CD's Connect The Dots... Internal Combustion

It is widely assumed that despite their obvious strengths, the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies have enough flaws to demand a bit more than tweaking if they aspire to advance to the NL playoffs. What is not so widely known is that this tweaking could well take place not by trade but within the ranks via...internal combustion.

A quick glance into Webster's Dictionary would seem to contradict this statement when the word "combustion" is found. Certainly the primary definition of "the act or process of burning" would not seem to be precisely what the doctor ordered for a Philadelphia roster revival instead of a roster reversal.

However, closer examination into a distinctly different definition indicates that combustion can also be meant to create a "violent excitement", exactly the kind of infusion this year's club would seem to crave, given those aforementioned flaws.

Now read the same dictionary's definition of "internal" and we find that it is something "situated or existing within the interior." Applying the words "internal combustion" together within the context of their applied meanings for the Phillies indicates that for perhaps the first time in nearly a decade the organization's pharm clubs might not just be prepared to offer secondary help to the current roster but instead genuine front line talent to the already strong core of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Cole Hamels.

This in itself might be a major surprise to those who routinely pay little attention to a pharm system that currently ranks among the worst in baseball record wise. Indeed, the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs are only now moving towards respectability after losing nearly every game during the first three weeks of the season.

Still, if age 50 is the new 30, then Double-A baseball is the new gold standard for minor league talent on the way up to the major leagues and it is precisely here, with the Reading Phillies that the future might very well unfold before our very eyes during the late summer months of 2008. Although their record might not indicate it, the R-Phils are loaded with potential major league talent, and it would behoove Phillie phanatics to keep more than a casual eye on the talent currently being gleaned on this team.

When reigning National League Most Valuable Player shortstop Jimmy Rollins went down with a nagging hamstring injury, the Phils called up an Australian infielder named Brad Harman from Reading. Harman is a nice enough player, solid fundamentally, and with some pop in his bat. The experience did him good and he can be expected to someday vie for a spot on the Phillie roster as a utility infielder.

What wasn't so well known was that Harman was no more than about the eighth or ninth best prospect available when the call up occurred. Eighth or ninth, not in the entire organization, but from within the ranks of the Reading Phillie club itself. The Phils, rightfully so, felt that since Eric Bruntlett would get the yeoman's share of work at shortstop until Rollins returned, it would make more sense to recall a player like Harman, who could benefit from the major league experience but would not necessarily have his development slowed by the sudden decrease in game day play.

Indeed, a careful study of the current Reading roster indicates that although Harman is still highly regarded within the organization, and acquitted himself well in his brief appearance, a strong case can be made that he would rank no higher than tenth on the prospect list on this club. And it is here, at Reading, that the Phillies might well find their bonanza of front line cavalry to not just hold the fort, but instead to capture the high ground and win the tough National League Eastern Division.

Ordinary phans may well not recognize the names of such potential luminaries as Greg Golson, James Donald, Lou Marson, Josh Outman, Fabio Castro, Andrew Carpenter, Carlos Carrasco or Antonio Bastardo, but major league scouts are aware of the talent and fully expect a few of them to make their mark at Citizens Bank Park this season.

Retiring Phillie GM Pat Gillick has continually made it known during the first trimester of the '08 season of his desire to find another left-handed reliever to augment the talents of J.C. Romero, at present the only southpaw in the team's bullpen. Normal wisdom would assume that Gillick is now scouring the rosters of other major league teams in hopes of acquiring a lefty to assist the stances of Romero.

With nearly two months still available before the July 31 trading deadline, Gillick could still find himself a trading partner and acquire a southpaw like Brian Fuentes from Colorado, Scott Schoeneweis of the New York Mets or even Damaso Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, Gillick has another plan, one that could well reap large benefits both for this year and for years to come should said plans come to fruition.

To wit, Gillick has turned erstwhile lefty starting pitchers Josh Outman and Fabio Castro into relievers and if the early results haven't offered concrete proof of the validity of the plan, the Phillie GM is prepared to be patient. He understands the mentality difference between starting a game every fifth day or so and coming into a game at a moments notice to end a rally or keep a game close.

Josh Outman has always been one of the team's top pitching prospects and was widely considered to be among the most advanced of the minor league hurlers after compiling a 12-7 record last year at Clearwater and Reading. He opened the '08 season in the Reading rotation but when it became apparent that the big club might be short a lefty in the bullpen it was decided to see if Outman could be the out-man needed to assist the Phillie pennant quest.

In all, the stylish lefty has pitched in 14 games, nine of which have been out of the bullpen and the jury is still out, though the results have been for the most part promising. His 1-2 record and 3.51 ERA belies the strong stuff that has resulted in 45 strikeouts in a mere 42 innings pitched.

Fabio Castro is all that is left of the Jim Thome deal to Chicago nearly three years ago. Since then, Aaron Rowand, Giovanni Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood have all come and gone while Castro arrived in the Haigwood deal with Texas. He has always had electric stuff, and his 4-0 record indicates a propensity for knowing how to pitch well enough to win.

