Oh, Howard is certainly not old at 25 but he was always considered a bit overage for his league. Truth be told, he probably benefited from the Phils slow but steady advancement chart as Howard had allowed a case of "Draftitis" to affect his junior year in college and he seemed in need of a major confidence boost.
No need to worry about confidence any longer as Howard parlayed 48 home runs at three separate locales into a number one prospect rating on BA's latest Phillie report card. The problem still appears to be one of position with Howard as he is blocked by the large figure of Jim Thome at first base, and seems to need a full minor league season of work in left field to be a presentable option at that spot.
If the Phils are wise, this is precisely what they will do. Home run hitters are the rarest of baseball birds and if Howard should hit 30-40 home runs at Scranton this season, he will either force his way onto the Phil's roster or parlay his talents into a prize talent in trade. It says here that the Phillies would best be served by keeping a player of Howard's immense talents right in the City of Brotherly Love.
Although Thome and left fielder Pat Burrell are high profile, high salaried stars, it never hurts to have a solid backup plan in case of injury, illness, slump or trade. As previously documented, the Phils have produced in the past 40 years only four legitimate minor league sluggers. This quartet of Richie Allen, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Burrell all became standout Phillie power hitters. Howard is in this pedigree, easily the best left-handed power hitter developed by the Phils during this time.
At spots two and three are the Phillie bookend hurlers, righty Gavin Floyd and lefty Cole Hamels. Both have made their names atop the Phillie prospect watch a regular occurrence but they have flip flopped positions this year for several reasons.
While most scouts still think Hamels is one of the top five pitching prospects in all of baseball, his health chart continues to be a serious concern. For all his skills - and we are talking ace-in-waiting talent - his arm, elbow and back injuries limited him to 16 innings of work last year, albeit with a microscopic 1.13 ERA for his resume.
Hamels comes in at number three this year and must show that he can remain injury free in 2005 to reestablish his time line of pitching at Citizen's Bank Park by late 2006. If healthy he should regain his status as not only the top prospect in the organization but one of the top 20 prospects in all of baseball.
While Hamels has been all about potential, Floyd has shown enough production to warrant at least an outside chance of leaving spring training as a member of the Phillie's starting rotation. Oh, you won't hear it spoken for public consumption, but the whispers are loud enough to have credibility. While not openly campaigning to trade either incumbent starters Vicente Padilla or Brett Myers the team will no longer turn a deaf ear to inquiring teams interested in the services of either righty. Frankly, the team feels neither may ever pitch as well as their skills say they should.
If the team receives an offer they can't refuse, watch for Floyd to step into the breach as a bottom of the rotation starter immediately. At worst, he will open the 2005 season in Triple A and await a call up to Philadelphia by the All-Star break. It will be a major surprise if this isn't Floyd's last year on the prospects list; a regular rotation spot awaits him soon at the major league level.
When the Phils traded for ageless center fielder Kenny Lofton, more than one raised eyebrow was lifted. Why would the team choose to entrust a key defensive position to a player clearly on the final legs of a great career? Prospects number four and five seemingly answer that question.
For speed, skill, daring and plain old baseball instincts, Greg Golson and Michael Bourn would rank high on anyone's top 10 list. Golson comes in at number four based on his higher ceiling, but Bourn promises to make Golson earn his spot in the lineup by the time he is major league ready in four or five years.
Plainly speaking, Bourn at number five might just be the most under rated prospect in the Phillie system and a player well worth watching. His numbers are eye-catching, from a .315 average at Lakewood to the 88 walks and 58 stolen bases he parlayed in less than 120 games played.
A race between Golson and Bourn would be a sight to see, though most scouts think Bourn is a tad faster. In the overall scheme of things, this is merely window dressing as both have more than enough speed to make the Phils think they have their top of the order players for the next dozen seasons.
Watch for Bourn to make the leap from Lakewood to Reading, if not in April, then surely by August. This is the next Phillie prospect that will carve his name in the team's everyday lineup and if he does in '05 what he did in '04 he will be starting in Philadelphia no later than opening day 2007. This player has the instincts to score 120 runs a season with his ability to run, hit, walk and bunt; four skills imperative in any successful leadoff hitter's arsenal.
