CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Dead End

It is one of the sadder stories about life as a professional ballplayer. There is irony here as it is much more prevalent than the success stories and more compelling than the pursuit of a highly sought after free agent. Yet, it is rarely discussed, as if to do so would spoil the dream or make the game less beautiful than it really is. I wrote an article last year about three former top prospects, at the "crossroads" of their careers. Sadly, those crossroads are now a...dead end.

The Philadelphia Phillies pharm system has rarely been like a flowing stream, constant, fresh and renewing. Rather, it has ebbed and flowed with the times, and with the whims of management. Under the brilliant reign of Paul Owens and Dallas Green, the Phils' system was the envy of baseball, constantly replenishing an organization with such gems as Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson, Juan Samuel and Randy Lerch.

It was so deep that talents such as Ryne Sandburg, Julio Franco, George Bell and Mark Davis were allowed to leave, much to the consternation of more than a few of the Phillie phaithful. Yet when Green left for the Chicago Cubs and Owens was pushed to the side, the team went through a downward spiral that lasted until Mike Arbuckle was hired away from the rival Atlanta Braves in 1993. Since then the system has ebbed and flowed, depending on the supposed needs of former GM Ed Wade, who made a habit of jettisoning prospects like Taylor Buchholz, Derrick Turnbow and Ezequiel Astacio in order to acquire the veteran talent that might help the team over the hump.

Opinions have been mixed over the past several years about the exact state of the system. Some so called "experts" have bemoaned the lack of a solid Latin base in talent, while others criticized the lost draft picks, the seemingly archaic way the team hired and fired coaches, and the refusal to offer "high risk, high reward" picks the kind of money needed to steer them away from college and on into the professional ranks.

Apologists for the club, and they were equally vocal, pointed to a lineup consisting of home grown talent such as Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers, Jason Michaels, Randy Wolf and now Chase Utley and Ryan Howard as proof that Arbuckle and Company were making up for in quality what they might lack in quantity. The debate was endless, and was further fueled by a playoff dry spell that has now reached 12 seasons.

Yet, no matter the side of the debate, there was agreement on one area, one position that seemed sound, deep and skilled. While fans bemoaned the black hole that was catcher, feared for the lack of power hitting outfielders, and worried about the seeming paucity of sound middle infield depth, there was agreement on one position...third base. In Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher, the team was versatile, skilled and deep. In fact, the trio were so good that players like Jake Blalock and Welinson Baez, outstanding prospects in their own right, were moved to other positions in hope they wouldn't be left behind the terrific trio.

Juan Richardson was once considered the second best power hitting prospect in the organization, slightly behind Ryan Howard, and even that was subject to interpretation. A smooth swinging right-handed hitter, signed out of the Dominican Republic by ace scout Wil Tejada in 1998, he seemed the heir apparent to Scott Rolen through the 2002 season. Then it slowly all began to unravel for Richardson following the disclosure in the fall of that year that he was actually two years older than his alleged age.

His season at Clearwater in the High-A Florida State League had been impressive, to the tune of 18 home runs in a tough homer park, and combined with his 83 RBI in 122 games, he seemed on his way. Better yet, he not only had cut down on his strikeouts from 147 to 122 but at 21 years of age he was, if not young for his league, certainly age appropriate.

Then came the disclosure that he was actually 23 years old. That changed the whole scenario for Richardson though it didn't immediately dislodge his status as a prospect. It merely made him a "player in a hurry", a minor leaguer who would need to advance quickly to be a success at the big league level. The Phils timetable changed somewhat and it was hoped that a stellar 2003 season at Reading could lead to an August promotion to Triple-A Scranton to finish the '03 campaign.

This would give Richardson a jump start for the 2004 season in Triple-A and it was hoped he would be in Philadelphia by August or September of that year. Given the injury problems with then incumbent third sacker David Bell, this projection certainly seemed more fact than fiction... and it might have been had not a career changing accident occurred at his home in the summer of 2003.

At Reading, Juan Richardson was leading the league in home runs with 15 in a mere 65 games and had just been voted to the Eastern League All-Star team when he slipped on some steps at home, severely spraining his ankle. His season was finished, and when favoring his ankle the following spring he tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, again derailing his progress.