What is not yet know is if he has the control required of a middle inning relief pitcher. In 41 innings pitched so far in 2008, he has struck out 39 batters but has walked an alarming 26 hitters. Ultimately, it will be his control and not his lack of stuff that will determine whether or not he can pitch in Philadelphia this season.

Philadelphia scouts have been watching the efforts of top prospect Carlos Carrasco with extreme interest lately and they have to be pleased with the recent results. The Phillies still look a starting pitcher short and Carrasco could become this years Kyle Kendrick surprise should he continue to hurl as he has recently.

The 21 year old righty with the outstanding arm has a solid 3.10 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched while fashioning a 4-4 record. Even more impressive is his 23 bases on balls allowed and the fact that he has begun to stretch himself out this month after starting a bit slowly in April. The Phils admittedly would like Carrasco to finish the year in Double-A and advance to Triple-A next year but after the mercurial success of Kendrick last year after his call up from Reading, the team is convinced that lightning can and will strike twice given similar circumstance.

There seems little coincidence to the fact that both righty Adam Eaton of the Phillies and lefty Antonio Bastardo of Reading are currently starting pitchers on the same night. The Phightins' are privately alarmed at Eaton's complete inability to win a game, with the current streak stretching to nearly ten months since his last win.

Conversely, they are privately ecstatic about the progress of the smallish Bastardo, a lefty who has shot through the system with comet like speed and is perhaps two or three dominant minor league starts from replacing Eaton in the Phillie rotation. Heady stuff indeed for a hurler who was almost completely unknown at this time last year but parlayed a 10-0 record at Lakewood and Clearwater into his current mega prospect status.

Admittedly, he has come down to earth a bit at Reading after starting with yet two more wins at Clearwater to open the '08 campaign. Still, his 4-2 record and 2.30 ERA in 59 innings pitched has been punctuated by a startling 69 strikeouts along the way. There are many in baseball who doubt the wisdom of having three lefties in a five man starting rotation and should Bastardo join the major league club, he would stand alongside fellow lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer in the Phillie rotation.

This seems to matter little if at all to Gillick and Company as they are eager to see how much progress Bastardo makes during the next few starts. If he continues to impress, he might just be the second Reading player [behind Harman] who joins the Phillie legions this season. Stay tuned.

Perhaps the most disappointing of the R-Phillie prospects to date has been huge righty hurler, Andrew Carpenter. It should be recalled that it was the very same Carpenter who turned everyone's heads this spring with a brilliant four inning exhibition league performance against the vaunted New York Yankee lineup. It was on that day that talk of a Carpenter debut in PhillieLand soon became more than just idle gossip. Unfortunately, such talk probably did more harm than good to the educational process of Carpenter and he seems to be paying the price for such elevated expectations. After leading all minor league hurlers with 19 wins [including the playoffs] last year, the hulking righty has been quite pedestrian like with a 2-6 record and an alarming 6.18 ERA.

There have been whispers of injury issues, not necessarily to the arm, but to other parts of his body, but so far Carpenter has denied that any injuries exist. He merely feels that he has been trying to be too fine with his pitches, not surprising considering his average at best 89-91 MPH fastball. Most scouts believe he just needs to trust his stuff more and that eventually the positive results will follow. Still, for now, Carpenter appears the least likely candidate for a quick recall to Philadelphia any time soon.

Catchers Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste have so far adequately manned the backstop position in Philadelphia and because of that there seems no reason to rush the advancement of catcher Lou Marson at this time. Still, it is merely a matter of time before the strapping 6'1", 200 pounder replaces both Ruiz and Coste as the starting catcher with the Phils. Yes, he is that good.

So good in fact that he has quietly leapfrogged above Lehigh Valley catcher, Jason Jaramillo, in the club's future plans. Jaramillo, who could also make his major league debut at some point this year, has started slowly with the moribund IronPigs and has only recently displayed the offensive and defensive prowess that once made him the heir apparent in Philadelphia.

That coronation has now been given to Marson, a former high school standout, who is batting an eye popping .345 with an equally impressive 31 RBI in 41 games. The Phillies fully expect Marson to eventually develop solid power pop to his game, but even if he only closely resembles a Jason Varitek type hitter in the future, his glove work behind the plate will make him a mainstay in the team's lineup.

Much like Carpenter, but for obviously different reasons, Lou Marson is unlikely to get a call up any time soon, even should either Ruiz or Coste go down to injury. Logic dictates that Jaramillo is still one up on the pecking order, if not in the prospect charts, and would undoubtedly get the first call to arms. However, watch for Marson to get very special treatment next spring in advance of his almost certain curtain call to the big leagues in 2009.

