There have been many reasons for the slow start of the Phil’s top four minor league clubs as they have combined for a dismal 7-21 record through the opening week of the campaign. Cold weather, few home games, and a general organization wide hitting drought has left the teams searching for answers. Still, if the hitting has caused much to be desired to this stage, the same cannot be said of the pitching. The Phils four pharm clubs have given more than a hint of what many suspected... that this system has a deep and skilled array of hurlers, and that from the left side, they could be among the best in baseball. Let's take a look at the clubs from top to bottom.
The Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons opened the 2006 season at 2-5 with Yoel Hernandez and Matt White as the two winning hurlers. Hernandez, a solid relief prospect, has been solid with a 0.00 ERA and one save to go along with his 1-0 record. White, a minor league free agent signed this winter, has also been a pleasant early surprise with a win in his only start, a six-inning performance.
Offensively, the star has undoubtedly been infielder Bobby Scales, another six year minor league free agent, who has opened the '06 season with a .450 [9-20] average, two home runs and four RBI. Infielder Danny Sandoval, one of the final Phillie cuts this spring, has also started well with a .286 average while catching prospect Carlos Ruiz has been decent at .261. That the club has struggled offensively is due to the slow starts of outfield prospects Chris Roberson and Josh Kroeger.
There were many who felt that Roberson had earned a major league spot on the roster after his excellent spring training in Clearwater but so far this has not translated into minor league success this April. Roberson is currently hitting .208 with but 2 stolen bases while Kroeger, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks, has yet to show his potential and is hitting a mere .143 [3-21].
The Barons are confident that as the weather warms up, so will the bats and that Ruiz, Roberson and Kroeger will combine with Scales and Sandoval to form a strong nucleus in Scranton. All have had past minor league success and Ruiz and Roberson could yet make their way to Citizens Bank Park in 2006 if they revert to their successes of the past.
The Double-A Reading Phillies opened with seven road games and their 1-6 record was caused as much by poor relief pitching as anything, though the weak bats certainly contributed to the slow start. Without a doubt, the early hitting star was young catcher Jason Jaramillo, anticipated to become the Phillies starting backstop no later than
2008. Jaramillo has not only been a standout defensively, but his .364 average and three doubles easily led the R-Phils in offensive production.
Speedy centerfielder Michael Bourn, in a surprise return engagement at Reading, was slow to start at .226 but already has stolen eight bases. It appears the Phils have turned Bourn loose this campaign and if he hits at all - and he will - then watch for him to garner 60 stolen bases before the end of 2006. The Phils still believe Bourn is their centerfielder of the future, as well as a potential leadoff hitter. Also struggling to find his offensive form is infielder Angel Chavez, skilled enough to have played in San Francisco last year with the
Giants. Chavez has thus far weighed in with a .208 average, albeit with a home run and five RBI.
Perhaps no player has appeared more lost in the first week of the season than second baseman Tim Moss, fresh off a solid 2005 year at Clearwater. The Phils’ former top draft pick is still hitless at 0-for-22 with a staggering 14 strikeouts. The R-Phils can only hope that these struggles are temporary as Moss seems utterly lost at the plate, much as he did during the 2003 and part of the 2004 seasons. The former University of Texas All-American hoped to make this campaign a springboard to potential major league success, either in Philadelphia
or elsewhere. Yet, if he continues to struggle in Double-A, his career could be in jeopardy.
The Phillies three top pitching prospects at Reading have all done well and could form a very impressive rotation this year. Scott Mathieson, with 14 strikeouts in 11 innings, Daniel Haigwood and Giovany Gonzalez have all been impressive in the early going. Especially sharp was Gonzalez, who twirled five shutout innings in his Phillie debut and struck out seven. Gonzalez made his debut on Thursday night and threw a gem, giving the home team seven shutout innings in a 1-0 win over Altoona.
