As excited baseball fans anxiously prepare for opening day, the scuttlebutt
along the eastern seashore is that you could now separate the title chances of
the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies with a fine tooth
comb. Indeed, the talent level amongst the three clubs is so razor thin that one
injury, one mid-season trade, or even one contribution from an as yet unnamed
player might be all that is needed to tip the scale of balance either one way or
Injuries are unexpected and mid-season deals unpredictable but spring often gives teams a glimpse of a potential contributor from the farm system, especially early on. With that in mind, it might well be wise to keep a few names in mind when perusing the daily Phillie box scores this spring. These players, though expected to toil the entire season in places like Reading or Lehigh Valley, might instead find their way to Citizens Bank Park, much like hurler Kyle Kendrick did last season. If the results are similar, it could mean the difference between also rans and champions for Philadelphia's aspiring baseball nine.
Yet to listen to many supposed minor league gurus is to hear a generally unified cacophony of catcalls when it comes to the minor league talent level within the Phillie system. In fact, this has been the general theme within the ranks for the past several years despite all evidence to the contrary.
One need only to take a roll call of major league talent currently listed on the Philadelphia Phillie major league roster to know this perception is completely without merit. Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley. Ryan Howard. Pat Burrell. Cole Hamels. Brett Myers. Carlos Ruiz. Ryan Madson. Kyle Kendrick. One could even add the names of Michael Bourn and Geoff Geary to the list as both of the those home grown products were used as prime trading bait to acquire star closer Brad Lidge from the Houston Astros this past off-season.
A strong case can be made that no contending team in professional baseball has a stronger nucleus of home grown talent within their ranks than does today scour the landscape in PhillieLand. Not that it will matter to the baseball experts at such places as Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus but it might well matter where it matters most...in the standings of the National League East this season.
It would do well to also remember that the same scouting combines who now look with such disdain at the current crop of supposed Phillie "non prospects" once looked with almost equal disdain on such players as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Kyle Kendrick. In fact, only Burrell, Rollins, Hamels and Myers were considered "can't miss" prospects coming out of the minor leagues and even they had special caveat warnings next to their outstanding resumes.
Pat Burrell was a player without a true position and Jimmy Rollins too small and fragile. Brett Myers came with a reputation of a difficult to control hot head and Cole Hamels was considered much too injury prone to warrant serious consideration for long term stardom at the big league level. Yet, all four have achieved major league star status and all are being counted on to help hoist another championship banner flag Philadelphia's way come October of 2008.
Yes, it would do well for serious Phillie phans to ignore the current doomsdays prophets of gloom and doom who predict nothing but misery within the ranks of the Phil pharm system this season. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth and with that in mind, let's examine a few names to remember, players who could impact the '08 season much as Kyle Kendrick did in 2007.
|The future probably isn't right now for Jason Jaramillo, who figures to start the season with the first year Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (Triple-A) in the International League. (Photo: Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)|
Carlos Carrasco is widely considered the top prospect within the Phillie system, though this is at present more a case of giving faint praise to the minimal than offering a ringing endorsement to the maximum. Yet, Carrasco's three inning shutout performance recently against the vaunted New York Yankees gave ample pause to recall a similar performance by Cole Hamels a few seasons ago against the very same Yankee team.
That one dominant inning of work by Hamels, one in which he struck out the likes of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, merely reinforced within the minds of everyone who saw him that day that he was destined to become a very special pitcher one day. Carrasco evoked a similar response with a dominant performance for not one but three outstanding innings.
Oh, make no mistake. Carlos Carrasco has absolutely no chance of going north with the Phillies this April. Rather he will open the campaign in Reading, precisely where he belongs after a rather up and down '07 season with both Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. Carrasco had an outstanding 6-2 record and 2.84 ERA at Clearwater while holding opposing hitters to a .199 batting average but struggled a bit once he was promoted to Reading.
While with the R-Phils he finished with a 6-4 record and a high 4.86 ERA. Most scouts felt that his problem was more of giving opposing hitters far too much credit than it was a case of being over matched at a higher minor league level. His standout performance against the Yankees might be just what the doctor prescribed to give the 21 year old righty the confidence he needs to dominate at the Double-A level.
