The SportsTalk Shop: The Phillies Farm System: May 2013 Report

Excuse me for making an interjection amongst angry fans who are upset with the current state of the Phillies roster, but contrary to the public fandom’s opinion, “the cupboard is NOT bare” in the Phillies’ minor league system.

Philadelphia PhilliesPeople will point to the fact at the overall decline in ranking according to Baseball America — something that cannot be disputed. There are clearly less “prospects” in the Phillies minor league system than there were a few years ago .. before the days of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and even Ben Revere. General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr., using the mantra that most Phillies fans have been clamoring for DECADES to do, went for the jugular with “win now/damn the future” deals to improve the team in 2009 to the present to try to win baseball’s ultimate prize. As memory serves, nearly all of those deals (except the second Lee trade) were met with universal praise and admiration (and backhanded derogatory comments towards former GM Ed Wade, who took an opposite approach) for making the “tough deals” to try to win a World Series. The price, of course, is that in order to obtain top-of-the-line talent, which the Phils have done, they would have to give up most of their young talented players in those deals—the majority of them still have not panned out with the team they were traded to.

Now that the team is floundering (as of their 16-21 record), baseball fans in the Eastern Pennsylvania region are upset that Amaro can’t twitch his nose and make a power-hitting outfielder appear. You could argue that he over-evaluated the talent on this current big league roster and put too much faith in the bounce-back abilities of Halladay and Ryan Howard. However, to say that the organization’s minor leagues are in shambles is just not accurate. The Braves, one of the best teams at grooming minor leagues to contribute to the parent club, have done an excellent job over the last few decades of developing at least one or two home-grown players a year to help out the varsity squad. Most teams fall short of that goal. So let’s look ahead at some potential openings/holes in the current Phillies roster and analyze if the front office has provided efficient insurance down on the farm.

Second Base (Chase Utley). With his contract expiring at the end of the season, there is a huge “unknown” as for how long his oft-injured knees will hold out. But down in Triple-A, the Phillies have perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the spring so far. Cesar Hernandez (as of May 13th) is hitting .336 in 140 Abs with 10 extra base hits, a .392 OBP and is 10-11 in steal attempts. A serviceable defensive 2nd baseman and with continued improvement, it wouldn’t be outlandish to envision him replacing Utley where he has frequently been in the Phils’ lineup (the number-two slot).

First Base (Ryan Howard). With Charlie Manual’s recent tendency of sitting Ryan Howard against the majorities of southpaws, it increases the opportunity for another home-grown player, Darin Ruf, (.294, 5-HR, 21-RBIs in 125 AB-s through 5/13) to get playing time at a position that he has had success in defensively. Ruf has looked alright when I’ve seen him in action in left field with the IronPigs (he’s basically playing 5 games at left and 2 games at first so far this season). A combination of him at first base, DH (in American League parks) and left field (in a semi-platoon/rotation with Dom Brown, possibly even shifting to center for a few innings a week?) might help the team’s long-struggling offense. And although the thought of trading Howard and his mega-contract is unlikely, the Phils do have an option should they find a taker for the “Big Piece.”

Catcher (Carlos Ruiz). This might be the biggest disappointment of the season—and not just because of his slash line of .200/.256/.225 as of May 13th. The alleged brain cramp of not getting a prescription for his amphetamines certainly put the team and himself behind the 8-ball, both offensively and defensively, in a pivotal year for the veteran. Ruiz is one of a handful of core players who are eligible for free agency after this season. The Phillies clearly are not happy with his lack of judgment and it might factor in when it comes time to negotiate. Tommy Joseph wasn’t exactly tearing it up in Triple-A before going on the DL with a concussion, but scouts and team officials seem genuinely high on the young receiver acquired in the Hunter Pence trade, and more than one of the Phillies beat writers have indicated that if there’s any place the team might “gamble” on a young player for next season, they would bank on Joseph.

Third Base (Michael Young). In a prior blog entry and on our “RCN SportsTalk” show (available on VOD), we’re already debated in some detail with IronPigs media members about the potential of Triple-A infielder Cody Asche and the chances on him manning the hot corner in Philadelphia by Opening Day 2014. Although Young has been the team’s best hitter—average-wise—and poses a consistent, professional hitting approach that the team has lacked the last few seasons, Young’s age (he’ll be 38 in October) and lack of power will work against (but not preclude) him when the team considers which of the current crop of free agent players they’ll make a play for this offseason (would you prefer Young or Utley batting 3rd?). Even if Young would return (he can play other positions), Asche has continued to get positive reviews and improve his Triple-A numbers (.272 BA, 11 extra base hits in 125 ABs) as the season has unfolded.

Shortstop, Center Field and “Anywhere else.” Following the three hits in his first three at-bats against the D-backs in the final game in Arizona, home-grown Freddy Galvis had his batting average up to .293 while playing five different positions (including spring training) and, quite honestly, looked better in the field than some of the “regulars.” Whether he finds an everyday home in the near future, or becomes a valuable “super-utility” player that can spell people on days-off and/or fill-in when injuries occur, his contributions to the organization should not go unnoticed by Philadelphia sports fans. Radio analyst Larry Anderson had opined in a recent broadcast that he would feel comfortable with Galvis playing at practically every position except pitcher and catcher, and the word from people who have been around the switch-hitter have told me the young Venezuelan has the strong mental makeup and baseball IQ to handle multiple roles.

Pitchers. Jonathan Pettibone, Tyler Cloyd and Justin DeFratus have all come through the Phillies system and have already helped the team (Cloyd pitched well enough to earn a “W” in Arizona), while filling in for hurlers who were either injured or were not performing adequately. A few more may help the team this year (Joe Savery, Jake Diekman, and Mike Stutes) or a year or two from now (Adam Morgan and Jesse Biddle), and if Kyle Kendrick (another Phils’ farmhand) continues to pitch the way he has for the last five baseball months, the team could still have a quality starting rotation for the next several years.

Without the ability to go back in time, I think it’s too hypocritical to criticize most of the moves Amaro has made (the Lee to Seattle and Revere deals the exceptions). If none of these young players mentioned above pan out, then you have every right to rip the current front office for their inability to correctly evaluate young talent and for not providing due diligence in maintaining the long-term success of the franchise (something Amaro stated he was doing by acquiring Philippe Aumont and others from the Mariners—which NO ONE is happy with now). However, if the Phillies fail to make the playoffs again in 2013, at least we have some young players with some legitimate upside to watch at Citizens Bank Park in September ’13 and beyond.

What other mistakes have the Phillies front office made since 2008, and do you think the current staff is doing a good job? What are your thoughts on the Phillies’ prospects? Post a comment below or send us an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in for our live “RCN SportsTalk” show every Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV to voice your opinions.

The SportsTalk Shop: Time for the Leaders to Step Up

People have been complaining about the Phillies’ core for several years now…Ryan Howard strikes out too much, Jimmy Rollins pops up too much, Chase Utley should have a better off-season workout program. All of these complains are legit (as ALL players have flaws to their game) and certainly some players (Howard) seem to be unfairly targeted more than others (Utley). But more than any other facet of their game, there’s one aspect that all three of those players have lacked before embarking on the west coast trip. It’s an aspect that is frequently overlooked, yet vital to their worth as mega-million dollar athletes, and is imperative if this core of players is, in fact, going to have one last hurrah before it gets broken apart. What’s needed here…is leadership.

There have been mini-breakdowns all season long that, by itself, is not that big of a deal: Kevin Frandsen making a throw on a near-finished play that goes wide, allowing base runners to further advance; Rollins taking a throw in front of the bag instead of a “drop-tag” which would have erased a baserunner, et al. These small lapses in focus have built up so that it is now accepted in the Phillies clubhouse, and they are the cancer than erodes a playoff-contenting team to the sub-.500 status this team is currently looking at being—and staying for the near-term. The 2008 team did not have these reoccurring lapses…nor did its succeeding teams through 2011. Those mistakes were written off in 2012 because the leaders (Utley, Howard) weren’t around. I would get violently ill every time I heard the “wait ‘til Ultey gets back” and “if we had everyone, we’d be in first place” soundbites that permeated throughout last season, and all it did was put more pressure on the team to do well out of the gate here in 2013. Something it certainly has not done.

Well now everyone’s back. The excuses are now exhausted, and it’s time for those leaders to step to the plate—both figuratively and literally. I don’t expect Howard to mirror his MVP season, nor would I bank on Rollins hitting .280 again. But there is something that one, two…or all three of those players need to do. It makes for boring quotes, but these guys have to be “real leaders” in the clubhouse. Guys need to be focused at ALL TIMES and this team has to have the same intensity it had when guys like Aaron Rowand patrolled center field. What Rollins, Utley, and Howard lack from the prime in power and speed, they need to make up with status in the clubhouse and a desire to push the younger guys to exceed their potential.

We see glimpses of what some of the young players can be, but when Dom Brown, John Mayberry, Ben Revere and the other younger players are going through slumps, there’s no reason why they can play a little beyond their abilities, or show a little fire to help ignite the team. We’ll forever remember Rowand trying to take out the metal wall in centerfield, Pete Rose scampering to first base on a walk, Marty Bystrom firing a pitch at George Brett’s head…those are the moments that can lift a team to greater heights and make a far-larger impact than just doing what’s expected of you.

Whether it is something that Rollins does on the base paths himself (like running full-tilt to the next base), or if it’s Utley going behind closed doors and challenging a player to step-up…it needs to be done—NOW! There’s no more time for “waiting for players,” there’s no Cliff Lee or Roy Oswald trade that will magically solve every problem with this year’s team, and at this point, even if a miracle-trade can be engineered once again by Ruben Amaro Jr. to muster together the remaining prospects to make one major addition to this team, I still don’t think it will be enough to give this team what the fans, the players, and the entire Delaware Valley thought would be a certainty back in the winter of 2008—and that’s a 2nd World Series championship.

Of course, in the winter of 2008, we thought we would have our “leaders” for some time.