CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Heads Up!

Carlos Ruiz moves to AAA in 2005.

Listen closely. Can you hear it? The clanking of cleats on a cement path towards a shimmering green landscape of grass and silky smooth infield dirt? The pop of a fastball smacking a battle worn catcher's mitt. The unmistakeable sound made when a perfectly stroked round ball meets a round ball. Spring training is upon us and it's time to give a "heads up" to players likely to draw more than the average scrutiny this Phillie minor league season. Who are they and where will they be? Follow me...

As the opening of another baseball season beckons, it behooves Phillie phaithful to cast more than a casual glance toward the cities of Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Reading, Clearwater and Lakewood. For the simple truth is that our beloved Phillies, though certainly deep and talented enough to shock the naysayers and win the National League East, are a team in a hurry, with players whose careers are in their twilight.

From long time favorites like Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt to recent heroes like Jim Thome, Billy Wagner and Kenny Lofton, this team must have one eye on the prize while ascertaining with the other eye just who is likely to replace these athletes when the time comes that they take their bows and exit "stage left." With this in mind, just who should are we likely to be cheering in the not too distant future? Here are some of the likely candidates.

No discussion about Phillie phenoms could go more than a few paragraphs without the mention of slugger Ryan Howard, he of the electric bat and questionable defensive position. As has been mentioned here on more than one occasion, it is hoped that the Phils place him squarely in left field at Scranton this spring and leave him there until it becomes abundantly clear that he cannot become at least a reasonable facimile of Greg Luzinski or Richie Allen. Both were power bats who found their ways to left field and performed well enough that their slug far outweighed their glove.

Rumors still speak of a probable Howard trade before the July deadline, but this still appears pure folly from a practical standpoint. Even if Howard fails completely in the outfield, he is still no more than two seasons removed from a starting birth in the major leagues, just about the time that the Phils will begin fielding trade offers from Cleveland for Thome. It seems inevitable that Thome will hope to finish his career as a DH in Cleveland, and the Phils are likely to meet his request, given the yeoman like way he has carried this franchise during the past two seasons.

Four solid years from Thome will put him at 36 years of age, still capable of hitting 40 home runs, but less likely to withstand the daily rigors of fielding ground balls and errant tosses from the infielders. Howard would be a welcome replacement for Thome and probably continue the tradition of power packed first sackers in the City of Brotherly Love. Either way, left field or first base, keep a keen eye on Scranton, as Howard attempts to duplicate his minor league leading 46 home run pace of 2004.

Though Howard is certainly the most anticipated power hitter likely to grace the fields of Scranton, he is certainly not the only one. After almost two seasons on the shelf, third baseman Juan Richardson needs to step forward and show Phillie fans what all the fuss is about. No less an authority than Assistant GM. Mike Arbuckle has publicly proclaimed Richardson as a potential futue starter at the hot corner in Philadelphia, but clearly time is no longer an ally for him. Plainly put, this is a year of decision for Richardson.

If healthy, he is capable of posting 30-plus home run totals with the Barons, and a possible September callup to Philadelphia. However, if he suffers another serious injury, his status may quickly change from prospect to suspect. Truth be told, more than one Phil's minor league guru feels that Richardson's power even exceeds that of Howard. Either way, the Howard-Richardson show will be well worth watching this summer.

Another Baron player likely to draw more than casual interest is catcher Carlos Ruiz, next in line at the backstop position if anything happens to Lieberthal or Pratt. Oh, the Phils do have admirable depth in veteran A.J. Hinch, but it is Ruiz who truly excites the masses. His breakout 17 home run, .284 average at Reading suggested that he may be more than a filler until hot shot Jason Jaramillo is deemed ready sometime in late 2007.

Ruiz followed up his splendid Reading campaign with a solid performance in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall league, and Phillie followers should not be surprised if Ruiz answers the catching call should anything unforseen happen to Mssrs. Lieberthal or Pratt. His bat is improving while his arm and glove are already major league ready. Keep a watchful eye on him.

