like John Castellano (.354), Kevin Barker (.296) or Kurt Keene (.274). All three have added class and dignity to the team and the organization, and might all be back next season.

Yet, none of these players will ever get more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and even that may be doubtful. If there are any prospects to be gleaned from Reading, you will have to look to the middle of the diamond, on the pitcher's mound.

No less than six players have some potential, most notably Elizardo "The Lizard" Ramirez, who has already pitched in Philadelphia. Ramirez has struggled since his demotion, but he is still highly regarded, undoubtedly the best prospect at Reading.

Lesser renown, but still worth watching are hurlers Keith Bucktrot, Lee Gwaltney, Matire Franco, Rob Tejeda and Yoel Hernandez. The Phils, in varying degrees, like all of these righties, especially Gwaltney, who might be the most advanced hurler of the bunch.

Gwaltney is a fascinating hurler, an ex-collegiate pitcher who always seemed to have better stuff than his collegiate record showed. True to form, his 2-10 record at Clearwater belied his effectiveness, and since his promotion to Reading, he has shown four solid pitches, great composure and a winning personality. Remember the name Gwaltney.

If Reading is now the weakest club talent wise in the organization, they replaced Clearwater, which held the honor for most of the season. Managed by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, the Threshers were a team with seemingly no hope for almost four months. Not anymore! Although still rated the fifth worst in the organization, the team now has a lineup worth watching, and rooting for.

How can one not root for outfielder Mike Floyd, he of the under .200 average and "coattail of his brother" reputation for most of his two years with the club. Then something magical happened to Floyd in July, and nine homeruns in the month later, he was a player of fascination, if not outright scrutiny.

And how can one not root for first baseman Ryan Barthelemy, he of the All-American credentials, and disappointing performance during his first two seasons as a pro. Turns out he was having trouble seeing the ball, had eye surgery, and is now hitting at a .309 clip with a very respectable 11 homeruns and 61 RBI.

Add to these players the spectacular season of Chris Roberson, now derailed with a broken foot, but still the owner of a .307 average and the title of best defensive outfielder in the Florida State League as voted by the coaches and managers.

Of further interest to Phillie fanatics is the addition of three players to the Thresher roster, slugging third basemen Terry Jones and Juan Richardson, and outfielder Brad Correll via a trade with Cincinnati last week. Although Jones and Richardson are just now regaining their hitting form, and Correll has only played a few games, the Thresher lineup is now one worth following, and has made Schmidt's first and probably last season as manager an easier one to be remembered for.

Still, even with all the additions, Clearwater is listed in the fifth spot, just ahead of Reading in the Phils minor league prospect watch for 2004.

Next up, let's take a visit to short season Batavia of the New York - Penn league. Made up almost exclusively of ex-college players, the Phil's MuckDog squad has several players of interest, and many of the Phils top draft picks this year.

This is a solid team, led by second round pick, catcher Jason Jaramillo, who has fit in quite nicely as a pro during his first few weeks in action. In fact, this week he had a five RBI game, and leads a solid lineup of top Phillie picks like outfielders Sean Gamble and Ryan Frith and infielders Samuel Orr and John Hardy.

Add to this talented group the slugging of Jason Crosland, a 2003 draftee, and it makes for a very talented lineup. Although Batavia's 23-24 record belies the skill level of this group, it should be noted that Jaramillo just recently joined the team, and this club does something quite unique in minor league annuals… they play a lineup of only nine players a night. That's correct, no pinch hitters, no substitutes, no favoritism.

Every player on the squad receives playing time, and if it is Orr's night to sit out, then he sits. In fact, only Jaramillo, Frith and Hardy have played on a nightly basis since they signed. This situation allows for all players to have ample opportunity to succeed or fail, but does little to guarantee victories on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, this is a talented team, and with standout pitching prospects like Kyle Kendrick, Andrew Baldwin, Jacob Barrack, Joseph Bisenius, James Happ, Derek Griffith and Kyle Allen added to the above mix, Batavia edges Scranton for third place in the talent pool of this organization.

