The names were long known among Philadelphia Phillies minor league aficionados. Ryan Howard. Juan Richardson. Terry Jones. Kiel Fishers. Each in their own way represented a hope that things would soon be better for an organization decimated by too few top draft picks, too many unsigned selections, and a general manager who failed to restock the system he badly laid barren with countless trades for veteran major league help.
In the case of Howard, the fruits of patience were paid back tenfold as he not only was voted the National League Rookie of the Year in 2005 but became such a cornerstone for the franchise that they were able to parlay veteran slugger Jim Thome into centerfielder Aaron Rowand and two top young pitching prospects, Giovany Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood. This deal has widely been hailed as the best that new GM, Pat Gillick, has engineered in his first four months at the helm.
None of this would have been possible if not for the emergence of Howard, who hit 22 home runs in a mere 88 games and is expected to become a middle of the order run producing machine for years to come. Unfortunately, his success is tempered somewhat by the failure of the three other hot corner prospects, Richardson, Jones and Fisher, to progress at the level expected.
Jones and Fisher have been hampered by injuries for the past two seasons and while they remain in the Phillie organization, their star no longer shines brightly. Both open the 2006 campaign as major question marks and while still young enough to reemerge as viable major league prospects, they now have much to prove and not nearly as much time to prove it. It is hoped that both will be healthy when spring training arrives, but after two complete injury plagued seasons, neither is being counted on to excel in 2006.
Still, given their youth, both Jones and Fisher will be given time to revive their careers. Probably not so with Juan Richardson, who was once thought to be a power hitting third baseman on the same order as Ryan Howard. In fact, Howard and Richardson were often sited as A and 1A on the list of top slugging performers in the Phillie system. Sadly, this is no longer the case with Richardson after a dismal campaign in Reading in 2006. Not only was his .249 average a huge disappointment, but his power numbers were down to a mere 15 home runs and 49 RBI.
Never the greatest fielder in the system, Richardson clearly needed to make it with his bat and at 27 years of age, his time is likely up. As a six year minor league free agent, he is currently looking for a job and it is unlikely the Phils will bring him back to the fold. Baseball is a game of now, and for now, the third base corner stories involve Mike Costanzo, Welinson Baez and Tim Kennelly.
By the same token, the Phils are equally excited by another strapping, young power-hitting first baseman of the same pedigree as Ryan Howard. Oh, he is much younger, less polished and right-handed as opposed to the southpaw swings of Howard. But when 18 year old Mike Durant steps to the plate it is impossible to ignore the comparisons to Howard.
Not only is the 6'5" Durant built along similar lines as Howard but when he hits the ball, it carries the same distinctive sound. Baseball players and scouts alike talk about the "sound" made when certain hitters make contact with a ball. They instinctively know when a Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols hits the ball by the sound it makes. It literally "explodes" off the bat. Ryan Howard evokes those same images of pure power and strength. So does Mike Durant.
Certainly, it is a long way from the Gulf Coast League to Citizens Bank Park, but Durant is a name to remember. Easily considered the best power-hitting prospect in the organization, the strapping fourth round draft pick from Berkeley High School is counted on to improve with experience. He is still raw and is likely to begin the '06 campaign in Extended Spring Training before opening his season either in the Rookie League GCL or at Batavia.
Not so, Costanzo, Baez or Kennelly. All three parlayed solid '05 summer season campaigns into the promise of full season action in 2006. In fact, Costanzo, easily the most advanced of the three, could open the '06 year in Clearwater, a two league jump for the Coastal Carolina second round draft pick. A local boy with great enthusiasm and desire, the Phillie organizational types feel they may have made a major steal in the second round with their selection of Mike Costanzo.
Much like many collegiate hitters, Costanzo found the change from aluminum to wooden bats a difficult one for a time but he soon adapted and his numbers were impressive indeed. After a very slow start at Batavia, Costanzo caught fire offensively and finished with a quite impressive 11 home runs and 50 RBI in a mere 73 games. His .274 batting average featured a nearly .320 pace in August after a very pedestrian opening.
Even more exciting is the fact that Costanzo grew up a Phillies fan and patterned his game after Mike Schmidt. The Phils barely hide their enthusiasm for his progress and fully expect him to become their third baseman no later than 2008. Given his advanced collegiate career, this time table might be accelerated if he opens well at Clearwater this spring. His compact left-handed swing should someday fit well with the right field power dimensions at CBP.
