Could Escalona Escalate to the Majors?

The Phillies are searching for a way to cover the absence of left-hander J.C. Romero in the bullpen. Could they find the answer by using a technique that they've used a couple of times in the past?

In recent years, the Phillies really haven't been shy to promote young players to fill a need on the major league roster. Last season, Brad Harman, early in his first season at Double-A, got the call when Jimmy Rollins went on the DL. In 2007, it was Kyle Kendrick, also in his first season at Double-A, who got a call to fill a spot in the rotation and ended up starting 20 games for the Phillies. Mike Zagurski also made the jump from Double-A Reading in 2007 even though he had pitched just seven innings for Reading in his first season above High-A ball.

So, is there a candidate to make a jump this spring to fill a "temporary" hole in the Phillies bullpen? The hole was created when left-hander J.C. Romero received a 50 game suspension from Major League Baseball for testing positive for a banned substance during the 2008 season.

One name to watch as pitchers and catchers assemble in Clearwater this weekend is Sergio Escalona. Yes, he's a left-hander and yes, he's only pitched at the Double-A level for a short time (24 1/3 innings last season), so he would seem to have the resume to fill Romero's spot. Like many of the aforementioned "fill-ins", Escalona had success at Reading after arriving there last season following an impressive stint at Low-A Lakewood. With the BlueClaws, Escalona was 5-1, 3.43 in 28 relief appearances, covering 44 1/3 innings of work. He had walked 18 hitters and struck out an impressive 60 batters in the South Atlantic League. Once he arrived in Reading, he actually got better, posting a 2.22 ERA in 15 games covering 24 1/3 innings of work. While he did find Eastern League hitters to be a little more discerning at the plate, which led to 14 walks, he was able to strike out 29 hitters in his stint with the R-Phils.

Right now, Escalona works primarily off of his fastball and curve, both of which are deceptive pitches. To watch him pitch, it's almost surprising when you look at the radar numbers after his fastball has arrived at the plate. He's generally in the low-90s, but his fastball doesn't look to be that fast and often catches hitters off guard. Then, when he mixes in his curve, which has good movement and is also deceptive during its flight to the hitter, Escalona generally has little trouble getting hitters out at the plate. His curve is the pitch that helped him to skip over Clearwater and jump directly to Reading, because it's developed well enough that the Phillies felt comfortable enough to believe he could get Double-A hitters out. Some will lay off the pitch and when Escalona doesn't have pinpoint control, he will walk a few hitters, but those times don't come too often. 

Initially, the Phillies looked at Escalona as a starter and when they brought him to the states from Venezuela, they put him in that role, but the results were pretty bad. In 15 starts in 2007, he posted a 5.37 ERA and went 3-6 at three different levels. The Phillies decided to put him in the bullpen at Lakewood in 2008 and the results turned out much better. It was a little surprising, because Escalona had good numbers as a starter in the Venezuelan Summer League, but pitching in that role in the states proved to be much more difficult of a task for the left-hander.

For now, Escalona would project primarily as one of those ever-popular left-handed specialists - which is the type of pitcher the Phillies are looking for to fill Romero's shoes - but if his change-up continues to develop, it has the potential to be a pitch that he'll be able to get right-handers out with as well. The potential of his change-up could determine whether the Phillies give him another shot at becoming a starter, but that idea is solidly on the back burner for now, especially since there are enough solid starting pitchers coming through the ranks of the Phillies minor league system.

Officially, Escalona isn't in the mix to join the Phillies bullpen. GM Ruben Amaro is looking for help among the remaining free agents, shopping for names like Will Ohman and Joe Beimel. Beimel was being courted by the Rockies, but those talks have reportedly broken off and Ohman hasn't gotten very far in his discussions with his old team, the Atlanta Braves. The problem with adding a veteran left-hander is that this opening is supposed to be a temporary one, remember? When Romero returns on June 1, the Phillies would then have him joining the new veteran and Scott Eyre as left-handers in the bullpen, making the pen almost 50-percent left-handed. While it's not the worst thing in the world, it may be a little heavy on left-handers. If the hole-filler were a young prospect who could hold down the fort for two months, he could just be optioned back to whatever level the Phillies feel would be appropriate.

It remains to be seen if Escalona truly would be ready and able to fill in for Romero, even if it were for just two months. After all, some of his peripheral numbers are still a little shaky and the jump would admittedly be a big one for him to make. The others who have been asked to take these jumps - especially the pitchers - have generally fared well and at least provided the Phillies with a warm body to run out there when needed. It would be an interesting challenge and one that the 24 year old Escalona might be up to prove himself worthy of. In the end, it will probably come down to just a couple of things. First, do the Phillies minor league people believe that Escalona has the mental makeup to handle not only jumping to the majors, but bouncing back if the on-the-job training doesn't go well? And second, do the Phillies even trust pushing Escalona enough this spring to run him out there against quality major league hitters to potentially prove himself able to hold his own?

There is still time for the Phillies to sign a veteran left-hander, so perhaps the question will become moot even before everybody is in camp. If they don't sign a veteran, there's always J.A. Happ to fall back on, but he is a starter and ideally, should be kept in that role even if it's at the Triple-A level. Of course, Happ will be in the mix for the fifth starter's job with the Phillies and he pitched well for the club down the stretch last season. If all else fails though, the Phillies just might return to a plan that's worked pretty well in the past and give Escalona a shot at being a member of the Phillies bullpen. And who knows, maybe it won't be on just a "temporary" basis.

Sergio Escalona's career stats

2007 Williamsport 2 2 7.57 0 7 7 27.1 32 26 23 2 19 26 1.87 .302
2007 Lakewood 1 4 4.15 0 7 7 39.0 51 25 18 4 11 32 1.59 .321
2007 Clearwater 0 0 2.25 0 1 1 4.0 8 1 1 0 2 4 2.50 .444
2008 Lakewood 5 1 3.43 2 28 0 44.2 36 18 17 1 18 60 1.21 .224
2008 Reading 0 1 2.22 1 15 0 24.1 27 12 6 3 14 29 1.68 .281
TOTALS 8 8 4.20 3 58 15 139.1 154 82 65 10 64 151 1.56 .260

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