In second place stands the least experienced of the Phillie clubs, the Gulf Coast League Phils, a rookie team made up almost exclusively of high school and Latin prospects. Truth be told, this team was a major concern to start the season as they lost 13 of their first 17 games. Yet, Player Personnel Chief Mike Arbuckle insisted that as the high school kids became acclimated, improvement would take place, and he was right on the mark.

From the depths of 4-13, this club now stands at 22-19, and is lead by several of the best young prospects in the Phillie system. At the head of the class is number one draft pick, Greg Golson, an 18 year old player with obvious gifts, and the desire to succeed that is almost off the charts.

Phillie scouts could barely contain their enthusiasm when they drafted Golson in June, and he was quickly referred to as a future five-tool player, an athlete capable of hitting with power and skill, running with grace and speed, throw darts from the outfield and catch any ball he can reach. So far, Golson has displayed all but power, and most experts think that will come eventually.

Golson's .297 average, improving .344 on base percentage, and 21 runs scored in 30 games tell only part of the story. His enthusiasm and zest for the game tell the rest, and it will be a shock if he is not voted one of the top ten prospects in the GCL this summer.

Along with Golson, other high school standouts like catchers Charles Cresswell and Louis Marson, infielders Bradley Harman and Mitchell Graham and outfielders Andrew Mcfarlane and Richard Plumsky have made this one of the top clubs in the league.

Even more exciting for Phillie followers is the starting pitching, a veritable Young Guns III if you will. In fact, all five Phillie starters, Scott Mitchinson, Lenin Gazo, Carlos Carrasco, Kelvin Picardo and Maximino Delacruz may soon be members of the Phils Top 30 Prospects List for 2005. Certainly, more than a few of them will grace the list, and relievers Robert Mendoza and Andy Barb, he of the 39 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched, have made this a very imposing staff.

GCL is very good, and comes in second on our list, but only because few Phillie pharm clubs in recent memory have stirred such interest as the Lakewood BlueClaws club of 2004. Clearly, this is a team worth remembering, not so much for its won lost record, which is fairly pedestrian, but for its top to bottom talent base of future major league performers.

No less than a dozen players on the BlueClaws roster stand a solid chance of someday making it to Philadelphia, and several of them may well become stars. Names like slugging outfielder Jake Blalock and speedsters Michael Bourn and Javon Moran are but a few of the talented players on this club.

Blalock is rated the second best power prospect in the organization, and recently set a record with his 37th double of the season. Doubles are always a good measuring stick for minor league power numbers and it should be well to remember that the last Phillie to be so adept at hitting two baggers was Chase Utley, who now is a star in waiting with the Phils.

Bourn may well be one of the best on-base machines in baseball, a stunning .437 on base percentage as living proof. Add to this his 43 stolen bases, and .303 average and it fairly boggles the mind to imagine the future competition for center field in Philadelphia from amongst the candidates Bourn, Golson and Moran.

Add to this mix the sweet swinging catcher, Chico Cortez and infielders Tim Moss and Carlos Rodriguez and this is a very impressive lineup. One can only wonder to the effectiveness of this club had third baseman, Kiel Fisher, not been disabled for the season, as he was slated to play for the BlueClaws.

On the pitching ledger, the list runs six deep, starting with righty Scott Mathieson and continuing with Erick Arteaga, Nate Cabrera, Kyle Parcus, Joe Wilson and C.J. Woodrow. All have major league potential, and all have done well this year.

Most of these players will graduate to Clearwater next season, but it would not surprise if Bourn were moved all the way to Reading, he is that advanced of a talent. With the expected return of Jones to Clearwater, and lefty Cole Hamels added to the mix, the Clearwater Threshers are the early favorites for next year's most talented Phillie minor league club.

But that is for future columns, and future dreams, this is for today, and there is my list in order of future major league potential…. 1. Lakewood 2. GCL 3. Batavia 4. Scranton Wilkes-Barre 5. Clearwater 6. Reading. Clearly, as the bible foretold on so many thousand years ago, the day would come when the "last shall be first." In the Philadelphia Phillie Pharm system, that day has come.

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

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