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June 22, 2001

Touring the Minors

Organizational Overview: Philadelphia Phillies

by Keith Scherer

About the time Jimmy Carter left office and Brett Myers was born, the Philadelphia Phillies were a proud organization. They had the sharpest scouts, a huge staff of men trained in Branch Rickey's maxims. Even their executives had a scouting mindset. The Phillies wrote the book on scouting: the Philadelphia Scouting Manual. Philadelphia's scouts were intensely competitive, arousing hatred and admiration. In Dollar Sign on the Muscle, Kevin Kerrane quotes one Phillies scout as saying that they were "the anti-fraternity of scouting...as well as anti-draft, anti-Bureau, anti-middle of the [freakin'] road."

Right now, the Phillies are in first place in the NL East. They're successful, but are they proud, are they an organization to fear, an organization capable of arousing resentment? Going into this season, they hadn't posted a winning record in seven years. Just a year ago, the Phillies' winning percentage was .401. They were playing like they were anti-middle of the road; they were pro-ditch. Their spike this season will likely fade before the year is over, but even if they hold on through September they are almost certain to suffer a regression next season. Their run atop the division is most likely a false spring rather than an organizational renaissance.

So where do they go from here? As we noted in Baseball Prospectus 2001, the Phillies have suffered "a complete organizational meltdown in scouting, player development, and team management." In other words, they have been drafting like they were still anti-draft. But some decent trades (for example, Andy Ashby for Bruce Chen and Jimmy Osting) and the last few drafts have brought the organization some new talent to complement its nucleus of young stars--Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Pat Burrell--so that the Phillies will have options when it comes time to restock the roster. The Phillies are especially deep in pitchers who project to be back-of-the-rotation starters, suited to the Phillies' focus on pitchers who exploit angles, have good control, and know how to change speed. They can trade the prospects for short bursts of August energy, or develop them for future use. Either way, it's an option the Phillies haven't had in a very long time. Credit scouting director Mike Arbuckle for the revival.

Most of the Phillies' most promising pitching prospects are playing in the lower minor leagues, but the staff at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (International League) has several pitchers who could help the parent club soon, especially with Vern Ruhle there to help them. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre staff has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the International League, with the third-best strikeout rate, third-best opponents' batting average, and third fewest home runs allowed.

We noted in BP 2001 that the Phillies have made a conscious effort to decrease the number of pitches their starters throw at Scranton. I don't yet have this year's pitch count information, but three of Scranton's pitchers (Brandon Duckworth, Nelson Figueroa, and Dave Coggin) are in the top five in innings pitched in the IL. Four of Reading's pitchers are in the top 12 of the Eastern League's innings-pitched leaderboard.

Brandon Duckworth is Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's ace. He's not the Phillies' top prospect, but he's the closest to making a difference in the majors. Duckworth has a low-90s fastball with movement, and a great curve that was rated the Eastern League's best last season. He has maintained his excellent ratios from Double-A, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 4 to 1 and more than a strikeout per inning. Last season was a breakthrough; Duckworth wasn't drafted after his senior year in college, so he wasn't expected to do this well. Going into this season, skeptics were watching to see if Duckworth could do it again and at a higher level of competition, and he has.

Nelson Figueroa is ripe at 27 years old. He doesn't have the benefit of being left-handed, he doesn't throw hard, and he isn't much of a prospect, but he's making the most of his turns. Going into the season he needed to improve his strikeout rate, which is now at 7.7 per nine innings, up from last season's 6.3. His hits-to-innings ratio is right side up and he hasn't allowed many home runs, just six in 76 1/3 innings. He might not be a prospect, but he could have a major-league career. He has already appeared in Philadelphia once this season.

Evan Thomas is another 27-year old finesse right-hander (90 mph fastball) without size or pedigree, so he has to keep proving himself in order to get a shot at the majors. Unlike Figueroa, Thomas hasn't met the challenge. Usually, older players repeating seasons at a level require a caveat: their performances are probably less impressive than they appear. Thomas must be living the torments of the damned, then, because his performance has been ghastly: a 5.88 ERA, 70 hits, 17 walks, and seven home runs allowed in 56 2/3 innings, and only 37 strikeouts. Right-handed batters are hitting .329 against him. Scouts don't like him because he's five-foot-ten and 170 pounds. He's giving the rest of us our own good reasons.

Dave Coggin is reputed to have a great arm, but he has battled injuries and poor stamina through his pro career. This year he needed regular work and a full season of health. He has started 13 games, totaling 87 innings, so he's getting the work. His fastball is 92 to 93 mph and his curve is major league, but his control has been poor through the minors and his strikeout rates have been low. This season he has allowed 3.1 walks per nine innings, less than half of what he allowed last season at Triple-A, but his strikeout rate is only 5.1 per nine innings, a decrease from last year's 5.4. The net result is that his 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio is still terrible, but it's twice as good as last year's .8 to 1.

Doug Nickle should make it from Scranton's bullpen to the Phillies' bullpen soon after the All-Star break. He's one of those rare relievers who makes it onto the prospect lists. His 1.20 ERA is hard to ignore, and his hits-to-innings ratio (27 hits in 45 innings) says he's about done with Triple-A. He's limiting righties to a .157 batting average, and lefties to .212. His control numbers are poor (31 strikeouts, 22 walks) but that didn't stop the Phillies from recalling Ed Vosberg.

Pete Zamora is a 26-year old left-handed reliever with fair ratios (34 innings, 23 hits, 17 walks, and 30 strikeouts), so he will get a compulsory callup. He's not just a specialist; he's holding righties to a .182 average.

