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

It is a rite of passage among Phillies pharm club gurus that there will always be an announcement made at the minor league level that will cause extreme and constant gnashing of teeth. True to form, the Phils didn't even wait until week two of the minor league campaign to announce that Ryan Howard's outfield experiment would be permanently shelved. This sobering news almost guarantees that Phillie phaithful will watch Howard clout mammoth homeruns from somewhere other than Citzens Bank Park.

Admittedly, this was always an experiment with a seeming short shelf life but it seemed at least reasonable to play Howard in left field at least once a week at Scranton to learn if he could ever become comfortable out there. Phillie historians remember that it took Greg Luzinski a while to learn to play the outfield and Pat Burrell has always been a work in progress.

Still, the announcement took some of the luster off an opening weekend on the pharm where many of the Phils top prospects showed exactly why they are rated that way. Although the won-loss records were nothing to write home about, there was enough solid news throughout the system to give hope that this year's crop of youngsters would eventually replace many of today's Phillies players in The City of Brotherly Love.

First things first concerning Howard. The Phils have already received and turned down an offer for Howard from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This offer included relief pitcher Danys Baez and young centerfielder Joey Gathright. Ironically, both Baez and Gathright have been opening week standouts in Tampa and the chances are the the D'Rays might not be as quick to offer this deal again soon.

Baez is a solid relief pitcher with a closer mentality. Given the poor performances of Tim Worrell, Terry Adams and Adam Fultz in the first week, Baez may eventually look more appealing to the Phils. As for Gathright, he is a true center fielder, with great speed, a solid bat and very little power. He has consistently hit well in the minors and is currently starting in Tampa, given the 10 day suspension of Alex Sanchez.

Yet, from this vantage point, this still is a deal that would not make sense from a Phillie standpoint. For one thing, Howard is one of the few solid trading chips at General Manager Ed Wade's disposal and if Howard is to be swapped he must not be traded cheaply. Although Baez would likely bolster the Phillie bullpen, there is no guarentee that Gathright would even be the long-term solution in centerfield in Philadelphia due to the minor league stalwarts like Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn and Greg Golson.

All three are future major leaguers and all started well in the minors this week. Roberson and Bourn were a veritable track team, batting second and third in the order at Reading and being directly in the middle of the action in both R-Phils games this weekend. The Phils plan to alternate the two in centerfield, though Roberson could parlay a swift start with a promotion to Scranton by mid-season.

Speaking of Bourn and his current status as the number three hitter in Reading...does anyone else find this a bit strange? Afterall, there is no more proto type leadoff hitter in the organization than Bourn and batting him in the third slot [usuually designed for a power hitter] seems almost counterproductive. In Bourn's two seasons with the Phils he has demonstrated an incredibly patient batting eye and has rountinely averaged almost a walk a game while compiling outstanding numbers in the stolen base and extra base hitting departments.

What he has not shown is strong power, nor a desire to sacrifice patience for perceived performance. He has been more than willing to draw a walk and use his blinding speed to produce a run as opposed to most minor league hitters who feel their quickest track to the major leagues lies in base hits and power numbers.

Let us hope that the Phils don't alter the very skills that make Bourn such an appealing long-term prospect. As a power hitter, Bourn would not rank in the top 20 players within the Phillie organization. However, as a long term standout hitting prospect, Bourn may be unequaled in the system. It behooves the Phillie minor league brass to just let Bourn do what he does best, show an outstanding batting eye, get on base, steal bases, score runs and play outstanding defense.

A Phillie outfield of Pat Burrell, Michael Bourn and Bobby Abreu could rank as one of the more talented trios in baseball and it could happen by next year if Bourn plays the way most Phil's scouts think he will. The best news for Phillie phanatics is that as good as Bourn is, and he is very, very good, he is not the most talented center fielder in the organization. Greg Golson is, and no less an authority than long time Phillie scout Larry Rojas compared him recently to a "young Frank Robinson."

In fact, it appears that the five tool Golson is a much better fit for the number three spot in a batting order, yet currently he is leading off at Lakewood, and doing very well at that. He already has a 4-4 game to his credit and is hitting over .400 with his usual solid defensive instincts thrown in for good measure. Golson is a player to watch and may soon become the best prospect in the entire organization.

