CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Convergence

Here in Southern California we have been engulfed with a near "perfect storm" called The Pineapple Express. It's a freakish and rare convergence of strange weather patterns that converge from three directions to form some of the most outlandish weather ever seen in these parts. Much like the convergence of three weather systems has played havoc with SoCal; the Phillies have a happy convergence of three separate and succinct areas making their catching situation as strong as it has been in years.

This three sided Phillie convergence involves the continued good health of Lieberthal, the emergence of minor league catchers Carlos Ruiz and Jose Cortez and the excellent debut seasons of '04 draft picks Jason Jaramillo, Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell. Pieced together, they have given the Phils their best long term backstop outlook in at least a dozen years. 

As most Phillie phaithful are painfully aware, the team's organization wide catching situation has been much like a proverbial black hole for the past 5-6 years.  Oh, Mike Lieberthal has basically been a tower of strength at the big league level, and the team did once have All-Star Johnny Estrada ready, willing and able to step in if Lieberthal ever suffered an injury.  Yet, through an unfortunate set of circumstances the team has been painfully short of catching prospects throughout the organization.

Certainly the team has understood their minor league system backstop woes and have attempted, mostly without success, to address these shortcomings.  One need only think back to a young slugger named Bobby Estalella and recall that more than one Phillie executive thought it would be he and not Lieberthal that would be handling the pitching staff when the team made its debut at Citizens Bank Park.

Alas, Estalella never fulfilled his potential and was eventually sent packing to San Francisco.  His journeys through the National League have reconfirmed the Phillies suspicions that he would never reach the vast potential he displayed as a minor league power hitter in Reading and Scranton.

In fact, no further proof of the team's lack of backstop strength is needed than to observe the continued employment of Todd Pratt with the team. While Pratt's leadership and connection to the 1993 championship team are exemplary, the fact remains that at his age he has become more a possible liability than asset.  It will be a major surprise is the 2005 season isn't his swan song as an active member of the Phillie squad.

This development is no doubt due in large part to the sudden depth of the catching position throughout the system… the convergence of forces mentioned above.  Let's examine these seemingly unrelated events that have made the Phil's catching depth a huge bright spot from top to bottom.

Of course, any discussion on Phillie catchers begins with Lieberthal, a player long underrated by many Phillie fanatics. Though often criticized for his pitch calling, and no longer able to handle errant throws like he did before his knee injuries, he remains a key player in any success the team may have in '05. 

Although his power numbers may continue to drop a bit as he celebrates birthday number 33 next week, Lieberthal will be counted on to play at least 120 games this season and next.  His continued good health is a must and will give the team a chance to develop their solid core of minor league backstops at a normal pace.

His strong right handed bat also helps keep lefties in tow when facing a team with such strong left-handed bats like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Chase Utley.  He and Pat Burrell are expected to provide much of the righty power punch for the Phightin's this season.  Expect Lieberthal to hit anywhere from sixth to eighth this year and hit in the .280 range with 15-20 home runs and 70-80 RBI.

While Lieberthal's good health and solid production were one part of the sudden convergence, the emergence of Ruiz and Cortez is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this troika.  Both parlayed solid 2004 campaigns into prospect status within the organization and appear headed for future major league status.

Of the two, Ruiz is the more advanced, and the more likely to make an early debut at CBP.  In fact, a solid season at Scranton in '05 could elevate him to a major league backup role by August of this year.  Not only did he have a strong season at Reading, but continued his progress with an impressive stint in the tough Arizona Fall League.

His offensive numbers of 17 home runs in merely 349 at bats, combined with a .284 average were but part of the story.  Even more impressive was his defensive prowess and strong throwing arm, characteristics sure to endear him to a Phillie pitching staff that always welcomes strong defense behind the plate.

Ruiz will open the season at Scranton in Triple A where he will also benefit from the presence of minor league veterans A.J. Hinch and Michel Hernandez.  This trio is likely to make for as deep a group of catchers as is seen anywhere in minor league ball.  While Hinch and Hernandez are counted on to make contributions to the Baron cause, it will be Ruiz who is carefully watched as Lieberthal's future catching partner.

Jose Cortez was drafted in the fourteen round in 2003 and had a solid sophomore season at Lakewood after a disappointing rookie year.  The switch hitting Cortez hit .291 and showed solid power and good instincts behind the plate. This former small college All-American is powerfully built at 6'1" and 220 pounds and is expected to be the starting catcher in Clearwater this summer.

