CD's Phuture Phillie Phenoms... Center Stage

There is little denying that the current edition of the Phillies pharm system has several holes in the dike. The organization lacks depth in left-handed hurlers and middle infield depth also appears a bit slim. Third base, which used to be a Phillie plethora of talented youngsters has been beset by injury and disappointment. Yet, there are spots that speak of unquestioned riches and depth. Center field is one of them and can proudly take a step to center stage.

Normally a system is judged by the depth of talent it possesses at any one particular position, especially if the players designated as "prospects" appear in the higher levels of the pharm system. It has been duly noted in Phuture Phillies Phenoms, as well as elsewhere, that the top talent in the Phils' system remains in the lower reaches of the organization, in places like Batavia, Lakewood and the Rookie Gulf Coast League. This bodes well for Phillie teams down the line, but does nothing to satisfy the hunger of a Phillie phan eager for instant gratification.

This is another reason that center field takes center stage within the pharm system. A team is deemed to be deep in position talent if it has two or three top prospects at a given position, and the higher up the minor league ladder they play, the more impressive the depth. The Phils, as currently constructed, have not two, not three, but four outstanding center fielders in the minor leagues, setting up a pleasant dilemma, and interesting trade possibilities down the road.

In Shane Victorino, Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn and Greg Golson, the Phightins' have four youngsters that will all play in the major leagues someday. The chances are excellent that they all will be solid, serviceable big leaguers and at least two of them will probably one day become major league stars. The challenge for the Phils, one of their more interesting problems developing soon, will be to decide which of the four have the greatest chance for stardom and insuring that this "star" status stays at Citizens Bank Park. Let's take a closer look at all four, the seasons they had, and the possibilities that their careers will evolve in Philadelphia.

First things first to be sure. Pat Burrell is having an MVP type season in left field and seems comfortable with his star status with the Phils. In an age when players change teams with regularity, it seems a good bet that Burrell may end his career in Phillie red. Certainly, his best years are still to come so he is solidly entrenched in the corner spot.

The same goes for right fielder, Bobby Abreu, though he is older than Burrell and may not have quite as many seasons left as a mainstay in the Phillie lineup. Still, it seems inconceivable that Abreu could have less than three or four more solid seasons and the Phils will make good use of those seasons. That corner of the outfield is covered Abreu red also.

This leaves center field as the sole hunting grounds for a youngster eager to make inroads on a starting outfield birth with the Phils. Enter center stage...Victorino, Roberson, Bourn and Golson. It seems certain that one of them will take hold of the spot and form with Burrell and Abreu to make an outstanding outfield trio. The best case scenario for one of the other prospects would be a coveted fourth outfield role, one that might prove quite valuable as Abreu and Burrell need occasional breathers or late game defensive replacements.

The incumbents, Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels are both having excellent seasons, and the Phils have been well fortified at the center spot this year. Lofton has been a catalyst from the left side of the plate and appears certain to hit over .300 this year. Michaels is also performing well from the right side, and may have some career high offensive numbers before the curtain falls on the 2005 campaign.

Still, it seems unlikely that the club would dare trust the 2006 season to the same duo. It is even money at best that both Lofton and Michaels will be back with the club after this year. Lofton may wish to continue playing for Charlie Manuel, a manager he trusts and enjoys playing for. Yet, he is at the tail end of his illustrious career and may make salary demands that make it impossible to re-sign him at a reasonable cost. It would not surprise anyone if Lofton wished to parlay his .300 season into a two-year deal, one the Phils would be loath to accept.

The same holds true for Michaels, who is now entering the stage in his career where he may wish to start on an everyday basis, rather than platoon as a Phillie. The Phils are certainly happy with Michaels' on field contributions, but his off field distractions may force the team to consider the option of trading him for a starting pitcher. At any rate, it seems unlikely that both Lofton and Michaels will return, and the slim possibility exists that neither will be back. This is where Victorino, and possibly Roberson enter the picture.

In a stunning and impressive development, Shane Victorino was just voted as the Triple A International League Most Valuable Player, a tremendous achievement given the poor play of the Barons, and the .241 average he had two months ago.

Truth be told, the 5'9" Victorino has been a revelation with the Barons and if he is not allowed to display his wares with the Phils this September, the parent club is being incredibly short-sighted. Plainly put, Victorino may well be, right now, the best centerfielder in the entire organization, Lofton and Michaels included. His numbers are quite revealing and impressive, a startling combination of speed, average and power.

With less than a week to go in the IL season, Victorino has scored 93 runs in a mere 126 games, while amassing 153 hits. Included among these hits is a staggering total of 59 extra base blows, with 25 doubles, 16 triples and 18 home runs in the mix. Add to this a .310 batting average, a .377 OBP and a very impressive .534 slugging average from the leadoff spot, and what the Phils have is a potential leadoff hitter not seen in the City of Brotherly Love since the days of Lenny Dykstra.