Of course, the player most likely to offer big league help this season is young Gavin Floyd, a hurler of immense skill and promise. Fresh off a very impressive September trial of two big league wins, Floyd is first in line for recall should any of the Phils scheduled five starters suffer injury or abuse. Floyd will no doubt open the '05 campaign with the Barons, but will be starting with the Phils before the autumn leaves turn brown. Make no mistake, this pitcher is the real deal, and should provide Phil phanaitics with more than their share of standing ovations over the next half dozen seasons.

Reading in the Double A Eastern League is likely to offer only one position player worthy of scrutiny. Outfielder Chris Roberson, fresh off a .307 season at Clearwater, along with an All-Star MVP award, is counted on to progress quickly in centerfield for a possible late 2006 audition in Philadelphia. Equipped with everything necessary to succeed as a leadoff hitter, all Roberson needs is more time, more at bats, and more good health. His season was cut short by a leg injury in late June, and it is expected that he will be completely healthy this spring.

If Clearwater was a prospect waste land last summer, it literally teems with talent this spring. No less than a dozen potential major leaguers are scheduled to open the 2004 year in Clearwater, and more than a few of the most talented players in the entire season will set up shop here. Included in this group are pitchers Cole Hamels (once he recovers from his broken hand), Scott Mathieson and Nate Cabrera as well as infielders Tim Moss, Carlos Rodriguez and Terry Jones and outfielders Michael Bourn and Jake Blalock.

Far too much attention has been paid to Hamels already...suffice it to say that now is the time to make news on the field instead of off it. If healthy, his stay in Florida should be a short one, his eventual destination is Reading. Undoubtedly the most skilled player in the system, Hamels still has top of the line rotation starter written all over his curveball, changeup and 94 MPH fastball. For the Phils sake, as well as his, let us hope this is the year he turns potential into performance. If this happens, watch for him to once again step on the Philadelphia Express for big league arrival sometime in late 2006.

Both Mathieson and Cabrera are expected to join Hamels in the starting rotation this year at Clearwater. Mathieson's pedigre is well documented, much less fanfare has been spent on Cabrera. This may change in 2005 as Cabrera steps forward after a very solid '04 season at Lakewood. His numbers were 6-4, 2.82 ERA with 113 strikeouts in only 131 innings of work. Watch for him to make a giant leap forward in '05.

Infielders Moss, Rodriguez and Jones are counted on to mann second, short and third for the Blue Claws this year. Each comes with their special talents and questions. Moss is the former top pick - albeit in the third round - of the Phils who may finally be ready to show the skill that made him a collegiate All-American at the University of Texas. After showing almost no ability to adapt to the daily grind of professional ball, Moss made a turnaround during the last month and a half of play in '04.

Not only did his defense improve, but his bat came around as he hit nearly .300 for the final forty games of the season to finish at .256. It is hoped that he will continue his improvement this spring. His shortstop partner is likely to be former bonus baby, Carlos Rodriguez, he of the top talent and questionable attitude. With incumbent shortstop Jimmy Rollins not yet signed to a long term contract, it becomes imperative that Rodriguez step up and show his performance matches his talent.

At his best, he is a whirling dervish on defense, and a solid .280, 40 stolen base dynamo at the plate. Ultimately, it is up to him to take the challenge and give Phillie fans hope that if Rollins ever departs, help will still be on the way.

Terry Jones is quite possibly the most gifted athlete in the organization, and is being counted on to turn that athletic ability into day to day performance after more than a few hit and miss seasons in the organization. At his best, he is a gap power hitter deluxe, with gold glove potential at the hot corner. If Richardson isn't the heir apparent to David Bell in Philadelphia, then certainly Jones might be.

