CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Center Stage

Few transformations on the Phillie landscape have been swifter than the increase in outfield prospects. For far too long, this spot was a veritable "black hole". Not so, anymore! With sluggers like Ryan Howard and Jake Blalock on the horizon, and youngsters Greg Golson and Sean Gamble just under the radar screen, the outfield depth is now admirable. Yet, true "center stage" belongs to Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn, two center field swiftees soon to make their big league debuts.

In lefty Kenny Lofton and righty Jason Michaels, the Phillie Express seems more than prepared for a 162 game jaunt through the wilds of a National League pennant race. Even former high flyer, Marlon Byrd, arrived in camp determined to prove that 2004 was the aberration, not 2003. Yes, in the short term scenario, the team seems fully capable of fielding a solid player in the middle of the outfield on a nightly basis.

Yet, listen a bit closer, and read between the not so subtle lines spoken by organizational types like Mike Arbuckle and Dallas Green and it becomes crystal clear that in the not so distant future...it is in Roberson and Bourn that they trust. Truth be told, logic dictates that not only do Roberson and Bourn have golden oppurtunities at big league employment, but the sooner the better.

Kenny Lofton is one of those charmed individuals who seems to have playoff births follow them from city to city. Few Phillie phanatics would discount this charm, indeed, we all hope it lasts for at least one more season. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he is no more than a short term solution to a long term problem. The same can be said for Michaels, a ready and willing soldier who is probably always destined to be just good enough to be a "solid fourth outfielder" on a pennant contending club.

As for Byrd, one can only speculate what will become of him. Counting outfield heads at the big league level, Byrd comes in no closer than sixth, and that is only because Ryan Howard is still an outfield neophyte. Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Lofton are the projected starters, with Michaels and Rule 5 draftee, Shane Victorino in the fifth spot. The chances of Byrd making the squad are contigent on several factors, none more important than the number of position players that Manager Charlie Manuel opts to keep.

If Manuel adopts the Larry Bowa philosophy of "cheaper by the dozen", then no less than 12 pitchers will go north with the club, leaving 13 position players on the roster. If this be the case, count on Todd Pratt, Tomas Perez, Placido Polanco, Michaels and Victorino becoming the odds on favorites for the five bench positions. If, however, Manuel believes that 11 pitchers can hold the fort, then Byrd's chances are greater.

Still, even if Lofton, Michaels and Byrd all take turns in centerfield, I harken back to some wise words spoken by former Phillie skipper, Gene Mauch, back in the early '60's. When asked by a reporter how he felt about using three players at shortstop, Mauch replied, "if you use three, its because you have none. If you have one, you don't need three!" Those words have always struck me as truth, and Phils phantics may find that Mauch's words ring true in '05 when discussing the centerfield logjam.

Which brings us back to the theme of this story...the two centerfielders in a hurry, Roberson and Bourn. Certainly, both must be tested under fire this year at higher levels, Roberson at Reading and Bourn at Clearwater. Of course, prospects can become suspects very quickly in the ever changing world of the minor leagues. Yet, unless most Phillie scouts have completely missed their mark, both Roberson and Bourn will someday grace the green grasses of Citizen's Bank Park, and with plenty of slash and dash.

In many respects, they are quite dissimilar prospects. Though both highly skilled athletes, Roberson was less a baseball player and more an athelete than Bourn. In the batter's box, Roberson is a natural right-handed hitter while Bourn is a lefty swinger. Though equally swift, Bourn's lefty stance allows him to get to first base a shade faster. And while Roberson has better range, Bourn is the better fielder with the stronger arm.

Indeed, many Phillie insiders have wondered aloud if a future outfield of Howard in left, Roberson in center and Bourn in right might be in the cards. Perhaps, though this seems unlikely on a regular basis. For one thing, Mssrs. Burrell and Abreu are hardly ready for retirement, and Blalock will soon be heard from at a corner outfield spot. Of this, are potential trading chips formed!