Brad Harman was the choice but Jason Donald was more deserving of a call-up when Jimmy Rollins suffered his leg injury in April. The problem was that Donald, the former third round draft pick from Arizona University in 2006, was also injured and could not answer the call. No matter. He has quietly returned to action and is currently hitting .302 with 3 home runs and 22 RBI in 37 games. Donald is playing third base, a position that might well be his calling card should he develop stronger power at the plate down the line. Otherwise, he projects as a very solid utility infielder with adequate gap power and a strong accurate arm, if not the great range usually desired in a middle infielder. He would be the next player called up should middle infield help be necessary this summer.

It began with quiet whispers and then all too knowing glances and nods. It has quickly turned into a lively shout and could soon reach crescendo like status should outfielder Greg Golson continue his exciting ride to the heights of baseball minor league stardom this summer.

The speedy Golson has always been an enigma wrapped inside a question mark since he became the Phillies' number one draft choice in the 2004 June Amateur Draft. Highly recruited by collegiate baseball power, the University of Texas, Golson instead chose to sign a 1.475 million dollar deal after high school and begin what he hoped would be an uninterrupted vault to the major leagues.

The lithe right-handed hitter did nothing to help his cause when he confidently predicted he might just make the major league by the end of 2006. This was not only irrational youth speaking, but also a profound lack of understanding of just what he needed to do to make it to his proclaimed goal of the big leagues. Truth be told, Greg Golson never completely failed in any league he performed in but there were enough hiccups along the way to make many long time Phillie phans rue the day that he was drafted by their favorite team. Comparisons to past failed Phillie high school outfielders like Jeff Jackson and Reggie Taylor only added to the pressure that he was undoubtedly feeling though careful analysis revealed that Golson was never going to suffer any of the same misfortunes that befell both Jackson and Taylor.

Jeff Jackson was an unlikely top draft pick, who parlayed one solid high school senior year in Chicago to a first round selection. At the time, many scouts were quite skeptical of his long range potential and to call him a complete washout would not be completely unkind. He was gone within just a few years after his minor league debut.

Reggie Taylor was more athlete than baseball player coming out of South Carolina and never even had collegiate aspirations, much less high level college scholarship offers to contemplate. In reality, he performed about as well as could be expected and even made it to the major leagues for more than just a small cup of coffee. In fact, Phillie historians may just recall that summer night when Taylor, then playing for Cincinnati, completely dominated the Phils to the tune of three hits, four stolen bases and several runs batted in. Still, this was more pipe dream than reality for the likable outfielder and he was never able to sustain that level of play over any concerted time period.

Not so Greg Golson, and if there is any one player within the team's minor league system that will jump start the major league team to elite status in 2008 it might well be the 6'0", 190 pound center fielder from Texas. Yes, he is playing that well and might just be that good!

No less an expert than deceased former Phillie minor league talent scout guru, Larry Rojas, fairly gushed upon seeing the skills of the then teenage Golson. Not known for hyperbole, and completely oblivious to his teams pronounced preferences, Rojas called Greg Golson one of the five best players he had ever seen come through the team's organization. In his over 40 years with the team, only Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen and Pat Burrell had ever received the praise that he bestowed upon the five tool youngster from Austin, Texas. In fact, he called Golson a "young Frank Robinson in the making" and should those prophetic words soon come true, the Phillie lineup might well advance from super charged to mega charged. This season, the right-handed hitting outfielder is batting a cool .325 in 47 games with 35 runs scored, 62 hits, 10 doubles, 2 triples, 6 home runs and 16 stolen bases. He still strikes out far too much and walks far too little but now that he has been moved to the middle of the order from the leadoff spot it hardly matters.

The talk in Philadelphia is of moving Victorino back to right field should Golson get the call with Geoff Jenkins assisting Pat Burrell in left field and Jayson Werth vying for time as time permits. There is also talk of using Victorino as a potential trade fodder to acquire a top of the rotation starting pitcher but this seems more wishful thinking than reality based. Victorino adds two dimensions to the club that would be hard to replace, a solid defensive glove in the outfield and dashing speed on the base paths. Still, when Manager Charlie Manuel mused this week about how much he missed the speed and defense of departed outfielder Michael Bourn, it was seen by many as more a call for Golson than a cry of regret at moving Bourn in the deal for closer Brad Lidge from Houston. The Phils will be patient in their dealings with Greg Golson but should he continue to feast on Double-A pitching, his debut in Philadelphia cannot be far away.

The mere fact that much needed help might be only be a phone call away represents tangible progress within the Phillie organization. For far too long, phans lamented the lack of potential impact players within the system. A gentleman named Alfred North Whitehead once observed that "the art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order." It would seem a goal that the team is finally up to the task of upholding.

Oh, history indicates that a deal for the likes of a Ben Sheets or Derek Lowe could still take place. Wisdom allows for the possibility that the Phillies will eventually find a bullpen arm that they find appealing or a standout fly chaser to join the ranks of the roster. Yet, if cooler heads prevail, and the rising storm of standout performances continue to emanate out of Reading, Pennsylvania, it would seem far more likely that the added strength will come not from outer forces but rather from...internal combustion.

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



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