And speaking of the "best prospect in the organization," lefty Cole Hamels, who once wore that title with aplomb is still rehabbing in Clearwater and can just now grip a baseball without pain. Hamels was involved in an off-season brawl at a Florida nightspot and broke his left hand. This injury not only set him back again [remember Hamels has been plagued by injuries since his rookie season] but angered the Phils enough that they will probably keep him in Single-A Clearwater once he is ready to resume action.

Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle announced that Hamels is still "probably eight weeks from action" so what once was thought to be a youngster who might make the Phillies by 2006, now looks as if he won't make it out of Single-A all season. This is troubling news for the Phils as the pitching prospects at the upper levels of the system are thin and it was hoped that with Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels in tandem, the team could sacrifice quantity for quality.

Hamels remains a solid prospect, but no longer carries the "can't miss" tag that followed him everywhere in 2004. No less an authority than Baseball America recently ranked him as Minor League Prospect Number 71, a far cry from the Top 20 status that was once expected of him. This much is known... Hamels must show that he understands the mistakes he has made and rededicate himself into becoming what the Phils had hoped for. He was never viewed as just another starting pitcher at the big league level, but a top of the rotation starter, capable of dominating major league lineups.

In fact, Phillie phans were once quite reasonable in the expectation that Hamels, Floyd and righty Brett Myers would someday anchor a very strong starting staff. The expectations are still there, but not quite as reasonable. Floyd looks like the real deal, but Myers and Hamels must show that their past glories at the minor league level can be repeated in Philadelphia. Everyone should know more by the end of the 2005 campaign.

Although Bourn and Golson highlighted the early action with their play, they were not alone in putting up impressive early numbers. Other players who got off to quick starts included catcher Jason Jaramillo, who homered and showed solid defensive skills, shortstop Brad Harman, a young Austalian import who has excited the Phillie brass with his batting skills.

Harman had three doubles in one game and has quietly moved up the radar screen in the ranking of Phillie prospects. He is a name to watch this year, though his five early errors were a source of concern. Given the lack of shortstop prospects in the system, Harman may soon move up the charts currently occupied by Danny Gonzalez at Reading and Carlos Rodriguez at Clearwater. Both Gonzalez and C-Rod have obvious skills, yet have weaknesses that could eventually derail their chances of making it big.

Gonzalez is admired for his gritty play, and is a consistent player with few outstanding traits. He doesn't hit with much power, is not unduly fast or quick, and has only average range. He may ultimately best serve the Phils as a utility player in the major leagues. As for C-Rod, his abilities have never been questioned, just his desires and maturity level.

Arbuckle did feel that Rodriguez made strides last year at Lakewood, but this season at Clearwater is an important one for him. Welinson Baez and Harman may soon pass C-Rod if he falters again. Arbuckle also had somewhat better news in regards to injured third basemen Kiel Fisher and Terry Jones. Although both have shoulder problems [Jones had shoulder surgery] they both will be able to DH this year although neither will play much defense.

This is good news for the team and the players, and both are highly rated and need as much hitting as possible after a lost 2004 season for the duo. Fisher in particular is still considered one of the best hitting prospects in the organization.

Other hitters who got off to strong starts included outfielders Sean Gamble and Ryan Frith and infielder Marc Tugwell. Tugwell hit his first homerun and seems ready to resume his career after an injury marred '04 campaign.

On the pitching front, youngsters Martire Franco and Frank Perez recorded early saves in Scranton and 18 year old Carlos Carrasco and lefty Derek Griffith both had strong early starts at Lakewood. Carrasco is considered one of the best young prospects in the entire organization and made a giant leap from the Rookie GCL to Full Season Lakewood this year.

Nevertheless, the biggest news to come form down on the pharm this opening week that slugger phenom Ryan Howard has put away his outfield glove and will concentrate solely on first base. This is dissapointing news and might one day be a move that the Phillie organziation regrets. For the Phillies, the term "first shall be last" seems fittingly appropriate when it comes to young Howard and his chances of ever gracing the lineup in PhillieLand.

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


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