No, rather than see Roberson and Bourn as outfield mates, the chances are excellent that one will soon become the starting centerfielder for the rest of the decade, while the other brings much needed infield or pitching help. Regardless of the winner, the true winners are likely to be the Phillies, with talent to keep and talent to trade. With this in mind, which of these two dynamos, Roberson or Bourn is likely to mann the reaches of centerfield in the not too distant future.

If Roberson has an advantage, it's that at 25, he has been at this professional game longer, and is thus further along in his development. A player who stole 59 bases in 2003, he finally refined his hitting skills with a breakout '04 campaign at Clearwater. His final batting average of .307 was one of the league's best, and in an abbreviated 83 games, he amassed 96 hits, 6 triples, 9 home runs, and 52 runs scored. Only his stolen base numbers dropped to a pedestrian 16 bases in 28 attempts.

Adding to his resume was the Most Valuable Player Award in the FSL All-Star game, a contest that ironically was one of his last of the year. Shortly after winning the award, he suffered a stress fracture of his leg after being hit by a pitch twice in the same spot within a weeks time. This prematurely ended his campaign, though he was healthy enough to perform quite well in the tough Arizona League this fall.

The Phils project Roberson to start and bat leadoff for the Reading Phillies in the Eastern League this summer. Although they always expect a player to move up a league a year, the Phillie brass privately hopes that Roberson does so well that he receives a call-up to Triple A Scranton before summer turns to fall. If this happens, he may well be ready for a major league debut sometime in 2006.

At 25, Roberson is truly a "player in a hurry" as history has not been kind to players making their major league debuts much past this age. Indeed, one of the continual criticisms of Byrd in the past and Howard in the present is that they have always been "old" for their prospective leagues. Roberson certainly falls into this category, though ultimately it will be his ability and not the date on his birth certificate that will determine his ultimate fate in Philadelphia.

If Roberson's age has him in a full out sprint to the big leagues, Bourn's jaunt is much less a jog. Though certainly no teenage whiz kid, Bourn is still 23 and has more than enough big time collegiate experience to enhance his resume. Yet, for all his college heroics at the University of Houston, it is his professional numbers that fairly excite the Phillie populace.

Indeed, no player not named Howard had a better minor league season in the organization than did Bourn in 2004. Where to start? OK, for opening acts, his .315 batting average at Lakewood showed he had a knack for hitting prowess. His 57 stolen bases in merely 109 games played showed his speed and daring do. His 85 walks will do wonders to allay any fears of a hitter's ability to work a count, and 20 doubles, 14 triples and 5 home runs shows a power bat in the making.

Even more impressive, his defensive skills and arm strength are first rate, guarenteeing that if and when he makes it to Philadelphia, Phillie hurlers will breathe easier when a ball is hit into the centerfield gap. Although they would never admit it, and lump Roberson, Bourn and Golson into similar long term slots to prove it, the Phils are quietly expecting Bourn to win the day and soon be the leadoff hitter this team hasn't had since Lenny Dykstra's back gave out.

Bourn will be the leading light in a star studded lineup that moves up from Lakewood to Clearwater. No less than ten players from this club are considered major league prospects, with Bourn, Blalock, Tim Moss, Carlos Rodgriguez and Nate Cabrera being the best. Even future Phillie catcher Jason Jaramillo may play in Lakewood before the year is too far along though another Phillie prospect, Chico Cortez gets first dibs at the backstop spot this spring.

Needless to say, it will be an interesting and possibly quite revealing minor league season for Roberson and Bourn in '05. Both know the stakes, and feel confident of their changes. As reigning speed kings they are familiar with the casting call, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Roberson or Bourn, Bourn or Roberson. Both eager, skilled and primed for stardom. Though their fates are unknown, their present circumstances are irreversibly intertwined. They await their golden oppurtunity...in the center stage.

Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! CD from the Left Coast


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