CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms

With the minor league season nearing it's midway point now seems a good time to see just where the team's top prospects stand in what is turning out to be one of the worst seasons record wise in the organization's history. Of course, any minor league team official will stress that simply judging a team's talent base by the system's won-lost record can be deceiving. Still, the organization took a big hit through trades in the past year. With this in mind, let's take a visit around the system.

No talk of Philadelphia Phillie pharm club talent can go far without discussing the continued rise of young slugging first baseman, Ryan Howard. There has been some sentiment to bringing him up to help the big club, and with his numbers at Scranton, this does seem a justified desire. Plainly put, Howard's last season and a half have been among the best combined campaigns of any Phillie minor leaguer in recent memory.

After hitting a combined 49 home runs at three levels last year, he is arguably having an even better season in 2005. Although his power numbers are down a bit with 13 home runs in 45 games at Scranton, his .374 batting average, 38 RBI and .697 slugging average are among the most impressive in the minor leagues. Even more revealing is Howard's continued improvement in the strikeout department as he moves up the minor league system.

Howard has shown the one characteristic that often indicates future major league stardom... the ability to improve as he moves up the system. It is still the belief of this writer that Howard remains, along with Richie Allen, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell, the greatest power-hitting prospect developed in the system in the past 50 years. Unless the organization can acquire a standout starting pitcher for Howard, it seems prudent to hold on to this youngster at all cost.

If Howard's star has been rising, the same can not be said for the Phil's number two prospect, righty Gavin Floyd. After early season success in the City of Brotherly Love, Floyd has struggled in his return to Scranton and is currently saddled with a 2-5 record and an astronomical 7.09 ERA. Even more alarming is Floyd's control problems, something that plagued him in Philadelphia. His long term prospects are still outstanding, but given the injury to Randy Wolf and the inconsistency of Vicente Padilla, the timing of Floyd's struggles could not have been more ill timed.

Over the past few years, any mention of Floyd was always followed by a comparison to the Phil's other top notch hurling prospect, lefty Cole Hamels. It has been well documented about Hamel's off the field problems, but the good news is that he seems ready to begin making news for his pitching as he is currently throwing well in Extended Spring Training and is preparing to go to Clearwater in the Florida State League for his '05 debut.

Interestingly enough, GM Ed Wade recently discussed Hamels on a Phillie talk show and seemed to indicate that Hamels could advance very quickly through the system if he pitches well. This occurrence is probably a result of two converging situations, one, the recent injury to lefty Randy Wolf and, two, the sheer talent that Hamels possesses.

Make no mistake, Hamels is still a top of the rotation starting hurler, and it would be no great surprise to see him at Citizens Bank Park sometime in 2006 if he stays healthy. Without Wolf, there is a major depth problem for southpaw hurlers in the system, with only Hamels and J.A. Happ as potential long-term solutions. It was no accident that the Phils drafted several lefty hurlers in the recent June amateur draft, as the team hopes to replenish the system with this most valuable asset.

Clearly, these are the "Big Three" of the organization, but with hurler Robinson Tejeda as the most recent example, the next group of youngsters may well help the Phils down the road. Of course, Tejeda, a pitcher with great potential and limited success in the minor league system is now starting at the big league level. He replaced the injured Wolf in the rotation and will remain there as long as he performs effectively. His last start came about a week ago and resulted in five shutout innings in an eventual 2-0 win for the Phightin's.

Outfielders Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn, two fly chasers with speed to burn, are both performing well in Reading. Roberson, a former All-Star MVP in the Florida State League, is currently hitting .304 in 66 games, with 80 hits, 16 stolen bases and a .422 slugging average. If he continues this pace, he could become the heir apparent to center fielder Kenny Lofton in Philadelphia.

Both Bourn and Roberson are leadoff type hitters, though Bourn is the more accomplished outfielder with a better throwing arm. With this in mind, Bourn has more often than not played right field with Roberson occupying the middle of the outfield. Bourn is the younger of the two, and thus has struggled a bit more at the Double A level.

Still, he is hitting .272 with 18 stolen bases and gives every indication of competing with Roberson for the centerfield spot at CBP by the end of next season. Not only does this give the Phils uncommon depth at this spot, but provides the organization with a potential trading chip down the line. Both Bourn and Roberson are players to watch for the remainder of this campaign.

Unfortunately, the success of Roberson and Bourn at Reading has not been duplicated by former slugging third baseman, Juan Richardson. Truth be told, he has not resembled the player who led the Eastern League in home runs in 2003 until injury problems stalled his development. Mired in a season long slump, Richardson is currently hitting .227 with but five home runs and 22 RBI in 58 games played. These numbers are a far cry from the young slugger who compared favorably to Howard as recently as two years ago.

