Talk to any baseball scout and they will confirm the importance of a solid middle infield duo at shortstop and second base. With Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley anchored at these two spots, most casual observers would assume the team is set for years to come and might only need upgrade their utility spots to further solidify this area.
Normally this might be the case, but future storm clouds are floating slowly over the horizon in the prospect of Rollins opting for free agency after the 2006 season if he and the team can’t agree on a multi-year deal. Just last week the two sides decided that since they couldn’t decide on the merits of a multi-year deal they would once again settle for a one-year contract.
This may satisfy the team in the short term, but it says here that no Phillies story is likely to carry more impact in 2006 than Rollin’s impending free agency. Let’s face it, after signing five straight one year deals, Rollins will have very little incentive to sign a multi-year contract in 2006 when free agency is but a season away. Thus, the team is likely to face the prospect of their star shortstop possibly bolting for greener pastures after the ’06 campaign.
Not only is the Rollins story likely to loom large in a short while but the jury is still out on Utley’s ability to handle the second base spot on a daily basis. While I applaud the team’s commitment to Utley and think he will do quite well, it still remains to be seen how he will handle the pressure of playing regularly and the daily obstacles that presents.
With these two separate yet equal stories at the forefront as the team prepares for spring training, it becomes not a question of talent, but depth. Do the Phil’s have a ready made alternative at the minor league level ready to step in soon if either Rollins or Utley need replacing? The short answer is no, and it is an area that the team is likely to address this June.
At one time, the Phil’s shortstop depth was the envy of organizations far and wide. Not only was Rollins an All-Star player and improving daily, but in minor league whiz, Anderson Machado, the team had a player that many compared to former Cincinnati great, Davy Concepcion. The stories of Machado’s defensive wizardry were legendary and there was even talk of one day moving Rollins to second base to accommodate the talented Machado.
Alas, Machado was traded to, ironically, those same Reds last July in the Todd Jones deal and by September he was dazzling National League fans in Cincinnati. It was recently announced that he had suffered a possible serious knee injury in winter ball so the jury may still be out on Machado’s contributions in 2005. Nevertheless, when he is ready to play it will be as a member of the Cincinnati Reds and not the Philadelphia Phillies.
Not only did the Phillie shortstop depth chart include Rollins and Machado but also included former high school great, Danny Gonzalez. A switch hitter from the Puerto Rico, Gonzalez was drafted in 1999 and has made slow but steady progress through the system, with his port of call expected to be Triple-A this spring.
It behooves the Phils to study his progress closely as he is presently the closest thing the team has to a future major league shortstop. If Gonzalez can continue to demonstrate improvement, then he may get a September audition for a possible utility birth in ’06. Unfortunately, this scenario is far from guaranteed due to the uncertainty of Gonzalez’s potential. Some scouts admire his zeal for the game and steady bat and glove.
Other scouts think he is unlikely to ever become more than a utility player at best due to his limited range and power. In 2004 Gonzalez hit .262 with only four home runs. These numbers are a good indication of what his seasonal norms have been, and it is questionable if his numbers will improve greatly in Triple-A.
Still, his star was once quite bright and at 23 years of age he is not too old to recapture the skills that made Phillie minor league followers salivate at his potential for growth. Given the organization’s dearth of shortstop talent, he will have every chance to demonstrate that the trade of Machado was not a mistake, but rather an acknowledgement of his future with the club.
After Gonzalez, one must look to Lakewood and Batavia for possible shortstop talent. Almost every scout in the organization willingly admits that the most skilled shortstop in the system is Carlos Rodriguez, known as C-Rod for short. Gifted in almost every area, and with speed to burn, he has allowed off-field problems to delay his development, and at one point the team even sent him home for a month.
This banishment occurred in the summer of 2003 after C-Rod continually broke team rules. When he returned, his play continued to be erratic but his demeanor had improved. This past year at Lakewood his offensive numbers were improved but still less than expected. He hit .268 and stole 20 bases, and is fully capable of much more.
Rodriguez will open the ’05 season in Clearwater with many of his other talented teammates like Jake Blalock and Michael Bourn and the Phils continue to hope that his potential will finally manifest itself in a breakout campaign. If this happens, he might once again be put on the fast track to the big leagues and reassure the Phils that if Rollins ever leaves, the team cupboard of stellar shortstop prospects is not empty.
At the rookie league levels are two intriguing but still inexperienced players. One of the better all around seasons by a Phillie ’04 draftee was put in by former University of Arizona infielder, John Hardy. Many Philadelphia scouts compared his talents and demeanor to Pirate shortstop, Jack Wilson…high praise indeed. Still, it is a long way from Batavia to the big leagues and Hardy’s .272 average was bolstered somewhat by his 5-5 performance in his minor league debut.