It should be recalled that Kyle Kendrick was pitching at Reading last year when he answered the Phillie distress call and was immediately promoted into the Phillie rotation last June. From there, he fashioned a 10-4 record, started the second game of the National League playoff series with the Rockies and clearly established himself as a middle of the rotation starting pitcher entering the '08 campaign. It would be no surprise if Carrasco followed a similar path to the major leagues this year.
Still, Carrasco is far from the only hurler within the Phillie system who could make his big league breakthrough in 2008. There are several southpaws worthy of consideration, though two of them found it rough going in the early days of spring training this year. Rule 5 draft choice Travis Blackley displayed outstanding command in his spring debut and could well force himself onto the Phillie roster should he continue to build on his initial outing.
The Phillies must either keep Blackley, who fashioned a 10-8 record at Triple-A Fresno, or offer him back to the San Francisco Giants. It seems quite clear that the Giants would welcome back Blackley, as they thought enough of his potential to give him two late season starting assignments in 2007. Given the Phils need for another starting pitcher, it might well behoove the Phightins to give the stylish lefty every opportunity to show his wares during the course of this spring training.
The other two southpaws worthy of serious '08 consideration, Josh Outman and Joe Savery, were both hit hard in their spring debuts against the Pittsburgh Pirates before coming back with solid performances against the very same Buccos in their second outings. Although both have limited experience at this juncture the Phils think highly enough of both lefties to assure that they will be watched closely this season regardless of where they ultimately pitch.
Josh Outman is a 23 year old lefty drafted in the tenth round of the 2005 draft out of Central Missouri State. Considered only a long shot prospect entering professional baseball, Outman completely revamped his delivery and the change was immediate and amazing. While consistently sitting at 90-94 MPH on his fastball, deception still makes Outman a difficult pitcher to hit.
His stock began to rise after helping lead the Lakewood BlueClaws to the SAL championship in 2006 with a 14-6 record and 2.95 ERA in 27 starts. He followed that up with a combined 12-7 record with Clearwater and Reading last season, though he struggled after the promotion to Double-A ball. Still, the Phillies were impressed with his winter league performances and will be watching him closely this year as he is expected to open the '08 campaign in Reading but could be promoted to Triple-A if he has a solid opening few months.
Lefty Joe Savery is certainly on the fast track to the major leagues after becoming the Phils' first round draft pick out of Rice University last June. After some minor shoulder surgery in college caused his stock to drop, the Phils were ecstatic when he was available with the nineteenth pick in the initial round. It was a bit of a gamble, but no more so than another lefty they rolled the dice on a few years ago, a fellow named Cole Hamels. Needless to say, if the results are even somewhat similar the Phillies will be more than satisfied.
Although Savery is expected to open the season at Clearwater in the Class-A Florida State League, his ascension could be meteoric should he demonstrate they type of skill that caused many scouts to rate him as a potential top five pick before his arm surgery. His command, confidence, and mound presence remind many of Mark Mulder and if he is completely healthy this season, and there is little reason to suspect otherwise, he might just be the best lefty not named Hamels in the entire organization.
Two righties dominate the landscape and could also factor into the Phillie equation in 2008, though neither has even a remote chance of breaking camp with the parent club at the end of March. Scott Mathieson and Drew Carpenter are the names, one oh so familiar while the other has remained under the radar scope despite solid success in the minor leagues.
Scott Mathieson is a very familiar name, a hurler who was so highly thought of that he was thrust right into the middle of the 2006 wild card race as a starting pitcher in August. Although he won only one game that season, he impressed everyone with a fastball that often reached 96 MPH. Unfortunately, he injured his arm in an early September start against Atlanta and underwent Tommy John shoulder surgery which kept him inactive for nearly a year.
He did return to action briefly last season, but continued to have minor arm woes and was eventually shut down for the remainder of the campaign. Mathieson is expected to begin throwing in mid-March and might be available for bullpen service in Philadelphia by late summer. His power arm might fit in quite well along with the stances of fellow bullpen partners Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brad Lidge.
If there is one relatively unknown hurler who could burst onto the Philadelphia scene with little or no fanfare, it might just be Andrew Carpenter, a former third round draft pick who merely led the entire minor leagues with 19 wins last season at Clearwater. He won 17 games during the regular season and finished off his spectacular season with 2 more wins in the playoffs.
