As expected, Ryan Howard is off to a banner start at Scranton. Although his power numbers are down, his batting average is a cool .500 with four doubles spaced among his 11 hits. His slugging percentage is .727 and his OBP is over .1000! This portends great things for Howard as it appears he is learning the strike zone and has made a conscious decision to cut down on his strikeouts. Make no mistake, Howard will hit his share of home runs, and if he can cut his strikeout totals by even 20 percent, this may not only improve his batting average, but ultimately increase his home run totals.
Although the prevailing view is still that Howard's future is with another organization, it still appears as if the Phils would do well to find a spot for him. He still shows the potential to join the ranks of Richie Allen, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell as the greatest sluggers produced in the Phillie organization in the past 40 years. One more thing to keep in mind about Howard's impressive start is that he had barely a month at Triple A last season and is still basically a rookie in this league.
This is a fact that many zealous Phillie phanatics often forget when calling for the immediate placing of Howard in the Philadelphia lineup. The team emphasized that a solid half-year at Scranton might do wonders for the young slugger and it will surprise no one if he is recalled when American League opponents make the designated hitter a reality. His progress is one of the more positive aspects to what has been a mostly disappointing start to the 2005 minor league campaign.
Two other Baron hitters off to hot starts are catcher Carlos Ruiz, who is a prospect, and Mark Budzinski, who probably is not. Ruiz, a potential Phillie catcher in 2006, is hitting .300 with two triples to his credit. It has been a long time since the Phils had a catcher with the speed and power to generate two triples in the first month of a year. Ruiz is, next to Howard, the most skilled young player on the Baron's everyday roster.
Budzinski is a proven minor league hitter, and is a valuable player to have on a team. He is off to a .462 [12-26] start and often protects Howard in the lineup. Although his chances of getting a recall to Philadelphia are slim, Budzinski's professional approach to hitting is a welcome addition to the team and his hustle and effort set very good examples for the younger players.
Easily the most disappointing early season team has been the Double A Reading Phillies. Not only have they struggled to win, even more alarming is the slow starts of their best four young prospects. Slugging third baseman Juan Richardson has seemingly done okay with a .278 start [5-18] and a home run, but he still shows a dismal inability to draw a walk. He has yet to receive his first free pass, a trend that has always been the biggest knock on Richardson's talents.
To be fair, Richardson has seemingly improved his abiltiy to make contact. He has struck out but three times in his first 18 at bats and this is a welcome improvement for him. It seems probable that this was an issue that was addressed to both Howard and Richardson during spring training. Richardson is certainly a "player in a hurry" and must soon join Howard at Scranton. He is already 25 years old and the Phils are hopeful that he will compete for a major league hot corner spot next year.
Equally distressing is the slow start by the Phils' premier speedsters, Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson. After excellent opening night debuts, both Bourn and Roberson have struggled. Bourn is hitting .222 with but six hits in 27 plate appearances while Roberson is even worse at .174 [4-23]. As mentioned, these are small sample sizes and with their speed, it is expected that Bourn and Roberson will soon rebound to perform more solidly.
The fourth youngster to suffer early season stuggles at the plate is returning shortstop Danny Gonzalez. After a somewhat lacksluster performance last season at Reading, Gonzalez was returned for an encore performance, with hopes that he might get off to a strong start and earn a promotion. His .211 average was not exactly what the doctor ordered, and if the R-Phils are to help young hurlers win games, the big four of Richardson, Bourn, Roberson and Gonzalez will all have to hit.
Perhaps the most impressive early season starts were at Clearwater. This is not necessarily surprising as most of these athletes were at Lakewood last campaign and hit well there. Among the most impressive are Jake Blalock, Tim Moss, Marc Tugwell and Brad Correll. All are off to solid starts offensively in the early going.
Blalock has done nothing to indicate that he won't one day become another power hitter at Citizens Bank Park. A notoriously hard worker, Blalock is hitting for average at .385 and power with a slugging percentage of .577. His defense in the outfield continues to improve as well. The Phils were anxious to see how the spacious fences at Clearwater would affect Blalock, and early returns are promising.
Tim Moss was almost written off as a failed prospect midway through last year until it was discovered that illness was affecting his play. Now healthy, he has been a different player since July of 2004 and continues to show that the Phils might have a future second sacker in Moss. He is hitting .310 and is beginning to exhibit the speed and daring do that once made the Phils believe he was their future lead off hitter. Time will tell in this regard, but there is little doubt that Moss is beginning to show why the Phils made him their first pick, albeit in the third round, of the 2003 amateur draft.
Also doing well are the versatile Tugwell and Correll. Tugwell, who can play several infield positions and seems quite underrated by Phillie braintrust, is hitting .333 at the moment. Correll, whose greatest claim to fame is being one of only two minor league players ever acquired by General Manager Ed Wade in trade, is off to a .357 start at 10-for-28. Correll is another player who might earn a mid- season promotion if he continues to play well.
At Lakewood, the four players drawing the most early season interest are shortstop Brad Harman, outfielders Ryan Frith and Greg Golson and catcher Jason Jaramillo. The performances of Golson and Jaramillo are not unexpected, as they were the top two draft picks in 2004, but Harman and Frith have been early season pleasant surprises.
Golson is hitting .300 and showing everyone why the Phils think he is a future star in the making. Jason Jaramillo is performing with his usual aplomb defensively, while showing a strong early season bat at .304. If he can continue this pace, he may well earn a promotion to Clearwater by July.
Listen closely to Phillie minor league coaches and it is easy to discern a special interest in Harman. Although his defense has been erratic, his offense suggests the Phils may have a future power hitting infielder. Harman hails from Australia and may end up at third base if he continues to grow. Either way, at short or third, it appears the Phils have a future top 10 prospect in Harman, as his .393 average suggests. Even more impressive are his five early season doubles.
As for Frith, he is hitting .368 and seems more comfortable at the plate in this his first full season in the organization. His power numbers were impressive last summer at Batavia, but his batting average was a bit low. If he can continue to show a solid batting eye, while hitting with power, he is a player who might be worth watching in the next few years.
Keeping in mind that the calendar still shows that it is April, the fact remains that Howard, Golson, Jaramillo and Blalock are among the best players in the Phils system and it behooves the organization to ensure that they improve and succeed. If their "small sample sizes" are any indication, then the club may well have a successful season this summer, regardless of the final won-loss records.
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