More will be known about Hardy after a full season at Lakewood in 2004. His college numbers, and the fact he can play second base also, suggest that he may have a career as a utility infielder if he can show enough offensive prowess.
Given the team’s depth at the third base position, another option might be to move talented Welinson Baez to the shortstop spot this year. Considered one of the organization’s brightest young players, Baez has played third base in the Gulf Coast rookie league. Still, he has the arm strength and agility to play short and the Phils may be wise to see if Baez can handle this challenging switch.
If Baez shows he can play shortstop, then perhaps with Gonzalez, C-Rod, Hardy and GCL teammate Bradley Harman, the team may not have such a “hole in the middle” as it may appear at present. In any case, look for the Phils brain trust to draft a shortstop in this June’s amateur draft.
General Manager Ed wade has come in for much criticism in regards to some of his “non” moves, but it is to his credit that he has resisted all inquiries about the availability of second baseman Chase Utley, Truth be told, he is a potential 100 RBI middle infielder, someone of the Jeff Kent ilk. Ah, but the comparisons to Kent are precisely the rub…Kent has always been more about his bat than his glove and Utley must show that he can handle the defensive responsibilities at second.
Although much has been made of the return of steady veteran Placido Polanco, it will be a major surprise if he supplants Utley at second. Simply put, the team is better with Utley at second and Polanco in reserve. This not only puts the power hitting Utley in a lineup that features sluggers like Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu but gives hope to a Philadelphia pharm system that recently has favored a “veteran presence” instead of rewarding its own.
This should change under the direction of Manager Charlie Manuel and Utley will no doubt become Exhibit A of this renewed philosophy. Still, an organization is only as strong as its system wide depth, and much like the shortstop depth chart, second has more questions than answers.
Oh, this system has plenty of willing types, hustling, hard working players who make any organization proud. Infielders like Buzz Hannahan, Brian Hitchcox and Ralph Santana have all had their moments, and might still have that “breakthrough” season. The fact remains that every organization has players of this type, and they often have long and successful minor league careers. It is not, however, the Hannahans or Hitchcox’s that ultimately elevate a major league club to championship status.
No, one needs to constantly be on the lookout for impact players, of which Utley has the potential to become. The Phils can only hope he does because after him, the closest player to a major league prospect is former top pick, Tim Moss of the University of Texas. After an injury plagued first season, Moss began the ’04 year slowly before performing well in the final two months at Lakewood.
His final numbers are still a bit pedestrian at .256 with only 10 stolen bases, but most Phillie scouts think he is capable of much more and might just be ready for a breakout season in ’05. If he does, he could once again become the player he was projected to be when he was drafted as a future top of the order hitter for the Phils.
Moss was absolutely scintillating in college and his struggles have been a source of frustration and bewilderment to all involved. However, it was discovered that some of his problems weren’t physical but medical, and with proper medication, his play improved markedly. The Phils fully expect Moss to have a banner year at Clearwater and reestablish himself as a potential major leaguer of the future.
After Moss, one must look all the way to the Rookie League GCL Phillies for a second sacker with “star” potential in the system. Mitchell Graham is a strong testament to the inroads the Phils are making in Australia, along with players like Harman and pitcher, Scott Mitchinson. Graham was a most pleasant surprise at second for the Rookie Phils with solid defense, great footwork around the bag, and a .283 batting average.
The Phils were quite high on Graham when they signed him, but wondered how long he might need to make the adjustment to playing in America. By the looks of his performance, the adjustment problems were minimal and the team is anxious to see how he might do in a full season league like Lakewood.
Graham has not yet demonstrated much power, but did show some much needed speed and agility at the position. As with many youngsters, his walk to strikeout ratio of 14-45 was a bit slanted but the Phillies hope that experience will take care of this. If so, Graham may emerge as a sleeper candidate to one day grace the fields of Citizens Bank Park at second base.
Moss and Graham aside, clearly the team must also address the depth at second base in this year’s draft. As with past problems at catcher, the middle infield spots are clearly problem positions within the organization. Although youngsters like Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Baez, Moss and Graham may change the question mark to an exclamation mark with solid seasons, the team must enter the ’05 year with reasons for concern.
Jimmy Rollins may yet sign a multi-year deal and Chase Utley could well become a Kent-clone. Placido Polanco may become a utility player of the Mariano Duncan variety and Tomas Perez might well have another strong season in his resume. Nevertheless, those are answers for another day and as the Phillies prepare for spring training in February, their shortstop-second base organization wide depth chart still looms as a giant “hole in the middle.”
Columnist’s Note: Please send comments or suggestions to email@example.com and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast