CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Sky Not Falling

If Chicken Little was a Phillies fan and took a gander at the collective won-lost records of our four minor league clubs he would certainly be inclined to run through the streets clucking that the sky was certainly falling. With a total record of 39-80 the teams are currently winning less than one in three games, an alarming rate to be sure.

If a pharm system is judged by the progress of it's top prospects and not just the number of games being won, then this year's group seems on the right path. Let's take a look at just how some of the better known players are faring as we enter mid-May.

The recent call ups of Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd and Rob Tejeda were not desparation moves made without merit. All three of the players earned their promotions with solid starts at Scranton. Howard was hitting well over .300 with four early season home runs, while Tejeda was pitching solidly and had a 2-0 record. Byrd had recently returned from the disabled list and has continued to look more like the sleek and successful rookie star of 2003 than the bewildered and confused sophomore of '04.

While it is hoped that all three will make major contributions to the Phillie cause, they are not alone on the list of players that may soon call Citizens Bank home. Top prospects Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn, Jason Jaramillo, Shane Victorino and Tim Moss are all off to quick starts as well as many of the other names that fill the Phil's list of Top 20 prospects.

Starting at the Triple A level, Scranton [13-16] has the best record of the four clubs and is being led offensively by Rule 5 draftee, Shane Victorino. Although a smallish outfielder at 5'9", he generates surprising power for a player his size. After catching the Phils' interest with 19 home runs in the Dodger system last year, he has already hit 6 home runs with 17 RBI in only 24 games with the Barons. His average of .292 is solid, though dwarfed by the .333 averages of Jim Rushford and Buzz Hannahan.

One area of concern involves catching prospect Carlos Ruiz, who injured his knee on Thursday. The Phils are hopeful that Ruiz will be back soon, and with Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt struggling at the big league level, Ruiz or AJ Hinch could be recalled before the end of the campaign.

On the pitching front, keep an eye on Martire Franco, one half of the Dominican duo of Franco and Robinson Tejeda. His 2-0 record and 3.18 ERA continues a trend that he has displayed since he began his career with the Phils. Franco has shown the ability to start or relieve successfully and has consistently displayed a knack for winning. If the Phils continue on their 90 loss pace they will be inclined to see what they can garner in trade for free agent in waiting Billy Wagner.

If Wagner is moved, Franco may become an important part of the Phillie bullpen by late summer. If not, then a solid year with the Barons will thrust Franco right in the middle of a group of youngsters for a bullpen spot with the club in 2006.

The Phil's top minor league pitching prospect, Gavin Floyd, is struggling mightily after his early season trevails in Philadelphia. With an 0-3 record and an ERA well over 8.00, there is speculation that Floyd is still suffering from either A] the shell shocking he took in the big leagues or B] the dissapointment of losing brother Mike in an early season trade. Floyd's struggles should be temporary as he is much too talented to let early season frustrations get in the way of his top of the rotation skills. Expect Floyd back in Philadelphia in September.

At the Double A level, Reading [12-18] is losing consistently with a weak pitching staff but has been heartened by the early successes of it's two daring speedy outfielders, Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn. Roberson is hitting .294 with 17 runs scored in 30 games played. He has been steady since the beginning of the year while usually batting from the number two slot. Bourn, on the other hand, struggled early, befitting a player who was making a giant leap from Low Single A Lakewood to Double A ball.

However, Bourn has recently shown why the Phils are so high on his skills and has been hitting well over .300 for the past few weeks to raise his average to .291 with 11 stolen bases in but 27 games. Bourn and Roberson have alternated between center and right field and may soon present the Phils with a most difficult dilemma, choosing which of these talented speedsters will patrol the outermost reaches of centerfield. The smart money still favors Bourn, as he seems the perfect leadoff type.

Not only does he hit for a high average with more than his share of extra base hits, but Bourn has perhaps the best batting eye in the organization and draws walks with regularity. Add to this his ability to steal a base and his flyhawking ability and Bourn seems the prototypical leadoff hitter that the Phils have lacked since Lenny Dykstra retired.

Nevertheless, a strong case could be made that Roberson will not relinquish the spot easily. An outstanding athlete, Roberson finally put those athletic skills to work on the baseball diamond last year at Clearwater to the tune of a plus .300 average and an MVP performance in the Florida State League All-Star game. He continued his progress with a solid performance in the Arizona Fall League and would seem to have thrust himself squarely into the auditioning role for future Phillie centerfielder and leadoff hitter.

Another player who seems to have finally turned his potential into performance is Korean bonus baby Seung Lee. After far too many seasons of mystifying mediocrity, Lee is currently 2-0 with a 2.74 ERA as a starter at Reading. The Phils have been oh so patient with Lee, as much due to his $1.2 million bonus as to any skills he displayed on the pitcher's mound. If current form holds true, the Phillie brass may finally be rewarded for this patience.

