It has been well-documented in this space of the stripping of a once deep Phillie farm system due to more than a few ill-advised trade deadline deals. No less than six top prospects were traded in last July’s attempt to obtain relief help, to no avail. Add to that the trading of prospects like Taylor Buchholtz, Ezequiel Astacio, Nick Punto, Carlos Silva and Bobby Korecki in last winter’s swaps for pitchers Billy Wagner and Eric Milton and the Phil’s system has taken a major hit.
Nevertheless, the team does have an opportunity to reestablish its system as a deep and vibrant one if five players at the crossroads due to injury make successful comebacks in 2005. These players are pitchers Cole Hamels and Zack Segovia and infielders Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher. Each of these players has the talent to not only make the big leagues, but have some impact in Philadelphia.
By the same token, each has enough significant risk to make 2005 the proverbial “crossroads” period in their careers. If healthy, motivated and fortunate each could once again establish themselves as top Phillie prospects. On the other hand, each is faced with the possibility of falling off the radar screen and into the despair that forever marks failed top prospects. Let’s examine each of them individually and assess their chances of “glory or despair.”
In the entire Philadelphia organization there is but one pitcher who qualifies as a proverbial ace or number one starter. This pitcher is Cole Hamels, and baseball scouts are unanimous in their praise of his talent and potential. Hamels is but one year removed from being the Baseball America “Minor League Pitcher of the Year” and was widely considered as one of the top five prospects in baseball entering the 2004 campaign.
Yet Hamels has a potential Achilles Heal, and that is a left arm that has suffered far too many injuries for one so young. It was Hamels who rebounded from a broken left arm to wow scouts with a brilliant senior year at Rancho Bernardo High School. Still, many teams were concerned enough to pass Hamels and draft lesser talent in the 2002 Amateur Draft.
Not so the Phils, who were comfortable enough with his health to make him their first round choice with pick number seventeen. Hamels seemed to repay their faith with a sterling rookie season in 2003,with numbers like a 6-1 record and a microscopic 0.84 ERA in Lakewood. If ever a player seemed on the fast track to the big leagues, it was Hamels.
However, elbow woes bedeviled him this entire past season, and he ended up pitching only 16 innings in Clearwater before being shut down for the year. The elbow pain was said to be minor, but Phillie history is littered with pitchers who were said to have minor arm problems. Visions of Brad Brink, Tyler Green, Pat Combs and Marty Bystrom are more than enough to cause a Phillie fan cause for pause.
Hamels did pitch in the Florida Instructional League this winter and seemed to be throwing free and easy. Still, he has yet to pitch an entire season without an arm injury, and this year is pivotal in his development. Not only must he reestablish his dominance on the hill, but begin to justify the huge bonus he was given.
Next winter, the Phils will be faced with a decision that should be an easy one. Hamels will be required to be placed on the 40 man roster or risk being selected by another team in the Rule 5 Draft. Logic dictates that this is a simple choice, and Hamels will make the roster. A solid year that culminates with him reaching Reading in Double A will make that choice so much the easier. Hamels awaits his destination at the crossroads.
If the Phils were jubilant at the prospect of selecting Hamels as their number one pick in ’02, they were equally pleased to pluck fellow high school mega prospect Zack Segovia with their second round choice. The team felt they had just selected two young hurlers who might help bulwark a pitching staff for the next ten years. If Hamels was seen as an “ace-in-waiting”, then Segovia was seen as a bulldog closer that would save many of Hamel’s masterpieces.
Segovia’s rookie season in ’02 was nothing short of dominating as he helped a talented GCL rookie team to a championship. Not only did he post a sparkling 2.10 ERA but held opposing hitters to a miniscule .173 batting average. Much like Hamels, he seemed on the fast track. Much like Hamels, he was derailed by arm problems. Unlike Hamels, his injury was deemed serious enough to warrant major arm surgery.
After missing the entire ’04 season while recovering form surgery, Segovia has reported no problems and was throwing free and easy in Clearwater this winter. History is replete with many hurlers who rebounded from similar surgery and went on to successful careers. The Phillie organization expects Segovia to regain his former ability and open the year in Clearwater.
Segovia will begin the ’05 season as a 22 year old hurler, still young enough to make his mark. However, he is another player burdened with the responsibility of earning his spot on the 40 man roster, and if he suffers a shoulder injury relapse this year his career may well be over at a still tender age. He joins fellow hurler and friend Hamels “at the crossroads.”
When you hear the words “minor league slugger” and “Phillies” in the same sentence, it is impossible not to conjure up an image of young Ryan Howard, he of the 48 homerun season. Indeed, this term is well-deserved by Howard after his breakout campaign. However, more than one Phillie scout will say that it would not be a reach to insert the name Juan Richardson in Howard’s place without batting an eye.
Few Phillie faithful are unfamiliar with the exploits of Howard, yet more than a few would cast a questioning glance if asked about Richardson. Truth be told, he was the reigning “minor league slugger” in the Philadelphia organization until injury and Howard’s breakout campaign changed the equation.