In the outfield, both Michael Bourn and Jake Blalock evoke comparsions to former Phillie outfielders like Garry Maddox and Greg Luzinski with their respective skills of speed [Bourn] and power [Blalock]. Both are among the top five or six prospects in the entire organization and are coming off banner seasons at Lakewood. Bourn was an all everything centerfielder at Lakewood, with eye-catching numbers like a .315 average, 14 triples, 84 bases on balls and 58 stolen bases. Make no mistake, this is the Phillie centerfielder of the future, as well as it's likely leadoff threat.

Blalock is that rare combination of power and skill, a former high school shortstop who has grown into his present position of corner outfielder. His numbers, though a bit more pedestrian that Bourn's, were still impressive. A .271 average, with 16 home runs, 90 RBI and a staggering 40 doubles are highlights of his resume. Watch for Bourn to make a possible late season appearance at Reading, while Blalock is more likely to spend the entire campaign at Clearwater.

Finally, at Lakwood, four players are worthy of mention. First and foremost is the future starting catcher in Philadelphia, Jason Jaramillo. Fresh off an All-American season at Oklahoma State, Jaramillo signed late but still showed all the skills necessary to insure that one day he will be catching the likes of Hamels, Floyd and Myers in Philadelphia.

Another pitcher likely to be tossing fastballs to Jaramillo is lefty J.A. Happ, a third round pick in 2004. Happ was used sparringly in '04 by the Phils, but showed in merely 11 games that he was well worth the high draft pick. His scintillating 2.02 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 35 innings pitched might merely be a foreshadowing of future performances for this cool and collected lefty.

Two other players likely to make their marks at Lakewood this season are infielders Kiel Fisher and Sam Orr. Fisher is a sweet swinging lefty who hit well over .300 in 2003 before a season ending back innury last spring. Hail and hearty again, Fisher should return with a vengence this season and reclaim his place as one of the best hitters in the entire organization, either at third or first base.

The inclusion of Orr on this list is perhaps a controversial one as his rookie season at Batavia showed little to suggest future stardom. His .227 average and mere 5 home runs were but a far cry from the outstanding numbers he put together at Biola University last spring. Still, unless Phillie scouts have completely missed the mark, watch for Orr to make a quantum leap forward this year after making the often difficult transition from college to professional baseball.

Simply put, Orr has all the skills necessary for success at the professional level...a quick and solid stroke, outfield gap power, a strong arm, and the ability to play multiple infield positions. Drafted as a shortstop, Orr made the difficult transition to third base and performed acceptably at the hot corner. His ultimate spot may be decided this spring when Fisher proves he is healthy. If the Phils feel that Fisher should take his place immediately behind Richardson and Jones on the Phils hot corner prospect watch, then Orr may either go back to short or move to the outfield.

Regardless of where he plays, it is this writer's hunch that Orr is a hidden gem, unlikely to be hidden much longer. Expect Sam Orr to become a player much discussed this summer and for years to come in Philadelphia.

The beauty of baseball lies in its timeless predictability but also in its fascinating ability to confound and surprise us. No doubt, some seemingly obscure Phillie farmhand will step forward and place his name squarely on the top of Phuture Phillies Phenoms list before summer runs its course. Perhaps Michael Floyd will discover that his 10 home run July of '04 was more mainstay than mirage? Quite possibly Dan Giese will show that his 12 wins at the Triple A level was an awakening of the skills inside instead of a freak season of positive bounces and good fortune.

Who can tell for sure? This much is known. With the sound of cleats clanking and fastballs popping, baseball season can't be far away. And while it certainly appears as if Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu will take center stage in the hearts and minds of most Phillie fans, it remains important that a watchful glance be given occasionally to the players as yet unseen at Citizens Bank Park.

Though it promises to be an interesting and eventful season this year under new manager, Charlie Manuel, remember that while Rollins & Co. are still the primary focus in 2005, Howard, Floyd and Bourn deserve more than a casual look...they deserve a real "heads up!"

Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast.

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