The 2004 season was more frustration than fulfillment, as he played in a mere 60 games at both Clearwater and Reading with only 9 home runs on the ledger. Even more alarming was the fact that his shoulder still bothered him and the Phils were forced to use him as a designated hitter far more than they cared to. Clearly, his career was at a "crossroads" and he and team hoped that a solid 2005 season might help reestablish his career. It didn't.

Instead, 2005 was the beginning of the end for Richardson. Now 26 years of age, he struggled all season at Reading and finished the campaign with a mere 15 home runs and 51 RBI with a woeful .249 average. His shoulder still appeared to be bothering him and when the season ended the Phils quietly allowed him to leave as a six-year minor league free agent.

Now 27 years of age as of January of this year, Richardson's career is probably over. Once considered on par with Ryan Howard and ahead of Chase Utley as a power hitting infielder, Richardson was first of the trio to see his Phillie career come to and end. His future in baseball is problematic and his is another chapter in the long list of players filed under the "might have been" category.

Kiel Fisher was so unique in many ways, and truth be told, there was much to like about this powerfully built 6'4" lefty swinging third baseman. A surprise third round pick in 2002 out of Riverside Poly in Southern California, Fisher seemed, if anything, to have more potential than Richardson. Oh, he could not match the electric power that Richardson displayed but his smooth swing produced a very impressive 2003 season, to the tune of .323 and .340 averages at the rookie league with the Gulf Coast Phillies and Batavia MuckDogs.

His arm was powerful and accurate, his swing smooth and strong, and his demeanor seemingly perfect for the everyday rigors of professional baseball. The Phils excitedly projected him for a full season campaign at Lakewood in 2004 and were cautiously optimistic that he might move through the system quickly. In a draft that produced such outstanding prospects as Cole Hamels, Zack Segovia and Jake Blalock, the lithe Kiel Fisher's name was always mentioned along with the other precocious high school teammates.

It all began to unravel for him in the spring of 2004 when he suffered a stress fracture of the back, not unlike the injury suffered by fellow hot corner teammate David Bell a year earlier. Fisher was sidelined for the entire '04 campaign, but did report to the Florida Instructional League that fall and hopes were high that he would continue his career in 2005.

The injury bug continued in '05, this time a shoulder injury sidelining him but for 29 games at Lakewood. He no longer seemed to have any power, and even worse, the Phils began to sense a loss in desire for the player who had once been categorized as having a "great approach to the game and loves to play." Still, the Phils would remain patient with a player only 22 years of age and with his pedigree.

That all changed this spring. Under new GM Pat Gillick, it is clear that the team has a new mantra..."with rank comes responsibility." Although Gillick has never officially uttered these words, it is clear from his player transactions that he believes in it and will make it a philosophy of the organization. Veterans like Kenny Lofton, Todd Pratt, Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina and Jason Michaels were jettisoned for various reasons and former top prospect, pitcher Keith Bucktrot, was recently released for displaying a "lack of interest" in playing the game correctly.

When Fisher reported to camp still unable to play due to shoulder woes the Phils quickly lost patience with him. This week they released him, claiming that Fisher had "lost interest, the same term used when they announced the release of Bucktrot. There were the usual rumors that the release was not completely baseball related and that there had been some other off the field concerns. This was not substantiated, and to their credit, the Phils said it was merely a baseball decision.

Regardless of the reason, the simple fact is that at a mere 22 years of age, Kiel Fisher is now unemployed with a future left uncertain. He signed out of high school, so he has no college degree to fall back on, and if his injuries are truly career threatening, his baseball future seems bleak. This is a sad story, and one that Phillie fans had trouble digesting when it was first announced. In an organization that seems to forever forsake "high risk-high reward" signings, Fisher seemed a likely change in this policy, and a welcome one at that. The talent seemed genuine, thus the greater regret that it did not work out.

The third player in the Phillies former hot corner terrific trio, Terry Jones, remains for the moment a story still unfolding. Still, in many aspects, this is the most difficult story to follow for if ever a player tried to do things the correct way, it was Jones. Well spoken, friendly and hard working, Terry Jones was a "can't miss" prospect out of Upland, California who was signed after his high school career in the summer of 2001.