A careful study of Eastern League leaders in June of 2003 would have revealed a young third baseman at Reading with a lead leading 15 homeruns in but 65 games. This player was on pace for a 40 homerun season and an All-Star birth in the EL. This player was on pace for a major league birth at Citizens Bank Park no later than 2005. This player was Juan Richardson.
Since that fateful mid-June period, Richardson has suffered shoulder and leg injuries that are only now fully healed. To his credit, he did attempt to play the final two months of the ’04 season, and even hit 5 homeruns in only 71 at bats at Reading. The Phils profess to have confidence in his ability to regain his power stroke and still maintain he will someday take over the hot corner position from David Bell.
Optimists envision an eventual lineup with power hitters like Pat Burrell, Jake Blalock, Howard and Richardson to terrorize NL East hurlers. Pessimists say that at 25 years of age, Richardson is already too old and brittle to ever be more than a bit minor league hero.
Ultimately, the end result will not be decided by either the optimists or the pessimists but by Richardson himself and his choice of paths taken… at the crossroads.
Talk of the best pure hitter in the entire Phillie minor league system and one name stands out almost in unanimous unison. That player is smooth swinging Kiel Fisher, an unknown gem if ever the organization had one. It seems that Fisher has spent as much time in injury rehab as he has on the field and this has led to a career crisis in 2005.
Few remember his wonderful ’03 season when he not only hit a solid .323 in the GCL but raised the bar even higher with a sterling .340 average at Batavia. Fisher seemed a hitter without a weakness and Phillie faithful were not felt to be exaggerating when they discussed the team’s third base riches with Richardson and Fisher in tow.
More than a few fanatics were waxing poetic at the team’s seeming riches at this spot with future homerun hitter Richardson and batting artist Fisher vying for a starting spot someday. Someday became a bit fuzzier after Richardson hurt his shoulder and Fisher injured his back last spring and both were quickly placed on the disabled list.
If Richardson at least allayed some fears with an attempted comeback last summer, this was not to be the case for Fisher. He spent the entire season on the disabled list and must now show that his back injury is a thing of the past. Baseball buffs know the unpredictability of a back injury and Fisher has gone from exclamation mark to question mark.
A healthy Fisher opens the year at Lakewood as a candidate for the South Atlantic League batting title. A healthy Fisher jump starts his career as a player to watch in the coming years, a sweet swinging power hitter of the rarest kind. An unhealthy Fisher faces another year of inactivity and uncertainty…a possible walk into minor league oblivion. Fisher begins his path walk in the spring… at the crossroads.
If Richardson represents power and Fisher represents style then fellow infielder Terry Jones stands for grace…surely the best athlete in the Phillie system. A standout high school basketball player from Northern California, the Phils always considered it quite a coup that they signed Jones from the clutches of the University of California as a fourth round pick in 2001.
The Phils thought enough of Jones to offer him second round money and liked his progress enough to ask manager Mike Schmidt to make Jones his special project last season at Clearwater. Alas, Schmidt failed to get the opportunity as Jones broke his foot in the spring, and spent most of the summer incapacitated and unhappy.
Oh, Jones did eventually return to action and even played more than a handful of games for Schmidt’s Clearwater team last August. Yet no one claimed that the Jones who hit .204 with only 4 homeruns in 147 at bats in any way resembled the athletic and graceful Jones who has always been more style than substance since he debuted four years ago.
Still, the Phils have seen a glimpse of his talents and what they have seen, if ever so slightly, has convinced them that time is still on his side. For all his inconsistencies, Jones did put together a brilliant two month period during the summer of 2003 that absolutely dazzled the entire minor league gurus.
They believe that Jones is not just flash and happenstance, but a real talent ready to burst on the scene at any moment. If what they believe is fact instead of fancy, then the Phils have added another third baseman to the mix, with the caveat that Jones was a standout shortstop in high school. Either way, his rare mixture of power and grace are enough to give the Phils hope that 2005 will indeed be his coming out party.
Terry Jones is scheduled to open the ’05 campaign in Clearwater but the team privately hopes for a mid-season promotion to Reading. Still only 22 years of age, he is plenty young enough to again paint a picture that promises a first class reception in Philadelphia. On the other hand, as he enters his fifth professional year, he is no longer allowed the proverbial “rookie mistakes” allotted to ones far less experienced.
There are many questions that await answers for a Phillie farm system in seeming flux, if not disarray. Questions abound of an organization that seems to have put player development on the back burner as they strive to win at all costs in the past few years. Equally questionable is the lack of the organization to produce a finished and polished hitter since the assent of Pat Burrell back in 2000.
Yet, for all the question marks involving the Phillie pharm system in the year 2005, none deserves greater scrutiny than the ultimate paths of these five individuals in the upcoming season. If these players embark on the path that leads to success and stardom, it will go a long way towards insuring Phillie fans of many thrills in the coming half dozen campaigns.
If, however, most of these youngsters walk the path of failure, it could promise a very dark and uneven future for a team desperately in need of some welcome and positive luck. Unlike the author of the aforementioned poem, we know the time, and we know the point. The time is now and the point is here.
However, much like Alexander, we know not the destiny….be it glory or despair. These answers await us all… at the crossroads.
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