AFL Preview: Bourn Leads Mix of Prospects

The Arizona Fall League season opens Tuesday (October 4th) and the Phillies are sending five players out west as members of the Surprise Scorpions. In a somewhat unusual mix, the Phillies have sent five pitchers and one position player. Three of the players are somewhat older prospects, while two are of the younger variety.

Michael Bourn is the highlight player of the Phillies' contingent headed to Arizona this fall. Bourn was challenged with a two step jump in the minor league system and responded with solid numbers at AA Reading. The jump paired Bourn with another top center field prospect, Chris Roberson and gave the two a chance to show what they could do not only in center field, but getting some time in right field as well.

Since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2003 Draft, Bourn has hit a combined .288 in three minor league seasons, including hitting .268 this season at Reading after skipping a stop in Clearwater on his way up the minor league ladder. The Phillies are also happy about the fact that Bourn has swiped 118 bases in his three seasons and they believe that he has the potential to steal 50-60 bases at the major league level if he can maintain a strong on-base percentage.

It's likely that the Phillies will have Bourn in camp with them next spring and that he'll open the season at AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre. Part of that scenario though, would call for him putting up impressive numbers in the Arizona Fall League against some of the best prospects around.

Scott Mathieson is just 21 years old, but has four minor league seasons behind him already. While the Phillies have been cautious with Mathieson, all signs are that he's ready to move a little quicker and garner a little more attention as part of the Phillies' minor league system. Mathieson was pitching for a weak Clearwater club this past season, which would explain the 3-8 record, but his other numbers are pretty strong (4.14 ERA, 34 BB, 118 K in 121 2/3 innings).

The Phillies selected Mathieson in the 17th round of the 2002 Draft and figured that he may need a little time to advance. Over his four seasons, he has a combined 4.44 ERA, but the good news is that his ERA has gotten better every season, dropping from a high of 5.40 in 2002 to his best mark of 4.14 this past season in Clearwater.

Mathieson is going to be an interesting player to watch in the AFL this season, since he's young and is reaching the point where the Phillies thought he would start to blossom. If Mathieson pitches well this fall, it's likely that he'll start to garner more attention than he has so far in his career. No matter what he does in Arizona though, it's likely that he'll start the year at AA Reading.

At 28, Travis Minix is a little older than the normal player in the AFL. The reason that he's there though is because he had a breakout season in 2005 and the Phillies want to see a little more of him. Don't count out Travis Minix as a potential bullpen denizen for 2006 after seeing the numbers and the way that he pitched this season at AA and AAA. It appears that Minix is certainly ready for the majors, after pitching in 36 AAA games over the past two seasons. This past year, Minix was a combined 2-1, 1.77 with 8 saves in 39 games at Reading and 14 at Scranton.

Minix was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1999 and they were very happy with him until he stumbled in a AAA audition in 2004. After that, they seemingly gave up on him and let him leave as a minor league free agent. The Phillies were glad to pick him up and throw him into the mix as part of their minor league system. After some minor tinkering with his mechanics, Minix blossomed and made the Phillies believe that they truly found a steal

A strong performance in the AFL will be another feather in Minix' cap and it's likely that the Phillies will at least take a look at him in camp next spring. If he doesn't make the club out of spring training, he could be an insurance policy for the bullpen next season, pitching in AAA.

Like Minix, Sanches is a little old for the AFL at age 27. Also like Minix, Sanches appears to be ready for a major league shot. Unlike Minix, Sanches was a little more heralded as a draft prospect, being taken by the Royals in the second round of the '99 Draft, 15 rounds ahead of Minix.

In his debut in the Phillies' organization in 2004, Sanches pitched well at AA Reading, going 4-2, 2.71 in 41 games out of the bullpen. He stumbled in a short audition at Scranton that season, but rebounded well in 2005, going 5-3, 3.69 in 51 games - 49 in relief - with the Red Barons. Some scouts believe that Sanches could be a candidate to close games down the road, but his age and lack of experience at closing in the minors likely mean that he won't reach that level in the majors. He could be a solid set-up man though and the Phillies are anxious to see what he can do against the competition in the AFL.

It's possible that Minix and Sanches will be battling  each other (among others) for a spot in the Phillies' bullpen next season. It's likely that the two will be seeing action in spring training and the Phillies believe that among the two of them, they should be able to find one guy who can step up to the major league level if needed. Both could wind up providing more insurance for the Phillies at that AAA level though, depending on how the bullpen develops during the offseason.

Ryan Cameron is another guy that some scouts believe could close out games. The 28 year old right-hander has 72 1/3 innings of AAA experience while he was in the Red Sox organization, although the Phillies kept him at AA Reading this past season. One of the reasons why he was at Reading was to develop his skills in closing games, a role that Cameron hadn't handled on a regular basis in his career. In fact, up until 2005, Cameron was primarily a starter while pitching in both the Boston and Colorado organizations.

The move to the bullpen worked well for Cameron and the Reading Phillies, as he saved 19 games and went 6-5, 2.55 in 58 relief appearances.

Don't count out Cameron making a jump to the majors next season, but it's not likely. The Phillies don't tend to do that and they would prefer to have Cameron pitching in the closer's spot for AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre rather than pushing him to the majors before he may be ready. It's possible that Cameron will see Philadelphia next September, but for now, his future remains in the minor league system as he shoots for a potential closing situation with the Phillies.

The fact that the Phillies are sending three older players to Arizona shows some of the concern with their minor league system. There is a dearth of players to send, since a lot of the talent in the system has either already used their AFL eligibility or is so young that the Phillies don't want to send them out west at this stage in their development. Most eyes will be on Bourn and Mathieson to see how they perform against some of the best prospects that baseball has to offer.

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