Almost as an added bonus, Victorino is a stellar outfielder with a powerful arm. He bats and throws from the right side and will not be 25 years of age until November. Clearly, the Phils struck gold when they selected him in the Rule 5 Draft from the Dodgers last December. It would be nice to say that the Phils immediately saw his skills and were enamored of them. It would be nice to say...but it would be false. In fact, the Phils were so little impressed that they actually offered him back to the Blue Crew for $25,000, an amount the Dodgers found too steep for their tastes.

Not unhappily, the Phils kept Victorino, placed him on the Triple A roster, and the rest is, as they say, history. It behooves the Phils to find out just what they have in this intriguing and exciting prospect. Not only does he seem to combine power, high average and speed, but he possesses the one ingredient the current club lacks...a solid hitter at the top of the order.

If the Phils do fall by the wayside in September in the wild card race, a great amount of deserved blame will be placed squarely at the feet of incumbent leadoff hitter, Jimmy Rollins. He has never understood the nuances of a leadoff hitter, and would better serve the team as a bottom of the order catalyst. While there are many who think the flashy Rollins would rebel at such a move, my answer would be...too bad! There is a pennant to be won, and may the best players perform where they can best help the team get to where it wants to go.

If Victorino is given no more than cameo appearances in September, the Phils may unwisely decide to trade him in the off-season. It seems that he is a classic case of a player suddenly and unexpectedly reaching the absolute maximum potential of their ability, and if this is the case, then count me as one who wants him in the Phillie lineup.

There is little doubt that the Phillie pharm system has been miserable in terms of wins and losses in '05. With the worst combined record in baseball, this is an unarguable fact. Still, the Phils may come close to striking a very impressive double play at the Triple A and Double A level. As mentioned, Victorino was recently selected as the IL Most Valuable Player and many minor league experts suspect that Roberson will garner more than a few votes at the Double A Eastern League level. After all, he has already been awarded the league's Rookie of the Year honor.

As with the Barons, the Reading Phils have been an artistic disaster this year, and only the solid performances of players like Roberson and Bourn have made the losing a bit easier to take. In the case of Roberson, he has merely continued his breakout skills that lead him to a banner 2004 season in Clearwater, capped by an MVP award in the Florida State League All-Star game.

Roberson, a former ninth round selection in 2001, may have the highest upside of any of the four, yet seems to stand the least chance of ever starting on a regular basis in Philadelphia. Not only is he burdened by the fact that he is 26 years of age, but he is in the uncomfortable position of looking up and seeing Victorino, and looking down and seeing Bourn and Golson, two of the highest rated prospects in the Phillie system.

It will surprise few if Roberson is traded this off season, and again, this move would be short-sighted if understandable. Roberson is a superb athlete who is only now beginning to understand the nuances of a game he didn't play until his late teens. He comes from outstanding pedigree, as his father was a professional basketball star, and it seems that Roberson may well be a .300 major league hitter waiting to happen.

Tall and lean at 6'2" and 180 lbs, Roberson is currently hitting at a steady .311 pace, with 84 runs scored in 133 games played. A righty all the way, his other numbers include 23 doubles, 8 triples, 15 home runs and 67 RBI. He has stolen 32 bases while slugging at a .470 clip. As with the others, Roberson is a talented and swift outfielder with a right fielder's power arm.

Expect him to open the '06 season in Scranton, but with a solid spring, and given the possibility that both Lofton and Michaels could depart, Chris Roberson is a slim but not impossible candidate for an outfield birth with the Phils next April. Either way, he has clearly established himself as a Top 10 Phillie prospect, and a player worth following in the coming seasons.

While Victorino and Roberson may garner the off-season awards this year, clearly the Phils still feel that Michael Bourn and Greg Golson are the two players most likely to make their marks with the team. They love the work ethic and potential of both players, and have actually challenged both outfielders this season with double promotions, something the Phils rarely do.

Bourn was outstanding last year in Lakewood, so talented that the Phils reluctantly traded Javon Moran, a relay team member with Bourn during the early days of their careers and gave Bourn a double jump from Lakewood to Reading, skipping Clearwater along the way. Had they kept Moran, this column would be touting five centerfield candidates as he is performing well in the Reds farm system. Still, the Phils remain convinced that they kept the right guy when they kept Bourn.

Though Bourn's numbers at first glance appear fairly pedestrian, he has more than lived up to the team's expectations and will open the '06 season in Triple A. In fact, in whispering tones, this is the player the Phils feel will ultimately play centerfield and lead off at Citizens Bank Park. In a system knee deep in centerfield talent, Bourn is probably the best.

At 22 years of age, he is young for a Double A player and still put together impressive numbers despite performing against competition usually older than him. In 129 games, Bourn has scored 74 runs, amassed 139 hits, and stolen 38 bases while hitting .269. His OBP needs improvement at .344 and he will never have the power of the other three, but his leadoff skills and Gold Glove type defense stamp him as the most likely candidate to eventually emerge as the player who takes center stage in center field.

There are few keener eyes for baseball talent than venerable Larry Rojas, long time Phillie minor league instructor and scout. He is never prone to hyperbole, and is almost unanimous in his ability to spot a youngsters weaknesses and potential pitfalls. In his long and storied career with the Phils, he has witnessed thousands of minor league players. In this time, he has only stamped four as guaranteed "super star" talent. He loved Frank Robinson. He was equally enamored with Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. And he is absolutely effusive in his praise of 20 year Greg Golson, calling him "a future Frank Robinson."