On the down side of the prospect ledger, third baseman Juan Richardson is struggling along with a .203 average and only 1 home run. Even more alarming is his lack of arm stregnth from the hot corner after shoulder surgery in 2004. The Phils are discussing the possibility of moving him to first base, a decision that seems ill-conceived given the status of Jim Thome and Ryan Howard ahead of him at this spot. Truth be told, Richardson's star is quickly dimming and if he doesn't turn it around soon, the Phils may finally give up on this erstwhile slugger.

Perhaps no Phillie pharmhand has played better in the early going that former top pick - albeit the third round - Tim Moss at Clearwater. A former collegiate All-American at the University of Texas, Moss seemed a fish out of water for his first season and a half of pro ball. It appeared that the trusted Phillie scouting staff had made a major blunder in thinking that Moss could someday make a dent at the big league level as a second baseman. Not only did Moss fail miserably at the plate, but he was routinely being caught stealing, a speciality of his at UT.

Happily for Moss and the Phils, a thorough physical examination revealed some health problems that were easily treatable and since then Moss has been a revelation. He hit over .300 for the final six weeks of the '04 campaign and has continued his torrid hitting this year. Certainly an early season candidate for Phillie Minor League Player of the Year, Moss is hitting a cool .341 with 24 runs scored in 28 games. Even more impressive is his dynamic combination of speed and power to the tune of 11 stolen bases and 6 home runs and 19 RBI. If Moss keeps up this pace, watch for him to be promoted to Reading sometime this summer.

Two other hitters of note at Clearwater in the early season are Marc Tugwell at .333 and Jake Blalock at .274. Tugwell is being converted to catcher and if early returns are a barometer this is an experiment with a strong possibility of working. Tugwell has always seemed "pure hitter" but the Phils seemed confused about where to play him. He has played third and first, and has always hit well when healthy. If Tugwell continues to show an adaptability to the backstop position, this will certainly become the deepest position in the organization, given the talents of Jaramillo and Ruiz as well as youngsters Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell.

Blalock is making solid contact and playing well defensively although the cavernous reaches at Clearwater will probably cut into his power numbers. At present, the Phils are content to allow the talented Blalock to progress at his own pace and seem convinced that the power numbers will come eventually.

On the pitching front, Zack Segovia [1-3], Francisco Butto [0-2] and Scott Mathieson [0-1] are pitching well though their records hardly reflect it. Segovia is completely healthy again after shoulder surgery in '04 while Butto has 23 strikeouts in 17 innings of work while Mathieson's ERA of 3.24 is one of the best on the staff.

At 6-24, Clearwater has the worst record in the organization, but still is considered to be the team with the most major league prospects. Chances are excellent that the team will play better once injured hurlers Cole Hamels and Nate Cabrera are ready to pitch.

The final full season club, Lakewood, is currently saddled with an 8-22 record but has had several outstanding offensive efforts to show for their first 30 games. Outfielder Ryan Frith is hitting at a .322 pace while catcher-in-waiting Jason Jaramillo is hitting a solid .303. Shortstop Brad Harman is injured but was hitting .293 with decent power numbers when he went down.

Nevertheless, the player creating the greatest buzz in the organization at this time is third baseman Sam Orr, a 2004 draftee from Biola University. Orr has all the charecteristics of a solid player, with quick wrists, a strong arm and a history of consistent power numbers. Although he struggled at Batavia in his rookie campaign, Orr seems to have finally figured out the pro game. In the past two weeks he has hit an astounding 7 home runs and driven in 21 runs in merely 29 games. His average wallowed in the mid .100 range until his current streak raised it to a more respectable .220. Sam Orr...a name to remember in the future.

The top pitchers have been Derek Griffith [2-2] with a 2.50 ERA and J.A. Happ [1-1] with an even lower ERA of 2.25. Reliever Jake Tompkins has become a solid closer in the past few weeks for the Blue Claws.

Baseball has always been a game dominated by numbers and with this in mind, the 39-80 record is nothing to be pleased with. Still, a minor league system is judged more by the talent it promotes to the big leagues than in it's cumulative winning percentage that can be enhanced by playing grizzled veterans at the expense of younger talent. This is a tactic that the New York Yankees have used for years, and while they routinely rate among the winningest organizations when it comes to minor league records, they rank very low in prospects developed.

With players like Moss, Bourn, Jaramillo, Roberson, Howard, Tejeda and Floyd poised to make their marks at the big league level, the cupboard is hardly barren. Chicken Little may feel the sky is falling but from where I sit, the sky looks decidedly more pictureque than the won-loss record would seem to indicate.

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


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