At the time, the Phils considered this a major coup as Jones had a full baseball scholarship to the University of California and was considered a tough sign. Yet the Phils loved his athleticism and signed him in late July for $500,000 to keep him from attending college. At the time it was thought to be a very wise investment and though Jones struggled in his first two summers of pro ball, the Phils were anything but discouraged. They absolutely loved his work ethic, and though his batting average was low, he showed a willingness to learn, great baseball instincts and a great batting eye.

His 2003 season at Lakewood was progressing slowly when suddenly Terry Jones had what is still considered one of the greatest months in recent Phillie minor league history. Beginning in early July of 2003, Jones had an absolutely electrifying month of play, when he hit almost all of his eventual 11 home runs and had an OBP of over 1.100 for the month. He was voted player of the month and seemed to have turned the corner towards stardom.

With the announcement of Richardson's age change and Fisher's limited experience, Terry Jones seemed primed to jump to the head of the class among the threesome. The Phillies obviously thought so as they made a major deal of how they were hiring Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt and placing him at Clearwater, in part to help Jones in his development.

Unfortunately, the seeming injury curse that beset this group fell to Jones in the spring of 2004 when he suffered a stress fracture of the foot that effectively sidelined him until July of that summer. Of course, when he returned, the rust showed and he was but a shadow of his former self. His average was .204 in limited play with only four home runs. Amazingly, the '04 season had been almost literally a total washout for all three former hot corner hot shots.

The foot injuries worsened for Jones in 2005 and he missed the entire campaign. Although only 22 years of age, he was missing valuable and necessary playing time and was beginning to fall behind the newest Phillies third base prospects, Mike Costanzo and Welinson Baez as he reported to spring training this February. The Phils were trying to reestablish him as a prospect and had entertained thoughts of moving him to first base when the latest disaster struck.

While diving for a ground ball in a minor league exhibition game this week he suffered a dislocated shoulder which immediately put not only his short term, but long term future in doubt. The simple reality is that Terry Jones, for all his wondrous abilities, solid work ethic and engaging personality has not played a full season since 2003. He just turned 23 this week, still relatively young for a healthy prospect, but not for an athlete looking to miss another entire campaign.

In reality, the Phils have been very patient with all three former members of the hot corner hot shots group. They supported Richardson after his age issue was made public and have shown an inordinate amount of patience with Fisher and Jones despite the continuing injuries problems. Still, the harsh side of baseball speaks of a game where "what have you done for me lately" is the recurring theme and in this area, both Costanzo and Baez have been answering in the affirmative loud and clear.

Mike Costanzo has continued to improve both offensively and defensively and will probably start the season at Clearwater with the hopes he is in Reading by August. Clearly the Phils feel he is their third baseman of the future and based on how he ended his rookie season and the continued improvement he has shown this spring it, is difficult to argue with this premise.

As for Welinson Baez, there are many within the Phillie minor league system who feel Baez is the top everyday prospect in the entire organization. At 6'3" the Phils feel he is a bit tall for a shortstop so they are moving him back to third base where he will play regularly at Lakewood. His .324 average at Batavia last year suggests that he is just now beginning to reach the surface of his outstanding potential and if he continues to improve, the Phils will have to find a place for him to play.

Baez is athletic enough that perhaps he could eventually fill a role similar to what Mariano Duncan played, a player who regularly participated in 130-135 games without ever having a permanent position. Ultimately it appears that both Costanzo and Baez will find regular employment at Citizens Bank Park. They are the new breed of Phillie prospect...well schooled, athletic and able to play multiple positions [remember, Costanzo was a pitcher/first baseman in college].

As for Richardson, Fisher and Jones they represent what might have been, players whose results never quite lived up to their vast potential for reasons that were as different as their personalities. They represent the often untold story about professional baseball players, the one's whose dreams are shattered before they are ever fully satisfied.

Each had his moment of glory in the sunshine of professional ball and it is not impossible that in the case of Fisher and Jones, might still have time to reclaim their spot in the sun. Each had unique skills that gave them these opportunities and now are faced with the prospect of having to start all over again and hope for a second chance. Yet the chances seem remote for all three, each having met their crossroads back in 2005 and eventually found the road led to a ....dead end.

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net or email me at Philliestalk.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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