This is heady praise indeed, and at first glance, Golson appears undeserving of the accolades. After all, his skills are raw, he strikes out at an alarming pace, and he has yet to show the power numbers that guaranteed Robinson, Schmidt and Rolen major league fame and fortune. Yet, look a bit closer, and Golson may soon be worthy of such high praise.

For those unfamiliar with the 20 year old Golson, he was the Phil's number one draft pick in the 2004 draft. At the time he was considered a potential five-tool player, and the most skilled high school athlete on the board. He certainly caught the eye of the University of Texas, as they offered him a complete baseball scholarship. Those who knew Golson's burning desire to be a professional baseball player knew what his choice would be to sign with the Phils, something he did swiftly.

Greg Golson performed well enough in the Gulf Coast League last summer to immediately earn the rank of the fourth best prospect in the Phillie pharm system, behind only mega talents Ryan Howard, Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels! Not only did he hit .295 last summer but showed a verve and desire that stamped him as a player on the move...and move he did, all the way to full season Lakewood in 2005. This was quite a jump for a player with less than 50 professional games to his resume and the Phils waited and watched.

What they saw this year was a youngster who was not overwhelmed with the prospect of being one of the youngest performers in the league. Granted, his numbers were not great, but he showed enough potential to seemingly justify the Phil's phaith in selecting him so high last year. Although hampered by injuries, Golson has 92 hits in but 83 games played with an impressive 45 runs scored and 24 stolen bases added in for good measure.

Much like Bourn, he hits and throws right-handed, and is swift, strong and decisive in the outfield, and is a natural leadoff hitter. The power has yet to come as he is still growing into his body, but his .264 average is considered excellent for a player so young. From here on in, the Phils will move him up one level at a time, so he should play the '06 season in Clearwater.

Assuming he stays reasonably healthy and performs well, Golson would seem to project as a late 2008 candidate for PhillieLand, more than ample time for the Phightins' to sort out the battle amongst Victorino, Roberson and Bourn. Understanding the Phillie mindset is often an exercise in futility but some key clues may soon indicate the Phillie Way of Thinking for the foursome.

Certainly, Golson is entrusted with a Phillie future, his talent and high draft selection insure this. Given the respected status of Rojas, it is widely assumed that Golson will not only one day be a starter PhillieLand, but be a star of the first order. Count on Golson staying the course.

Almost equally guaranteed is the status of Michael Bourn as a future Phillie-in-waiting. The team has gone out of their way to praise and promote Bourn, and frankly, he is deserving of this praise and promotion. It seems but a matter of time before he takes his place in between Burrell and Abreu and right atop the batting order with the Phils...say, late 2006. It also says here that Bourn will be a very talented player with the Phils, possibly a notch below Golson, but an occasional Gold Glover, nonetheless. His status as a star will depend on his ability to hit at the big league level.

Where this leaves Victorino and Roberson is anyone's guess. Watch to see what the Phils do with Victorino this September and we may know much about his immediate future. If he is given a few starts and performs well, the team may decide to cast their 2006 centerfield fate at his doorstep, and the rest would be up to him.

Still, given the tepid response to his outstanding season, and with the additions of Endy Chavez and Michael Tucker, it would appear that Victorino faces an uphill battle to win over a seemingly less than impressed band of Phillie organizational types. As is too often the case with Wade and Company, this may prove an embarrassing oversight should Victorino be traded and achieve success elsewhere.

As for Chris Roberson, he may soon emerge as the latest Ryan Howard candidate, a player mentioned in every rumored Phillie off-season trade. Certainly, other teams will ask about him, and the Phils will no doubt listen. They may decide that he will never emerge as more than a fourth outfielder and choose to acquire talent while his trade value is at its highest level.

This could prove an equally dangerous path to follow as the one the team almost chose to follow when shopping Howard. Amazingly, if not for the Jim Thome injury, Ryan Howard might well be crushing home runs against the Phils, instead of for them. Roberson is a similar type player, without the power. He seems to be developing late, but with an upside that suggests he will be heard from...and soon. It would seem prudent of the Phils to allow Roberson an opportunity to show his skills in Scranton, and then further decide the next course of action. To trade him now would be to risk wasting all the time it took for Roberson to fully become the player his great athletic skills suggested he might become. Stay the course, Phils, and be wise!

Make no mistake, this is a problem many teams would wish to have. Choosing an ultimate playmate for Burrell and Abreu from among the diverse skills of the powerful Victorino, the athletic Roberson, the smooth Bourn and the electric talents of Golson is a dilemma appealing to the Phillie taste buds but vexing in it's complexity. Each offers unique skills that makes him a most worthy candidate. Each promises great rewards, and equal parts uncertainty.

Of this are major league clubs built. The ultimate decisions the team made may well help determine the future success of the club from the City of Brotherly Love. But those are decisions left for another day, albeit not far off. As of today, let us celebrate a Phillie Phoursome, each equally worthy of their time on...center stage.

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

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