CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... A Reading Feast

There was little doubt who the stars of the Reading Phillies were last season. One merely had to notice the prodigious home run totals of Ryan Howard or the dazzling curveball and mound presence of Gavin Floyd to know that they were Reading's crown jewels. Suffice it to say that based on their impressive minor league seasons, it was little surprise that they not only were promoted to the parent club this September, but also flourished in their roles.

Yet, it was widely rumored among baseball scouts that the Phillie minor league system as a whole had a down year, not only in the often misunderstood won-loss department, but in the talent level of the organization. Even more ominous, the system took a vicious hit when no less than six prospects of varying degrees of ability were traded for major league help at the trading deadline.

Although minor league skills don't always compute to major league success, this writer still believes that no less than five of the six players swapped will play major league baseball someday. Indeed, two of them, pitcher Josh Hancock and shortstop Anderson Machado performed regular duty at the big league level for the Cincinnati Reds in September, and pitcher Elizardo Ramirez has already performed with the Phillies.

As for the other three, the San Francisco Giants are said to be ecstatic about the potential of pitcher Alfredo Simon, and outfielder Javon Moran merely hit over .380 with the Reds after his move from Philadelphia. Only lefty Joe Wilson struggled after the trade but still is considered a decent big league prospect.

This is not to suggest that the Phillie minor league cupboard is bare. The A league Lakewood team has no less than 9-10 players of varying major league potential, and the Rookie League clubs at Batavia and Gulf Coast League are equally filled with potential future big league talent. Not so the top three minor league teams.

Clearwater was widely considered the weakest club in the Philadelphia system, and outside of injured lefty Cole Hamels, third baseman Terry Jones and outfielder Chris Roberson, the pickings seem slim. The same can be said of the Scranton Wilkes-Barre club at the Triple A level. Unless injured hurlers like Dave Coggin and Eric Junge recover completely from arm problems, or former minor league phenom Jorge Padilla plays to his potential, there is little to suggest that a player from this team will make a major impact in Philadelphia next season.

But what of Reading? Didn't Floyd and Howard demonstrate that the leap from Double A to the big leagues, while steep, is not an impossible climb? Yes they did, and their success gives us ample opportunity to discuss the possibility that there just might be more talent to keep an eye on next season.

It is this writer's opinion that no less than five players who resided at Reading this season could soon be playing at Citizens Bank Park, some possibly by the end of 2005. At the very least, all five of them should begin to make their marks at the Triple A level in the spring, and strong starts could elevate them to Philadelphia before the leaves turn brown next autumn. Let's take a brief look at these five Reading players who comprise what might be the next group of players to make it to the Phils.

There are few more controversial players in the Phillie system than third baseman Juan Richardson. No less an authority than Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle thinks that Richardson is the Phillie third baseman of the future. Further, Arbuckle believes Richardson has almost as much power potential as Howard, who merely hit 48 home runs this season.

Yet there are more than a few Doubting Thomases' in the Phillie organization when it comes to Richardson's potential. Many who have seen him play doubt that he has the defensive skills necessary to play in the big leagues. It is not so much his glove but his often-erratic arm that accounts for most of his errors.

It also has not helped his standing in the organization that he was found to be 2 years older than originally thought and that he has attempted to cover up injuries in the past. At 25 years of age, clearly Richardson is a player in a hurry so he will have to show at Scranton that he can not only hit the pitching, field and throw adequately, but also stay healthy.

If he can do this, then he is a player to watch. In 2003, he was leading the Eastern League in home runs and was on his way to a plus 30 home run season when he injured himself in an off the field accident. The injury proved season ending, then he had off-season shoulder surgery, which kept him out of action until mid-July.

Still, despite the injuries and one-year layoff, he did hit 9 home runs and had a particularly strong August at Reading, with 5 home runs and 13 RBI in only 18 games. If healthy, watch for him to hit 25 or more home runs at Scranton this season, and expect a September call-up for him. In 2006, if all goes well, Richardson could become the starting third sacker with the Phils, adding yet another power bat to the lineup.

Catcher Carlos Ruiz was perhaps the most surprising player in the Phillie system this year and has thrust himself squarely into the Phillie future with a standout 2004 season. In only 101 games, he not only hit a solid .284 but swatted 17 home runs and drove in 50 runs. Even more importantly, he displayed outstanding defensive skills and showed the ability to call a solid game.