By far the most successful Phillie pharm club so far has been the Single-A Clearwater Phils with a 4-3 record. This has been due in no small part because of the brilliance of lefty Cole Hamels. Advertised as one of the best pitching prospects in years, and compared by one Florida State League manager as "Steve Carlton", Hamels has dominated in his two starts to the tune of a 1-0 record, 0.00 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 11 innings of hurling.
If Hamels remains healthy he will be promoted to either Reading or Scranton in May and could be starting in Philadelphia by August. Yes, he is that good, and seemingly only injuries can curtail what appears to be a potentially brilliant future with the Phils. Still, he has been only one of several standout hurlers in Clearwater to this point.
Lefties Derek Griffith [1-0, 0.00 ERA], J.A. Happ [0-1, 4.76], and righties Zack Segovia and Julio De la Cruz, have all been superb while another righty prospect, Andrew Baldwin has also been solid. Another name to watch is rehabbing reliever, Chris Booker, who is expected to pitch with the Phils when his rehab assignment finishes at the end
Clearly the offensive star has been third baseman Mike Costanzo with a .276 average, one home run and six RBI in the early going as well as showing improved defense. Costanzo has yet to make an error in seven games and if he hits as expected, watch for him to be promoted to Reading before the end of the '06 season. Also helping out offensively in the early going are outfielder Matt Thayer [.333] and shortstop Brad Harman [.240].
Certainly, no team in the Phils' minor league organization has been more frustrated in the early going than has the Lakewood Blue Claws, losers of all eight games to this point. The defeats have come in many ways but there still appears hope that things will turn around now that they have returned home after a long week on the road. They have been led offensively by two very impressive infield prospects, Clay Harris and Welinson Baez.
Harris, a former ninth round pick in 2005 from LSU, has been outstanding and is hitting a staggering .500 [8-16] after the initial week while Baez is currently hitting .360 with one home run and five RBI. Many Phillie insiders think Baez is the best offensive prospect in the system and his early work has only reinforced those thoughts within the Phil's minor league braintrust.
Still, for all the heroics of Harris and Baez, the other offensive numbers show a club that is struggling mightily to score runs. Ryan Frith, Sean Gamble, Tim Kennelly, Julian Williams and Fidel Hernandez have all been in early season slumps while top prospects Greg Golson and Lou Marson, have really started slowly. Golson is currently hitting .087 while Marson, a top catching prospect, has yet to garner his first hit of the season.
In contrast, the pitching has been outstanding with hurlers Kyle Kendrick, Matt Maloney, Carlos Carrasco, Joseph Outman, Maximo De la Cruz and Andy Barb all showing why they are considered among the brightest prospects in the system. With this tremendous arsenal
of arms in Lakewood, the team could quickly turn things around if players like Golson, Marson, Frith and Kennelly hit as expected.
It must be noted that the Phillie system has lost or has not yet begun to play several players who last year contributed much offensively to the cause. Outfielder Jeremy Slayden has been mysteriously left at extended spring training after a standout year at Batavia in 2005 while infielder Terry Jones is once again injured and unavailable.
Outfielder Jake Blalock was recently traded to Texas in the David Dellucci deal, while former minor league players like Jorge Padilla, Juan Richardson, Ryan Barthelemy and Kiel Fisher are no longer in the system. Indeed, the Reading Phillies saw a rejuvenated Padilla playing in the New York Mets system this week, something that could eventually prove quite embarrassing to the Phillie system that felt Padilla was no longer worthy of prospect status.
The adage "it is still early" certainly applies here in PhillieLand as all four minor league clubs expect some home cooking to pay off in extended winning streaks. Given the strong hurling of such standouts like Cole Hamels, Giovany Gonzalez, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Segovia and Matt Maloney, this remains a distinct possibility. Still, the hitting will have to take its proper place as co-partners with the hurlers or this season could quickly descend into a free fall of epic proportions.
A .250 winning percentage is simply unacceptable in today's minor league baseball so the Phils can only hope that they have not over-hyped many of their more ballyhooed offensive performers. History says they will turn it around, and soon, but as of now their hitting continues to be much..."less than advertised."
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