As has been mentioned often in this column, the greatest strength of the Phils' organization is in it's ability to scout and draft solid amateur talent. Their ability to sign and develop talent is a bit more checkered but no baseball scout outworks a Phillie scout. Under Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever this team rarely makes a mistake on a top ten pick and when they do, its generally due to an injury and not misplaced skill.
Undoubtedly the braintrust decided to address this weakness in 2003 and what has transpired is nothing short of amazing considering where they came from. Oh, Marlon Byrd looked like he could fly high, and Jorge Padilla was still living off of his "Sammy Sosa" comparisons. However, these two were almost all there was when it came to minor league outfield talent, and Byrd's landing and Padilla's descent are Exhibits A and B of why this situation needed to be addressed.
And address it they did! The first thing they did was move power hitting third baseman Jake Blalock to a corner outfield spot. This was made possible for two reasons. Number one was Blalock's strong arm and athletic ability. He took to the outfield like he had been there all his life and now seems a viable candidate to one day replace either Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu as a Phillie flychaser.
Not only is Blalock versatile and skilled, but no minor leaguer not named Ryan Howard has more power in the organization than does Blalock. As the younger brother of Texas Ranger star, Hank Blalock, he comes from excellent pedigree and many scouts have compared his power potential to former Phillie slugger, Greg Luzinski. High praise, indeed, but seemingly justified.
Blalock performed at Lakewood in 2004, and he was one of the standouts on this prosect laden club, along with another crown jewel, Michael Bourn. He not only hit 16 home runs with 90 RBI but displayed a quality that most scouts think is a true example of a player's power potential...doubles. He set a league record with 40 and seems a doubles machine in his short career. Watch for Blalock to continue his growth at Clearwater this season and he could be in Philadelphia by late 2007.
If Howard and Blalock are bash, then Bourn is most definitely dash, and his numbers fairly scream out, phuture Phillie leadoff hitter. Drafted as a third of the relay race team of Tim Moss and Javier Moran in June 2003, Bourn has quickly moved up the prospect ladder to where he is no worse than fourth on the charts. Considering the top three are mega prospects, Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd and Howard, this is no small feat. Yet, this has been earned purely on merit.
How about a sterling .317 average with 92 runs scored in but 109 games played? Or, perhaps you are more inclined to trumpet his 53 stolen bases and 85 walks? If not, then surely his 14 triples is a source of pride and accomplishment. Or, if defense is your druthers, Bourn is merely the fastest and most skilled centerfielder in the system. At any rate, Michael Bourn is on the fast track to Philadelphia and is a prime reason that the team feels that Kenny Lofton is a wise short term solution. Bourn will probably open as Blalock's teammate in Clearwater but could be in Double A Reading by August.
If he should make it to Reading by August, this will have proven a best case scenario for Phillie fans because that spot is currently reserved for one Chris Roberson. Another speedy leadoff type centerfielder, Roberson is the reigning Florida State League All-Star Game MVP and hit .307 with 52 runs scored in 83 games before shutting down due to a leg injury in July. Fully healed, he is another player to watch this summer, and might well debut in Philadelphia sometime in 2006.
Further down the line, but perhaps the most talented centerfielder in the system is 2004 rookie, Greg Golson, the number one pick in June. Golson is the most athletic player in the system and quickly showed why with a standout rookie campaign at the Gulf Coast League this past summer. In Golson, the Phils think they have a future 5-tool talent, and only the power is currently missing from his reportoire.
Not only did he hit .295 and steal 12 bases, but his defense and arm strength are the best in the organization. The Phils will move slowly with Golson as he is still a teenager, but given his makeup and desire to excel he will be heard from in Philadelphia sooner rather than later.
Speaking of sooner, any talk of the Phils depth in minor league outfield talent must include the omnipresent shadow of young Mr. Howard. It was here that the suggestion was first made that perhaps his future might well be best suited for the outfield, given the presence of Jim Thome at first base with the Phils. Afterall, a player with 46 home runs and 131 RBI at the Double and Triple A level is not someone to trifle with, and it seemed a reasonable plan.
No more defensively skilled players than Greg Luzinski, Richie Allen and even Jeff Stone have graced the grass of left field with the Phillies, where the philosophy has always been... hit like them and a spot in the lineup will be found. Finally, the Phils upper brain trust is at least giving some thought to this experiment as it might mean the difference between having a 35 home run slugger "In" rather than "Out". Stay tuned on this one.
While the outfield jewels are certainly Bourn, Blalock, Golson, Roberson and perhaps Howard, they are not alone in what now seems a cornucopia of flychaser talent. Keep in mind that the aforementioned Byrd is still aboard, and only one year removed from a team leading .303 major league average. His star is now dim, but with the overbearing Larry Bowa no longer around to play games with Byrd's pysche, it might be wise to keep him around for at least one more year.
Travel back to the spring of 1999 and listen to the whispers of Phillie talent sleuths everywhere. They waxed poetic about Pat Burrell, and felt Eric Valent had a major league future. Yet it was a young outfielder fresh off a .356 average in rookie ball who most excited many of these veteran scouts. His name was Jorge Padilla and he had all the power, speed and quick wrists needed to have "Future Star" written all over him.