For two seasons Welinson Baez was considered a "work in progress" after inking a $250,000 contract in August of 2002. In fact, there were whispers that Baez might even be considered somewhat of a disappointment after opening yet a third season at the Rookie League GCL last summer. Any fears were quickly dispelled by the excellent season Baez put together in '05 after a quick promotion to Batavia. A teammate of Costanzo, Baez played shortstop well and hit a very impressive .324 with 6 home runs and 37 RBI in a mere 45 games.
He also showed the range and strong arm that had always convinced the Phils that he would become an exceptional defensive player. Yet, at 6'5", Baez is quite tall for a shortstop so the Phils are moving him back to the hot corner, where he will vie with Costanzo for future playing time with the big club. It is competition that should bring out the best in both of them.
In fact, given the talent of these two players, the Phils may well decide to eventually move Baez back to shortstop, where his fluid glove and smooth stroke may well play better than at third base. Unlike Costanzo, who has solid big league power potential, Baez is more of a line drive hitter. Built along the lines of Cal Ripken, Baez may well force the Phils to rethink their position on his "position." Nevertheless, this is a problem the Phillies welcome gladly, and for now look for Costanzo to open at Clearwater while Baez starts at Lakewood. If the Phils are to make the best use of this duo, it will be important that they do "no cutting corners" when it comes to developing these talented youngsters.
Among the unsung heroes in the Phillie amateur scouting department in Kevin Hooker, who has parlayed a rich and widely untapped Australian baseball pipeline into a rich treasure trove of Phillie minor league prospects. Hooker has either signed or scouted such Phil Aussie talent as Brad Harman, Mitch Graham, Scott Mitchinson, Tim Ault and Tim Kennelly.
All of these players have done well at the minor league level, with Ault recently coming over from the Seattle system. Tim Kennelly was a largely unknown player at the Rookie League GCL until he burst onto the scene with a wide array of offensive and defensive skills at third base for the Phil rookies. Not only did he display a keen batting eye, rare in a player so young, but his baseball instincts and .295 average suggested a player well beyond his 19 years of age.
Kennelly has limited power to this point and may well play better at a middle-infield position, but showed enough talent to evoke comparisons to the more experienced Harman and Graham. All three rank high in the Phils infield future plans and it will be interesting to watch their development through the system.
While Costanzo, Baez and Kennelly are clearly the top three third base prospects in the Phillie organization, two other hot corner players deserve special mention. Danny Sandoval, no youngster at 26, is currently on the Phil's 40 man roster and is a dark horse candidate to earn a place on the major league roster this spring after a sterling .331 season at Scranton last year.
Sandoval is considered a solid hitter with a good glove and is capable of playing multiple infield and outfield positions. It will be no surprise if he makes his major league presence felt at some point in 2006. He is expected to open the season with the Red Barons and earn a promotion to Philadelphia should one or more of the team's infielders is injured or traded.
One final name to keep on the hot corner radar screen is Samuel Orr, a power-hitting lefty from Biola University. Signed in 2005 after an All-American collegiate career, Orr has largely been disappointing in his two professional seasons with the Phils. Still, his 12 home runs and 64 RBI in 129 games at Lakewood cannot be totally discounted and if Orr can cut down on his propensity for strikeouts he could emerge as another corner prospect in the organization.
If the prospect watch names are plenty at the third base corner, not so across the diamond at first base. Other than Mike Durant, the only youngster worthy of mention is Bryan Hansen, a largely good glove, weak hitting first baseman who started his professional career with Howard in 2001. That he has not yet emerged from Single-A baseball speaks volumes about his struggles offensively but he is still young enough at 23 to regain his promising status of a few seasons back.
Generally ranked among the organizational bottom third in terms of minor league talent, it behooves Gillick and Company to make a concerted effort to rebuild what once was a burgeoning system of talent. The acquisitions of players like Gonzalez, Haigwood and Ault was a healthy start and a rebirth by stalled youngsters like Jones and Fisher would further improve the landscape. Still, the Phils are well aware that any discussion about talent will eventually find its way to the power positions of the infield, first and third base.
With youngsters like Durant, Costanzo, Baez and Kennelly, the cupboard is certainly not empty. It will be imperative that these players as well as some of the others mentioned, continue to improve and grow as professional ballplayers in the Phillie pharm system. They have displayed the talent to someday make it to The City of Brotherly Love. The onus is now on the coaches and scouts to assure that this happens. For the future of the Philadelphia Phillies there should be no ill-advised draft picks, no poor management decisions and...no cutting corners.
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