The staff at Double-A Reading (Eastern League) is led by the aforementioned Brett Myers, the Phillies' first pick in the 1999 draft, and their #2 prospect in Baseball America's rankings. His moving, mid-90s fastball gets him the raves, and he has a good curve to complement it. In this year's book, we said he needed to work on his control before we believed the hype. His Davenport Translations (DTs) from Piedmont (A) were terrible (5.05 walks and 3.74 strikeouts per nine innings). This season, Myers has 57 strikeouts and 20 walks in 78 innings. His strikeout rate is below league average. He has given up 11 homeruns. He's only 21, so it's probably progress, but I want to see the DTs.

Carlos Silva is a middling prospect, earning a C from John Sickels and rating as the organization's 20th-best prospect according to Baseball America. He throws in the mid-to-upper 90s but doesn't rack up the strikeouts someone with that heat should. He has 55 in 93 innings, a rate of 5.3 per nine. Last year, his rate was 4.19 K/9. He's all fastball, and last season he was tagged for 229 hits in 176 innings at Clearwater (A). This season, he has allowed only 88 hits (8.5 per nine innings), a dramatic improvement.

The best numbers on Reading's staff belong to left-hander Adam Walker. He's a change-up specialist who stands 6'7". In 83 innings he has allowed only 47 hits, with 69 strikeouts against 27 walks. He doesn't have the stuff that scouts like, but his strikeout rate and control ratio justify a promotion to Triple-A and he seems perfectly suited to the Phillies' preference for pitchers over throwers.

The last of the Phillies' best pitching prospects are pitching against A-ball hitters at Clearwater. Highly-regarded Brad Baisley (6'9", 205 pounds) has allowed less than a hit per inning. His strikeout rate is fair (6.3 K/9), and his control is good (3.6 to 1 K/BB). It's true that he's repeating at Clearwater, but he didn't pitch a full year there last season. There are lingering concerns about his health. Baisley was the organization's third-rated prospect in >Baseball America and his rotation mate, Ryan Madson, ranked fourth. He's 6'6", 180 pounds. He's giving up hits (92 in 80 1/3 innings) but his control (2-to-1 K/BB) and strikeout rate (7.8 per nine innings) are decent. Baisley and Madsen have good curveballs and, like Jon Rauch of the White Sox, they use their height to enliven their low-90s fastballs. They're in Clearwater to grow into their bodies.

When Jimmy Rollins is the top hitting prospect in your organization, there isn't much about which to get excited. The good ones are in Philadelphia already. But with Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, and, when healthy, Mike Lieberthal in the lineup, the Phillies aren't hard-up for position players.

Now that Rollins is in Philadelphia, Chase Utley, the Phillies' first-round pick in 2000, is the organization's most promising hitter. He's at Clearwater learning second base (he was drafted as a shortstop), but may be moved to third if Rolen leaves. He's a fielder in the sense that Todd Walker is a fielder, in that he takes up a position in the field every half inning, so he'll need to hit to keep moving up the chain. He's batting .252, with nine home runs and 15 doubles in 250 at-bats (.428 SLG), along with nine stolen bases, but his batting eye needs work (51 strikeouts, 17 walks).

Moving from A to Double-A last season, left-handed-hitting right fielder Eric Valent saw his batting average drop by 30 points, from .288 to .258. His plate patience improved, though, so it shouldn't be a surprise that his average has recovered to .294 at Triple-A before being promoted to give the Phillies an extra bat in interleague games. Last season, he was a reverse platoon, hitting lefties better than righties. This season he's batting .311 against LHPs and .279 against RHPs, but his power comes against righties (.552 SLG vs. righties, .472 SLG vs. lefties). He has decent strike-zone judgment and draws plenty of walks. He's solid in right field, with decent range and a strong arm. He's skillful out there but he's slow. If the Phillies move him to left field, he looks like an excellent complement to Abreu. The Phillies' version of Rusty Greer and Juan Gonzalez?

Reggie Taylor, a lefty-hitting tools prospect and defensive specialist in center field, has problems. He batted .275 last year with decent power, but his career OBP of .296 has been troublesome. He strikes out and doesn't draw walks. This season, his first full one against Triple-A pitching, he's batting .198/.228/.282, with 42 strikeouts and seven walks in 177 at-bats. Not that Josh Hamilton is doing any better than that, but Taylor will not get Hamilton's nine lives. He's especially meager against his own kind, batting .109 against southpawss, with no extra-base hits in 46 at-bats. Outfielder Marlon Byrd is in his first year at Double-A. He has 15 home runs in 246 at-bats, slugging .505 with 15 stolen bases. His strike-zone judgment and plate patience need work (50 strikeouts, 23 walks). Byrd hasn't been playing baseball for very long, so his development is impressive, and his tremendous work effort could get him to and through Triple-A before Reggie Taylor sees Philadelphia again.

Then there's first baseman Nate Espy. He was too old to be in Piedmont last year, and he's too old to be in Clearwater this year. He hits for average and power, and last year he drew 101 walks and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1 to 1. This year he's hitting .288 with power, has drawn walks and posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1 to 1. It's high time for Double-A. He deserves to know whether he's this good.

The Phillies aren't back, in spite of being in first place for the moment, but they're on their way. They are deep with functional pitching prospects, not on par with the Astros but good enough to fill out a pitching staff. The hitters are mostly in place already. As with the Cubs, this year is gravy for the Phillies. If the organization keeps that in mind and lets Mike Arbuckle do his work, the days of pride and resentment will return.

Keith J. Scherer is an attorney practicing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at KJSbaseball@aol.com.

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