While Cortez may only rank fifth in the organization's ranking at this time, it speaks more to the sudden depth of the position than his lack of potential future major league talent.  A catcher with switch hitting ability and a power stroke to go along with solid defensive instincts is still a highly desired player and Cortez helped make Lakewood the Phil's most entertaining minor league club last season.

If Lieberthal's health and production, and the emergence of Ruiz and Cortez made for two thirds of the three part convergence, it was the stellar amateur draft of 2004 that finalized the story.  When draft gurus Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever convened their meetings with the team's scouts it was decided that catching would highlight the top round selections.  This led to the selections of Jaramillo in round two, Marson in round four and Cresswell in round ten.

Surprisingly, the Phils not only selected three top notch prospects, but signed them all.  While the signing of Jaramillo, a college All-American from Oklahoma State was a forgone conclusion, it was expected that the team would only be able to corral one of the two high school stalwarts, either Marson or Cresswell but not both.

It was thought that one of the two HS standouts would honor their college scholarships and bypass the Phils.  Fortunately for the Phillies both Marson and Cresswell decided to cast their futures with the City of Brotherly Love.  This provided the team with the pleasant prospect of having five major league catching prospects interspersed throughout the organization and made future trades a strong possibility.

Undoubtedly the most advanced and talented of the five backstops is Jaramillo, a player the Phils have long coveted.  Acknowledged by most collegiate scouts as the best defensive catcher in college ball, Jaramillo is expected to make a rapid rise through the Phillie system and become the regular catcher by the time Lieberthal departs in 2007.

While this may be a bit overly optimistic at this point given Jaramillo's lack of professional experience, it is not an impossible task.  His defense is already major league ready, and if his bat catches up with his defense, he could move quickly past Ruiz and Cortez on the charts and settle in as the team's backstop when Lieberthal departs.

Although Jaramillo only hit .232 in limited appearances at Batavia last summer, he is expected to hit well at full season Lakewood this year.  His strengths are a quick bat and good knowledge of the strike zone.  He is also expected to develop solid extra base power as he grows into the position.

Cresswell is the youngest and least experienced of all the Phillie catchers, but might have the best power potential.  A strapping left handed hitter from Arizona, Cresswell was considered the best high school catching prospect in the state last year.  The Phils were quite surprised that Cresswell turned down a college scholarship to Arizona State and took his bat and glove to the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .245 in only 49 plate appearances.

The Phils expect Cresswell to repeat his '05 season in the GCL and have no illusions about the patience they will need with him.  The team is hopeful that he will make the normal league by league advances throughout the organization, and if this happens, he will be vying for a job in Philadelphia no sooner than 2010.  With players like Ruiz, Cortez, Jaramillo and Marson in front of him, there certainly will be no pressure put on Cresswell to fast forward his development.

While the public pronouncements speak of Ruiz and Jaramillo as next in line to inherit Lieberthal's catching throne, the whispers speak of Marson as potentially the best of the bunch.  Scouts literally rave at Marson's understanding of the game, and his potential to one day become not only a strong defensive presence but a powerful offensive force in Philadelphia.

Reared on the rich baseball fields of Texas, Marson hit four home runs in very limited play last summer in the GCL.  In only 113 at bats, he hit. 257 and scored 18 runs while displaying a sharp batting eye and surprising speed.  He stole four bases and showed the ability of a veteran instead of a youngster fresh off the high school campus.

As with Cresswell, the Phillies will be patient with Marson, preferring to err on the side of patience rather than risk rushing such a potential jewel as Marson.  Expect him to stay at Extended Spring Training with Cresswell until the summer season opens in Batavia.  Marson will catch everyday in Batavia and his progress will be watched closely by Phillie scouts and coaches.

If he does well, and the team thinks he will, then a full season campaign at Lakewood awaits the teen age Marson in 2006.  From there, his progress will dictate his advancement, though as with Cresswell, he is expected to move up a notch at a time for the rest of the decade.  If he is deemed ready, he may make his major league debut sometime in 2009.

From Lieberthal's stealth to Ruiz's rise, from Cortez's connection to Jaramillo, Marson and Creswell's selection, the Phillie black hole of the past has become a cornucopia of talent and resources.  Catching is no longer an afterthought when it comes to discussing organization talent, and it was caused by nothing more rare than a strange and timely event…a genuine Philadelphia convergence.

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

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