With incumbent Mike Lieberthal rumored to be on the trading block, and backup Todd Pratt uncertain of returning, the progress of Ruiz will be of tantamount importance this upcoming season. A solid year at Scranton could make Ruiz no less than an even bet to be the Phil's backup catcher by the end of 2005.

One player who will always be slightly under the radar screen is shortstop Danny Gonzalez. Although drafted in the fourth round several years ago, Gonzalez has never been one to shine brightly. Unlike Phillie shortstop Jimmy Rollins or the recently traded Machado, he does not make the spectacular play or have a rifle arm. Rather, it is the consistency of Gonzalez that may soon make him a valuable utility player with the Phils.

Gonzalez was a highly rated player coming out of high school and the Phils were very pleased to sign him when it was rumored he might accept a college scholarship to the University of Miami. Since his arrival, he has never been anything but steady, and must be seen on a regular basis to be appreciated.

Not blessed with great quickness or speed, Gonzalez relies on his solid baseball instincts and hustle to perform well on a nightly basis. His batting average at Reading was a mere .262 but he was one of the few R-Phils to show consistency throughout the season, and his average did rise in August. Most people who have seen him play regularly do not expect him to ever be a star, but rather be a player who will carve out a nice career in the big leagues with his ability to play multiple positions.

If the Phils have their wish, the middle infield of Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley will man the middle of the Phillie infield for years to come, with a player like Gonzalez in trusty reserve. Expect Gonzalez to play the entire season at Scranton and have an opportunity to replace infield reserve Tomas Perez in 2006.

Two pitchers from Reading that deserve a more than cursory look at right-handers Rob Tejeda and Matire Franco. Tejeda is a starting pitcher and highly touted for several years. His progress has been hampered by injury and inconsistency and even his 2004 season was a model of inconsistent performance. However, his final two starts in August were dominating pitching performances and the Phils hope that he has finally taken the leap from potential to production entering the 2005 season.

Although his record for a poor Reading team was only 8-14 with a high ERA of 5.15 he showed he was once again completely healthy by pitching 150 innings, and striking out 133 batters. Even more impressive were his final two starts, where he dominated Eastern League hitters with his mix of a 93 MPH fastball, sharp breaking curve and outstanding changeup.

With the loss of more than a half dozen minor league hurlers due to trades in the past two seasons, Tejeda has become an important piece in the Phillie pitching future. Expect him to pitch the entire season at Scranton, and a solid year could elevate him to Philadelphia as a spot starter or reliever in 2006.

Matire Franco is an interesting study in perseverance. Originally signed as a starting pitcher, he did have some solid success in the lower minors, once having a double digit win season. Yet, like Richardson, he was found to be a bit older than advertised, and was once suspended by the Phils for off field transgressions.

To say that he has been a pitcher to watch would be a huge overstatement, and even now his future is tenuous at best. On the list of Phillie pitching prospects, it is doubtful that he is in the top 10, and may still have much to prove before the Phils begin to take him seriously. Yet, it says here that Franco is a name to watch in 2004, and that his stellar season as Reading's closer was not a mirage but rather a clear indication that he has the talent to pitch in the big leagues.

Much like Geoff Geary, who now is in Philadelphia, Franco has shown the ability to start, relieve or close throughout his minor league career. Also, much like Geary, he has shown the ability to win at every level. This year, his record was 4-4 but with 15 saves and a very solid ERA of 3.30. Franco is not an overpowering pitcher, but relies on movement and good control for his success.

It is expected that he will begin the year in relief at SWB and may become the closer before seasons end. Solid relief pitchers are always in demand, and if Franco continues to show the ability to retire Triple A hitters, he could become the next "Geoff Geary" story.

All five of these players are expected to play winter ball somewhere, either here in the states or in South America. There progress will be closely watched by a Phillie organization anxious to replenish the prospect watch in Philadelphia, as well as by this writer, eager to report on their improvement.

As Floyd and Howard showed, it is not impossible for a player from Double A to make the leap to the big leagues with impressive results. While certainly not blessed with the ceiling level talent of these two, players like Richardson, Ruiz, Gonzalez, Tejeda and Franco are nevertheless skilled enough to once again be their teammates in Philadelphia.

With no less than 10 potential free agents on the horizon, the Philadelphia Phillies are prepared to revamp their roster, either in 2005 or 2006. Clearly, the time is near for these five, and it appears as if the time is ripe for a Reading feast soon.

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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