befits a team that has World Series aspirations, the 2004 Phils have the look of
a complete team. Oh, a case can be made for a bench player here or there, and
that nagging doubt about David Bell’s back still exists, but on the whole,
Spring will be a time to get in shape and stay free of injuries. Except for one spot, a single and
seemingly insignificant 11th spot on an 11 man pitching
Not exactly front-page fodder for local columnists, but to five
candidates, that single spot looms large in their hopes and dreams, and may well
determine the difference between a Phils playoff birth and another also ran
season as a playoff pretender. In particular, the future of righties Josh Hancock, Ryan Madson, Eric Junge, Geoff Geary and lefty Bud Smith will be one of
the central themes to an otherwise routine Spring in Clearwater for Manager
Larry Bowa and his talented group of Phillie nine.
one concedes that this year’s team will be constituted with 14 position players
and 11 pitchers, it seems obvious that 10 spots on the staff are locked up and
one solitary spot remains. With starters Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Eric Milton, Brett Myers and relievers Billy Wagner, Rheal Cormier,
Todd Worrell, Roberto Hernandez and Amaury Telemaco almost certain to head north
with the team barring injury, five pitchers will battle for one
Although the Phils have talked about bringing in a few veteran
free agents and unlikely candidates Victor Alvarez or Jim Crowell could still
emerge, it is likely that the final name on the 25-man roster will feature one
of the five youngsters. Who among
them is likely to emerge as the favorite?
Which hurler would seem to most closely fit the requirements of a pitcher
that Bowa will be looking for to fill that 11th spot on the
staff? Here is a brief overview of
each of the candidates and where they are likely to wind up as March turns to
Without a doubt, the most talented pitcher of the five is
23-year-old Ryan Madson. Drafted by the Phillies as a 9th round pick
out of high school in 1998, Madson has made wonderful strides through the system
during past six seasons, with highlight years of 14-5 in 2000, 16-4 in ’02 and
12-8 in ’03. Most Phillie prospect
lists include Madson as no worse than the fourth best prospect in the
Yet it is highly unlikely that he will make the squad in April
because his success at the minor league level has been accomplished as a
starting pitcher, and he has no experience in relief. Although he made a very
impressive final weekend appearance in relief against the Braves, the truth is
that the Phils value him too highly to give him sporadic work in blowout games
at the big league level.
Watch for him to return to SWB in triple A as a
starting pitcher, but don’t be surprised if he is the first pitcher called up
should injury strike one of the five starting pitchers. He is talented enough that had Millwood
departed via free agency in December, Madson would be preparing to open the
season as Philadelphia’s fifth starting pitcher.
One more thing to watch
for with Madson…he is often referred to as having a “bulldog” mentality, and it
would surprise few Phillie-watchers if somewhere down the line he were converted
to a closer. His repertoire of
pitches and closer mentality may just be what the Phils need to finish off a
staff expected to feature young guns Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd in the not too
For this year, pencil Madson to open the season at the
Triple A level, but if he stays healthy, will be pitching at Citizens Bank Park
sometime this summer. When he
finally makes it to the majors, expect a long and successful stay at the big
league level, he is a keeper!
young gun who will get a long look-see this spring is Josh Hancock, a 26 year
old righty acquired from Boston a year ago. Much like Madson, his background is
as a starting pitcher, and this may make him a long shot to emerge as the final
relief pitcher on the staff.
Hancock arrived on the professional scene in 1998 as a
5th round high school pick with the Red Sox. Groomed as a starter in the Sox
organization, he caught the eye of Joe Kerrigan when he worked in Boston. After
joining the Phils as the pitching coach, Kerrigan recommended Hancock as the
pitcher of acquisition when former Phil, Jeremy Giambi, was traded to
Kerrigan remembered that Hancock had made a late season start for
Boston in 2002 and impressed everyone with his mound presence. He justified
Kerrigan’s faith last year at SWB with a solid 10-9 season and a late call up to
Philadelphia. Blessed with three
major league pitches, Hancock projects as a middle of the rotation starter,
either with the Phillies or with another club.