Equally vexing for Phillie organization types are the continued injury problems of the other third base prospects in the system, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher. What once was thought to be a deep and talented position has now become a wasteland at the minor league level. With this in mind, it was no surprise to see the Phils draft and sign Mike Costanzo with their top pick in this year's amateur draft. His progress through the system will be watched with anticipation given the age of incumbent David Bell and the recent trade of Placido Polanco.

Other outfielders of note include last year's number one draft pick, Greg Golson, who recently returned from a stint on the disabled list and is hitting .248 at Lakewood. It would not be a surprise to see him moved back to Rookie League Batavia when the MuckDogs begin play next week. The Phils are quite pleased with not only his performance, but his attitude and temperament are considered off the charts.

Two other fly chasers to watch are Jake Blalock at Clearwater and Sean Gamble, a teammate of Golson's at Lakewood. Both Blalock and Gamble have a strong baseball pedigree as Blalock is the younger brother of Ranger third baseman, Hank Blalock, and Gamble is the son of former Phillie outfielder, Oscar Gamble.

Blalock is probably the second ranked power hitter in the Phillie pharm system, and has hit 7 home runs at cavernous Clearwater in 62 games played. He is also hitting .273 after flirting with the .300 level for much of the season. The Phils think Blalock will be an eventual middle of the order slugger and could someday combine with Howard and Pat Burrell to form an impressive 3-4-5 heart of the batting order.

Unlike Blalock, Gamble has not shown power potential but could someday be a high average hitter. After hitting over .300 as a rookie last year, he is hitting a more pedestrian .252 at Lakewood. Much like his father, Sean displays a solid batting eye, and an excellent glove in the outfield.

Perhaps the deepest position in the organization is at catcher, and two prime examples of that are Jason Jaramillo and Carlos Ruiz. Jaramillo, last year's second draft pick from Oklahoma State, is hitting .275 at Lakewood, with 3 home runs and 47 hits in 47 games. As always, his defense has been superior, and he remains on track to replace Mike Lieberthal at some point in 2007.

Ruiz was hampered by a knee injury but has returned recently. In 28 games he is hitting .273 at Scranton and may receive a September call-up to the major leagues. Ruiz features a strong arm, and improved mechanics behind the plate. If he continues to progress, he should replace Todd Pratt behind the plate in 2006.

As with most organizations, the Phils have had several players move to the forefront with breakout campaigns. Four players have moved up the prospect list with standout performances this year. Marc Tugwell has turned a .321 average and strong power numbers into a possible major league career behind the plate. A former infielder, Tugwell has always hit well, and his versatility and demeanor could soon move him into the Top 20 Prospect List with the Phillies.

Two mid-round draft picks from last season, infielder Sam Orr and outfielder Ryan Frith are performing well. Orr had a reputation as a power hitter at Biola University and has parlayed 11 home runs and 45 RBI in 61 games to reconfirm that reputation. A recent slump has brought his average back to .265. Still, Orr may well be the new top third base prospect in the organization with his power surge.

Frith is hitting .295 as a teammate of Orr's at Lakewood after a strong rookie season at Batavia. Both were college standouts who have continued their collegiate play with the Phils. The fourth member of this "step-up" group is infielder Brad Harman, a youngster from Australia. Although Harman continues to struggle defensively at shortstop, his hitting has been top notch. He is currently hitting .302 with 48 hits in 42 games played.

On the pitching level, the news is mixed. Zack Segovia, Keith Bucktrot, Carlos Carrasco, and Andrew Baldwin have struggled this year, while Happ, Scott Mathieson and Derek Griffith have performed well. Happ is 4-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 47 innings of work.

Mathieson has also suffered the injury bug, but his 0-2 record belies a strong performance of 54 strikeouts in merely 51 innings of work. Watch for Mathieson to have a strong second half of the campaign. Griffith has also improved this year after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2003. His 2-5 record is no indication of his improved hurling.

All in all, the Phillie minor league report card would be a mixed bag for mid-season 2005. Howard has been a tower of strength, while Roberson, Bourn, Blalock, Happ and Jaramillo have continued their ascent up the ladder. Tugwell, Orr, Frith and Harman have been pleasant surprises while Golson, Mathieson and Hamels should improve as their health concerns diminish.

The rookie seasons at Batavia and GCL promise youngsters like Louis Marson, Charles Cresswell, Welinson Baez, Curt Miaso, Edgar Garcia and Scott Mitchinson a chance to shine, and it is hoped that Floyd, Richardson and Segovia can turn around what has been disappointing half seasons.

With the summer heating up, it is hoped that Phillie minor league success will heat up with it. The new draft picks, combined with the young veterans promises to make the second half an interesting and fascinating one for the entire organization. Stay with Phuture Phillies Phenoms as we follow the progress of all the pharm hands in their quest to someday make it to the major leagues.

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


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