Golson is merely a babe in the proverbial baseball woods right now and the Phils will certainly be patient with this player who was still in high school a year ago. As a first round draft pick in last June's amateur draft, Golson more than made up for the five-tool hype with a stellar performance in the rookie Gulf Coast League.
After a slow start, he hit well over .300 for the final six weeks of the minor league season to finish at .295 with 22 RBI and 12 stolen bases. Although his strikeout numbers were a bit alarming, and his walk total a bit low, no one who saw him play thought the Phils had overrated his ability to handle professional baseball.
As enthusiastic as he is talented, Golson is a rare talent who may someday display solid abilities in all five areas… hitting for average and power, speed, defense and strong arm. Not yet 19 years of age, Golson will be carefully nurtured and will probably spend the '05 year in short-season Batavia as he learns the nuances of pro ball.
However, once he shows he has mastered the mental aspect of the game he will become a proverbial "player in a hurry" and might challenge Bourn for the middle garden spot by 2009. At any rate, it will be no surprise if Golson makes it to the top of the Phillie prospect list before his stint in the minors is over.
Pardon the mistake if Phillie minor league gurus still occasionally confuse two pitching members of the top ten list, Scott Mathieson and Scott Mitchinson. While one hails from Canada [Mathieson] and the other calls Australia home [Mitchinson] they have the same first name, the same last name initial and both have the talent to one day dazzle National League opponents with their guile and skill. Mathieson who is older and more experienced comes in at number six while Mitchinson, a rookie, makes the list at number ten.
Mathieson has been slowly making his mark and could well be a candidate for "breakout player of the year" in 2005. Drafted as a mid-round selection in 2002, Mathieson displays a mid 90's fastball with pitching knowledge well beyond his not quite yet 21 years of age. Although his 7-9 record and 4.50 ERA at Lakewood don't jump out and scream "star", his pitching repertoire and knowledge of hurling certainly do.
The Canadian will pitch at Clearwater in 2005 and his progress will be carefully monitored. In an organization that swapped no less than six solid minor league pitching prospects in the past year, Mathieson right now ranks just a notch below mega pitching prospects Floyd and Hamels on the Phil's talent depth chart.
Mitchinson's numbers for 2004 bordered almost on the surreal. Need proof? How about a perfect 7-0 in merely 10 starts in the Gulf Coast League? Or a Hamel's like ERA of 1.75. If these numbers don't jump out at you, this one just might. In fact, it might someday make for a good Phillie trivia question.
The question would be to name the one, yes one, hitter that Mitchinson walked in his professional debut season of 2004. One, that figure is correct and even in a rookie league where 18 year old major league wannabes believe that their ticket to the big leagues lies in their ability to swing the bat, this number is incredible.
The Phils face a pleasant problem with Mitchinson this spring. Logic dictates that at his age, slow is the stream that leads to success, but if he has a solid training camp the team may just feel he is ready to test his wares at Lakewood in the full season low A league. Whether he opens in Lakewood, or makes his seasonal debut in June at Batavia, Mitchinson is pitcher to watch in future years.
Prospects eight and nine are veritable pitching unknowns, righties Carlos Carrasco and Edgar Garcia. Unknown to Phillie fans, perhaps, but not to scouts who make their living charting fast balls, curves and changeups. Both hurlers rank high on these lists, as Baseball America's ranking fully documents.
Carrasco was part of a stellar group of top guns in the GCL last summer. Along with Mitchinson, as well as teammates Andy Barb, Maximino Delacruz, Roberto Mendoza and Kelvin Picardo, he dazzled opponents with pitching skills well beyond the years and experience level he had. In fact, many scouts think Carrasco may soon develop a fast ball that easily reaches mid 90's level, and if this happens, anything is possible.
The Phils project him as a potential bullpen closer in the future but will continue to use him as a starter in the lower minors so he can build up his arm strength and innings pitched numbers. While Mitchinson's '05 destination is still unclear, Carrasco will undoubtedly open the season at extended spring training and await the June season in Batavia.