Much like Madson, his
forte has been in the starting rotation, and unless he dazzles the Phils with a
“lights out” spring, he will no doubt join Madson as an anchor in what is
expected to be a very strong pitching staff at SWB.
Look for Hancock to
be a starter in Triple A, with a possible late season promotion to Philadelphia
if he has a strong season. However, his long term prospects with the Phils is
problematical as the sheer number of Phillie pitching prospects on the horizon
may preclude him from ever reaching his potential in Philadelphia. He may be
best served in a future trade for a young position player.
organizational favorite, 27 year old Eric Junge will make the club if he shows
that his arm is again healthy and he displays the ability to throw strikes in
spring training. Junge is a rare
Phillie player, the only Ed Wade trade acquisition over the years with
absolutely no major league experience.
Since Wade became the Phil’s
General Manager in December of 1997, he has made no secret of his affection for
“major league ready” players. Always a careful and cautious man when it comes to
making trades, he has always preferred to bring in players with some major
This alone makes Junge unique, as he was acquired from
the Los Angeles Dodgers for veteran pitcher Omar Daal while still a Double A
prospect in 2001. He seemed to
justify Wade’s faith as he procured a fine 12-6 record in Triple A during the
’02 season into a late season debut with the Phils in 2002. His performance was
quite impressive, as his 2-0 record would attest.
Unfortunately, after a
few appearances with the Phils last April, he suffered an arm injury, which
finished his season prematurely.
Reports are encouraging this year on his health, and if he can show that
he is healthy, he presents Bowa with the perfect choice to hold down the final
spot on the staff.
Junge has already shown an ability to start or
relieve, and has demonstrated that he can pitch often, and with solid
results. Watch for him to receive
many opportunities to pitch early in the spring, and if he does well, he is the
odds on favorite to win the final birth.
If, however, he shows any rust from his forced inactivity last year, he
will go back to SWB and hone his skills for a summer recall. Barring any unforeseen recurrence of arm
woes, Junge will pitch at Citizens Bank Park sometime this summer, and with
probable good results.
This writer has been touting Geoff Geary’s skills
for years, and it appears that his tenacity, and resiliency may finally pay of
for this slightly built right-hander.
Indeed, no pitcher has displayed more versatility or a greater ability to
win big games at the minor league level than has Geary. This year may finally be
his breakthrough campaign.
Drafted in the 15th round after a highly successful
collegiate career at the University of Oklahoma, Geary has been equally
successful as a professional hurler.
Unfortunately, he has often been overlooked due to his slight frame and
mediocre fastball. At barely 6’ in
height, Geary rarely exhibits the dominant mound presence of a Ryan Madson or
Gavin Floyd, two hurlers of impressive height at over 6’4”.
This lack of
physical stature has hindered Geary’s development in the eyes of Phillie scouts
though his resume includes records like 9-1, 10-5, 9-4 with 5 saves, and 3
playoff victories in an organization that has had far too few minor league
playoff successes. This ability to win when it counts speaks well for Geary’s
tenacity on the mound, and he will need this and more to impress a Phillie brass
that seems to lack confidence in the young righty.
Perhaps his biggest
booster in Phillie advisor, Dallas Green, who raved about Geary as far back as
his rookie year in 1998. Never
blessed with a 95 MPH fastball, he has relied on a real knowledge of pitching,
and great control to blossom into a solid relief pitcher after beginning his
career as a starter.
If Geary has one advantage, it is the ability to
pitch often, and throw strikes with impunity. Bowa and Kerrigan value relievers who
can be counted on to keep the ball in play, and it is this valuable trait than
may win the day for Geary. Much like Junge, he will be pitched early and often
in the spring to determine his potential chances of cracking the
Unlike the other candidates, he is not likely to remain in the
Phillie organization if he does not make the club out of spring training. At 27
years of age, and with six complete seasons in the organization, Geary is not
likely to benefit from any further minor league seasoning. The chances are
excellent that if he does not make the major league squad, he will either be
traded or waived. He is likely too
talented to pitch another year at SWB, and not talented enough to withstand the
future wave of Phillie phenoms like Hamels, Madson, Floyd and Elizardo
This may become his make or break Spring with the Phils, so
everyone who has followed Geary’s slow but steady progress through the minor
leagues, will be rooting for him in Clearwater come March.
solid trivia question for Phillie followers would be to name the three Phillie
pitchers who have tossed no-hitters at the major league level. Certainly, any fanatic would remember
Millwood’s masterpiece last April against the San Francisco Giants, and many
would recall reading about Milton’s no-no against the Angels a few summers ago
more than a few would struggle to name the third hurler, though his eventual
success or failure may ultimately dictate how baseball analysts view the Scott
Rolen trade. When Rolen was swapped
to the Cards in the summer of ’02, most Phillie pundits acknowledged the key to
the whole deal was young lefty Bud Smith.
Indeed, Smith’s resume is very
impressive and the Phils felt they were acquiring a pitcher who would
immediately move into their starting rotation. Not yet 25 years of age, Smith
holds a no-hitter against the Padres and a playoff victory against the Braves to
his credits. He is only a few years removed from a 17-2 season at the minor
league level, when he ran neck and neck with phenom Rick Ankiel for best lefty
hurler in the organization.
Amazingly, Smith came from the same draft
class as Madson, Geary and Hancock, the class of ’98. Drafted in the 4th round
after a sterling high school career, Smith’s ascent into the big leagues was
swift and successful. By the year 2000, he was in the Cards rotation, tossed a
no-hitter at San Diego, and defeated the Braves in a crucial playoff game. He
finished the ’01 season with a 6-3 record at the major league level and appeared
on his way to stardom.
strange thing happened to Smith on his way to fame and fortune, a combination of
too little off-season training and a doctor who probably didn’t understand the
severity of Smith’s arm discomfort the following spring. Regardless of the
cause, the effect was a 1-5 start to the 2002 season, and a surprising mid-July
trade. Along with Placido Polanco and Mike Timlin, he was dealt to the Phils for
the recalcitrant Rolen and the Phils hailed Smith as potential top of the line
No sooner had Smith joined the Phils that they knew
something was wrong, and it turned out to be much more serious than first
thought. Two surgeries later, Smith is throwing free and easy in Clearwater, and
stands a good chance of making the club… if he remains healthy.
the key to his chances as he has two other things in his favor if it should come
down to Smith or another hurler. He remains the potential wildcard in the Rolen
trade, the player that could someday tip the balance at least a bit in favor of
Philadelphia. Indeed, the Cards are more than happy with Rolen’s production and
the Phillies are equally pleased with Polanco’s contributions.
the most valuable of commodities, a left-hander with youth and skill at his
disposal, and the Phils are ill prepared to lose him. Yet lose him they will if
he fails to make the squad, as his early age success has made him a pitcher
without options, literally! He
cannot be optioned to the minor leagues without first passing through waivers,
and it is a certainty that he would be claimed by a team looking for a lefty
with potential, talent and past major league success.
As a potential
lefty replacement for retired Dan Plesac, he would give the Phils solid
lefty-righty balance as a partner with Cormier. Combined with the righty stances
of Worrell, Hernandez and Telemaco, he could provide the Phils with a strong
bridge from the starters to the flame-throwing closer, Billy Wagner.
a close eye on Smith this spring. Perhaps no pitcher of question offers the team
a bigger upside than the lefty with fragile yet golden left arm. If he fails to make the club, watch for
the Phils to place him on the disabled list, along with Dave Coggin. They
understand his value to the team, and if that value does not pay off in April,
he could prove worthy of a spot on the team later in the season.
cry of “Play Ball” beckons, and Phillie fans welcome the slants of Millwood and
Wolf, and the swings of Thome and Burrell, another battle looms. It’s a battle
that will take on added significance during the dog days of August, when the
starters are tired, and the relievers a bit overworked.
Then, and only
then, will a decision that seems insignificant in March take on added importance
in August. As Madson, Hancock, Junge, Geary and Smith prepare for their most
important Spring, Phillie fans should remember the past exploits of hurlers like
Ray Culp, Ben Rivera, and Vicente Padilla. Long shots to contribute more than
mop up innings, all three proved much more than that. It is hoped that history repeats, and
the last shall be first, a hope that could make the Phils ride to a NL East
title a less bumpy one in 2004.
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