Sadly, much has gone wrong since then...injuries, bad luck, and a seeming lack of aility to adapt to misfortune. Clearly, Padilla must once again show that he belongs on the radar screen, but at 25 and with Triple A experience on his resume, it may not be too late for him to recapture what once was and is now seemingly lost. In short, Padilla still has time to go from "Out" to "In".
While the above mentioned players are the ones most likely to make their marks at Citizens Bank Park, a few other outfielders are worth noting. First and foremost would be 2004 collegiate draft choice, Sean Gamble. The son of former Phillie flychaser, Oscar Gamble, Sean had a solid rookie campaign at Batavia to the tune of a .304 average and 21 extra base blows in merely 64 games. Gamble is clearly in the second tier of Phillie outfield prospects but is hardly an "Out" hoping to get "In".
Gamble, along with fellow Batavia teammates Ryan Frith and Nick Shimer should form the starting outfield at Lakewood, and it is here that his application will either be stamped Prospect or Suspect. Frith is also an intriguing player, a former college star who hit 11 home runs with 44 RBI in 66 games with the MuckDogs. His .243 average and high strikeout total suggests he may struggle at the higher levels but power is always a tool to be nurtured.
Other names of note in various stages of prospect status are rookie leaguers, Andy Mcfarlane and Richard Plumsky as well as the puzzling Jason Crosland. He played at Batavia last summer, and befuddled the Phils with his inability to build on a solid freshman campaign. He will be watched closely this year, probably at Lakewood.
Another name across the wires is Brad Correll, a non-prospect, who has the distinction of being one of the few players ever acquired in trade by GM Ed Wade with no major league experience.
Yes, it is true that Correll may one day be the answer to a trivia question...namely, to identify the last minor league player ever acquired by Wade during his quixotic ride as Phillie GM. For what it's worth, Correll hit a less than resounding .190 at Clearwater after a late July trade from the Reds.
Finally, there is one more name worthy of mention, and a particular favorite of mine for several reasons. I speak of none other than Mike Floyd, older and less famous brother of Phillie mega prospect, Gavin Floyd. My reasons for favoring Floyd are three fold. Number one, I remain convinced that had the older Floyd not so dearly wanted to sign a professional contract with the Phils in 2000, then Gavin would have joined him at the University of South Carolina instead of the minor league ball fields at Clearwater.
Though the Phils have never publicly admitted this, it seems clear that Mike was part of a package deal to bring in Gavin. Either both signed...or neither of them would have been signed. Happily for the Phils, and the Floyd family, both signed and are still members of the Philadelphia organization.
The second reason I root for Mike Floyd is that he is a player who has always had to work hard for everything he has received, both in college and in pro ball. The Floyd name has perhaps gotten him to first base, but his desire and hard nosed attitude have given him whatever success he has acheived.
Admittedly, to this point, the success has been limited, and Mike Floyd is very likely to be but another footnote in future Phillie minor league history, famous only for being the older brother of likely star, Gavin. Still, baseball is replete with stories of seemingly insignificant players who suddenly found the magic formula and were forever changed.
For one brief and shining moment, not longer than a month, did Mike Floyd seem to find the secret ingredients. Entering the month of July 2004, Mike Floyd not only had an anemic batting average in Clearwater, but was planted firmly at 0 home runs. Certainly, nothing to indicate that July would be anything other than another month on the seemingly endless minor league calendar.
Yet for Mike Floyd, July was a time every hitter dreams of, when every pitch looks like a beachball and every swing produces a screaming line drive...or better. In the case of Floyd, it was better, to the tune of 10 home runs and a .370 average for the month. Nightly, the exploits of Floyd's Magical Mystery Tour were observed and discussed, and with each game the legend grew.
Alas, July turned to August, and Mike Floyd resumed his struggles, albeit to a lesser extent. Still, for one mystical month, Floyd made every Phil's minor league fanatic take notice, and ask themselves, "what if?" As in, "what if, this is real and not an illusion?" Could Floyd join the legion of outfield prospects like Bourn and Blalock and Roberson and make the Phightin's phuture look even more menacing?
The jury is out, the final results await. Floyd will open the '05 campaign in Reading, the point in time when a prince can become a pauper. Which Mike Floyd will show up? The April-May performer who wallowed in obscurity with a bad Clearwater club or the sterling silver Floyd who tore up the Florida State League in July.
Of this and much more do we prepare for as the suddenly revitilized Phillie outfield list continues to grow. Which side of the ledger will Floyd be in? Will he join Bourn and Co. at the top of the A Team list or will he fall back with many others, another failed prospect. As with many others, the question remains unanswered...is Floyd an "In" or an "Out"?
This much is known, however. After too many years of too many headaches and too few prospects, the Philadelphia Phillies can proudly trumpet their future candidates for major league outfield stardom. For the Phils and their flychasers...certainly "In" is now "Out"[field].
Columnist's Note: Please send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast