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Monday, June 09, 2008

Farm Report: June of '08 (Part I, Lehigh Valley & Reading) 

Let's begin with a quick recap of this weekend's Braves - Phillies series. Friday night's game, which saw the Phillies snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, might just be the moment that Phillies fans look back upon and say that was the decisive game of the season. Kelly Johnson's error in the top end of the ninth allowed the Phillies to tie the game at 2-2, then Shane Victorino hit the decisive home run and threw out a Braves base-runner trying to tie the game up. The 4-3 win was the most exciting game of the season for the Phillies.

So as the smoke clears from the weekend, the Phillies find themselves sitting in first place, 3 & 1/2 games ahead of the Marlins at 39-26, their best record at this time of the year since '95 and probably their finest start since the '93 team went 40-25 to start the season. The Phillies also hold the second-best record in the N.L. after the Cubs and sit 6 & 1/2 games ahead of the Braves and 7 & 1/2 games ahead of the Mets.

Hey Mets fans, reind me again: wasn't some guy supposed to gaurantee you a division title? I forget.

The Farm Report Returns ... Inspired by the 2008 MLB Draft on Thursday and Friday, I decided that I'd revisit the Phillies minor leagues today and tomorrow with quick looks at how the Phillies minor league teams are doing and how some of our favorite players ("Phuture Phillies"?) are faring.

First, a word on how the minors work. Looking for the players the Phillies just drafted in Lakewood and Clearwater and Reading this summer? Don't. Draftees into the Phillies system will be sent to either Clearwater to play with the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Phillies or to Williamsport to play with the Short-Season Single-A Crosscutters in the New York - Penn League (NYPL). Typically high schoolers go to the GCL while college grads go to the NYPL. So expect to see Anthony Hewitt, Zach Collier, Anthony Grose and Jason Knapp in Clearwater while guys like Vance Worley head off to Williamsport. The minors are structured as follows:

Rookie League (e.g. GCL Phillies) - typical entry point for High School draftees.
Short-Season Single-A (e.g. the NYPL's Crosscutters) - typical entry point for College draftees.
Single-A (for the Phillies, the South Atlantic League's Lakewood Blue Claws) - usually the first full season in the minors for the players who survive the GCL or NYPL.
Advanced Single-A (for the Phillies, the Florida State League's Clearwater Threshers) - usually the second full season in the minors for the Phillies prospects.
Double-A (for the Phillies, the Eastern League's Reading Phillies) - usually the third full season in the minors for the Phillies prospects, although some players can advance here from Single-A or some are held back for development.
Triple-A (for the Phillies, the International League's Lehigh Valley IronPigs) - usually the fourth and final full year in the minors for the Phillies prospects, although oftentimes players spend extra time here developing or they advance here quickly.

Players like Hewitt and Collier and Grose and Knapp will probably start around July 1 with the GCL Phillies and play sixty or so games until the start of September. Some in need of further development might play winter ball somewhere. In 2009 Hewitt, et al., will graduate to the Jersey Shore and play with the Blue Claws in Lakewood. Given that these guys are all high schoolers, the Phillies will bring them along slowly, sending them to Clearwater in '10, followed by Reading in '11 or '12 and Lehigh Valley in '12 or '13. That's why people like ESPN's Keith Law forecast a looong development investment for guys like Hewitt. Opening Day, 2014, might be the first time we see Anthony Hewitt or any of the others wear the Red Pinstripes.

More advanced college players like Pedro Alvarez, the Vanderbilt third baseman who the Pittsburgh Pirates took with the #2 pick of the draft, in contrast will have a quicker path through the system: likely beginning at the State College Spikes in the NYPL, followed by the Single-A Hickory Crawdads in '09, skipping to the Double-A Altoona Curve in '10, then finishing in Triple-A Indianapolis in '11 and starting at third base for the Pirates in late '11 or early '12. That's the difference between the approaches teams that need MLB-ready talent now like the Pirates and the Phillies, who can afford to take time developing talent.

So let's start with the Phillies MLB-ready talent factory in Allentown with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Current record: 21-41. Standings: 6th of 6 teams in in the International League's Northern Division, seventeen games back of the Scranton / Wilkes-Barre Yankees. Players of note: Jason Jamarillo (C), T.J. Bohn (OF), Travis Blackley (P), and J.A. Happ (P).

The IronPigs, the Phillies brand-spanking new Triple-A affiliate in the Lehigh Valley area, got off to a less than auspicious 6-30 start this season and have clawed their way back to ... well, not respectability. Let's try "mediocrity" ... with a 15-11 record since mid-May. The IronPigs are awful and it is pretty clear that there is little MLB-ready talent currently in Allentown. Jason Jamarillo, the IronPigs catcher, is making little argument for the job of Chris Coste, with his meager .667 OPS and three home runs and seventeen RBI this season. Jamarillo is the most highly touted catching prospect in the Phillies system, but he's really struggling at the plate while Coste, a player who scouts routinely passed on and paid little attention to, continues to play well in Philly. As long as Jamarillo struggles through this season, Coste and Carlos Ruiz are set in Philadelphia. T.J. Bohn played briefly with the Phillies at the end of May but recently rejoined the team. His .522 OPS is a testament to how little talent is actually located on the IronPigs roster.

Pitcher Travis Blackley, whom the Phillies took in the Rule 5 Draft last season from the San Francisco Giants farm system, didn't make the Phillies roster but found his way to Triple-A to develop. Blackley is 1-3 with a 5.65 ERA and has struckout 30 hitters (7.36 K/9) and walked 22 (5.4 BB/9) in thirty-six and two-thirds of an inning. Blackley has talent but needs to figure out how to control his stuff. If you can't keep hitters from walking in the International League, you won't be able to do that in the National League.

Far and away the Phillies best player on the IronPigs roster is J.A. Happ. Happ's pedestrian 3-5 record masks an impressive 3.86 ERA (impressively low and doubley impressive given how little help Happ gets) and some nice stats. Happ has 81 strikeouts in 77 innings of work (9.47 K/9) and he allowed 30 walks (2.70 K/BB ratio). If anyone from the Phillies rotation goes down or if Adam Eaton needs to be pulled in August and September, Happ is the guy to take his spot.

Reading Phillies. Current record: 22-34. Standings: 6th of 6 teams in in the Eastern League's Southern Division, eleven games back of Harrisburg. Players of note: Jason Donald (SS), Greg Golson (OF), Jeremy Slayden (OF), Andrew Carpenter (P), Carlos Carrasco (P), and Josh Outman (P).

There is a lot of talent on the Reading Phillies roster and I think that the '09 Lehigh Valley IronPigs are going to be a pretty decent team. I'm pretty bullish on the arms that the Phillies have coming up through their system and Reading is where the talent is at. Carpenter is just 2-7 with a 6.94 ERA but he is pitching better than that. It is also worth remembering that Carpenter pitched very well in Clearwater in '07: 17-6, 3.20 ERA, 6.40 K/9, 2.93 BB/9.

After Carpenter, the Phillies have two other terrific talents: Carrasco and Outman. Let's start with Carrasco, who has been rated as the best prospect in the Phillies system. Currently Carrasco has been blowing away the opposition in Reading. His 4-4 record and 3.91 ERA masks some scary numbers: 72 strikeouts in 73 & 2/3 innings, or 8.80 K/9. He also possesses a 2.57 K/BB ratio. Carrasco has an exceptional arm and is clearly destined to take the place of Jamie Moyer or Adam Eaton in Philadelphia in 2009. He might actually be major-league ready right now.

Outman is a curious case of someone who posts numbers equally good, if not better than Carrasco, and yet doesn't earn the same respect. Outman's issue right now is control: he has a 2-6 record and a 3.61 ERA but he's getting a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks. How many players strikeout over ten batters per nine innings of work? Outman does: 10.3 K/9 (53 Ks in 46 & 1/3 innings). How many can find success despite allowing over five walks an inning? Outman does: 5.05 BB/9 (26 walks). Once Outman gains control he'll return to being the pitcher who matched Carrasco stride-for-stride in '06 and '07. I predict seeing Outman in Philadelphia in '10.

The Reading Phillies position players are an interesting bunch. First there is Greg Golson, the talented former high schooler from Texas that the Phillies are trying to make into a major leaguer and might yet succeed, but for Golson's inability to avoid striking out again and again and again. Golson is a strikeout artist and has K'd a whopping 73 times so far this year. Sadly, the strikeouts detract from the fact that Golson is fast (16 steals in 19 tries) and has power (13 doubles and 7 home runs in just 57 games).

Then these is Jeremy Slayden, the slow-footed slugging rightfielder from Georgia Tech who tore up the Florida State League last season. This season Slayden has struggled a little with good competition, but he's generally played well. His 5 home runs and 40 RBI aren't that impressive, but when coupled with his .355 OBP, they make a strong argument for Slayden to advance to the IronPigs in '09.

Finally, Jason Donald. The talented shortstop from the University of Arizona is the big surprise of the Phillies system. More of a defensively oriented player, Donald has an impressive .399 OBP and has displayed a lot of speed (7 for 9 in steals, 3 triples) and power (4 home runs, 10 doubles, and a .444 slugging percentage). He's a terrific player and could be backing up Jimmy Rollins next year.

Tomorrow: Clearwater and Lakewood. Today is an off-day for the Phillies.


Jamarillo is the most touted catcher in the Phillies minor system? Where does Lou Marson's .347/.458/.449 in 176 AB rank? As the regular who leads Reading in both average and OBP, I am surprised he was not mentioned.

As a Met fan, all I can say after this weekend is this. The Phillies are playing baseball. I have NO IDEA what the hell the Mets are doing, but it's not playing baseball.

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra... it's gettng late very early.
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