As a member of the Phil's burgeoning list of Latin America pitching prospects, Carrasco will no doubt have company with the likes of Garcia on the way. Edgar Garcia is a rarity, a player who has already made the leap to Top Ten status without having so much as made his professional debut yet. This speaks volumes of not only his talent, but in the Phil's ability to sign a player from Latin America that many other teams coveted highly.
The Phils inked him in October with "second or third round money" and the signing appears sound. Tall and lanky, with a projectable arm and body, Garcia often reminds scouts of a young Pedro Martinez in build and demeanor. Whether he can ever attain the heights of Martinez is certainly subject to speculation, but it bodes well for the future of the organization that Latin American jewels like Garcia consider the Phils as a viable place to make a professional home.
Last, but certainly not least on the Phillie Top Ten Time list is a player I nominate for "breakout player of the year", outfielder Jake Blalock. Listed seventh on the top prospects list, Blalock comes from solid baseball pedigree and equally strong work habits and skill. As the younger brother of Texas Ranger star, Hank, Blalock has even more power than his older brother, if not the wondrous hitting skills.
Blalock reminds many people of a young Pat Burrell, and may one day take his place along side Burrell and Howard as power hitting staples in the middle of the Phillie order. Equally impressive is his athleticism and understanding of the game. As a high school teammate of Cole Hamels at Rancho Bernardo, Blalock made his high school mark as a shortstop.
Tall and rangy, the Phils drafted, then signed him as a third baseman, but with players like Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher playing the same position, the Phils decided to move him to a corner outfield position. This was a wise move, as it not only unclogged a potential logjam at the minor league hot corner, but it allowed Blalock to help boost an outfield that seemed short on major league potential talent.
Not so now, as along with Bourn, Golson and fellow speedster Chris Roberson, Jake Blalock promises to make following minor league baseball an enjoyable experience in 2005 at the outfield level. Built for power, his quick wrists and solid hitting fundamentals helped Blalock parlay 16 home runs and 40 doubles into a 90 RBI season at Lakewood.
Even with a late season slump, his .271 average and 126 strikeouts were deemed acceptable for one just turned 21 years of age in August. Although it is not a thought Phillie fans relish, the day will come when discussion turns to possible replacements for current Phil's kingpin, Bobby Abreu. Hopefully, this day will not occur anytime soon, but chances are that when this discussion eventually takes place, Blalock's name will be the first mentioned.
Watch for his power numbers to increase as he becomes stronger and more knowledgeable of the strike zone and although his strikeouts will probably always be high, the chances are excellent that he will someday have 30 home run potential at the major league level. If form follows, Blalock will play his 2005 campaign in Clearwater, with a late season leap to Double A Reading possible.
As an organization, the Phils presently rank somewhere in the middle in terms of projectable big league talent at the minor league level. This is due primarily to the losses via trades of such prospects as pitchers Taylor Buchholtz, Alfredo Simon, Bobby Korecki, Elizardo Ramirez and Josh Hancock, as well as position players like Anderson Machado and Javon Moran.
Yet, if there is an undeniable strength within this organization, it is in the team's ability to scout, draft and sign top talent, both via the draft and through the Latin market. This is a skill that bodes well for Phillie fans impatient for another National League East title. It is also worth noting that such talent like catchers Jason Jaramillo and Louis Marson, infielders Carlos Rodriguez and John Hardy, and outfielders Sean Gamble and Roberson did not make this list.
Add to that young hurlers like J.A. Happ, Andrew Baldwin, Kyle Kendrick and the top guns from the GCL and the team appears in decent shape for the future. However, no matter the debate about the various placement of these players on anyone's Who's Who list of Top Ten Talent the choices are solid.
With power hitters like Howard and Blalock, speedy outfielders like Bourn and Golson, and top notch hurlers like Floyd, Hamels, the two Scott M's, Garcia and Carrasco the Phillies seem more than ready for a solid minor league season in 2005, certainly worthy of the pronouncement… it's Top Ten Time!
Columnist's Note: Please send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast