CD's Connect the Dots... Five Strive To Stay Alive

Will Ryan Madson be the final piece of the 'pen?

No matter how settled teams are as Spring Training approaches, there is always the element of surprise that excites us all. The rookie who comes out of nowhere, the failed prospect who suddenly puts it all together, the young veteran who finally discovers his potential, these are what we live for in the Spring. A glance at the Philadelphia Phil's roster reveals one opening for a pitcher who might just fit into this category. Lets examine five candidates who will strive to stay alive.

As 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 staff.

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.


If 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 opening.

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 April.

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 system.

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 distant future.

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!

 

Another 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 Boston.

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.

A Phillie 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 league experience.

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 staff.

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 Ramirez.

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. 


A 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 in Minnesota.

Yet 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.

Yet a 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 starting pitcher.

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.

Health is 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.

Smith is 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.

Keep 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.

As the 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.

Columnist's Note:  I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond!  CD from the Left Coast

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