Carpenter is almost effortless in his approach to pitching and has been a winner wherever he has pitched. The Phillies are very impressed with his maturity and ability to throw strikes and although he will never overpower hitters with his low 90's fastball, he has the ability to spot his fastball while displaying an outstanding split-fingered fastball. He will probably open the 2008 season as part of a three man triumphant with Carrasco and Outman at Reading but could easily become this seasons Kyle Kendrick.
Other hurlers to jot down if you are keeping score are Zack Segovia, Francisco Rosario, J.A. Happ and Lincoln Holdzkom. None are being counted on to help Rollins and Company defend their National League Eastern crown, but then again, neither was Kendrick last year. He is the inspiration that allows all of the above named hurlers to believe that should they demonstrate outstanding talent in the minor leagues, the Phightins' will feel no reluctance to roll the dice on a youngster once again.
Perhaps no player has heightened the imagination level at Clearwater during the early days of spring training like speedy young outfielder Greg Golson. This potential five tool player might well be ready to put on a consistent display the skills that made scouts drool when he was a high school youngster in Texas. The Phillies made him their top draft choice in the amateur draft of 2004 and have waited patiently for the mind to catch up with the body ever since.
If an early glimpse is any indication, that wait might finally be over. After far too many less than complimentary comparisons to two other former Phil high school outfield washouts, Jeff Jackson and Reggie Taylor, Golson could well become the lightning rod that often helps contenders become champions.
His spring performance to date has featured no less than two home runs, a stolen base, solid hitting skills and a defensive play in the outfield that evoked comparisons to Willie Mays by Manager Charlie Manuel. Of course, none of this will matter if the youngster doesn't begin to show a better understanding of the strike zone [23 walks, 173 strikeouts in 2007] but at 22 years of age, and with nearly fours years of professional experience, he may be ready to break out this season.
Much like many of the team's top prospects, Golson is expected to open the season at Reading and, truth be told, the Phils are loathe to rush him any time soon. They hope that a solid half-season in Double-A will allow the youngster to advance to Triple-A by mid-season. From there, it will then become a question of need.
The Phillies have shown, as with the case of Michael Bourn last season, that they will find a spot for a young outfielder who can run, catch and throw, especially with Pat Burrell in left field. At present, the team seems well fortified in the outfield with Burrell, Shane Victorino, Geoff Jenkins, Jayson Werth and So Taguchi but should one of these fly chasers go down to injury, Golson could get his chance this year.
Another position player to watch for is catcher Jason Jaramillo, a switch-hitter from Oklahoma State University. The sturdy backstop has moved steadily up the minor league ladder and had a solid 2007 season in Triple-A at Ottawa. He continued to improve defensively, showed a powerful and accurate arm, and improved his hitting skills.
Jaramillo will probably never become an outstanding major league hitter, though switch-hitting will certainly help him in this area, but could form with incumbent Carlos Ruiz a strong one-two backstop combo until prize youngster Lou Marson is ready for the big leagues. The current plan is to open with Ruiz and veteran Chris Coste behind the plate with Jaramillo only a phone call away at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
As presently constructed, the 2008 Philadelphia Phillie roster is nearly set, with probably no more than a couple of hurlers from completion. The starting lineup is set, and the bench seems so deep that veteran Wes Helms will probably soon be looking for a new home. The pitching staff has a few question marks, but unless there is a complete breakdown between now and April, there would seem little room for any of the above named hurlers to make any immediate mark on the landscape.
Yet, every season is fraught with emergencies and a gentleman named Fritz Reiner once warned to "watch out for emergencies. They are your big chance!" Reiner might well have been offering encouragement and advice to a handful of Phillie pharm hands, each of whom has his own dreams and aspirations on full display this March in Clearwater, Florida.
Indeed, dreams do die hard, especially among the young. As Mssrs. Carrasco, Blackley, Outman, Savery and Golson go about the everyday baseball rigors, it would be hard to argue that they aren't fully aware of this absolutely wonderful opportunity to wow the Phillie brain trust during their latest...spring fling.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast