Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' youngsters

Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' youngsters
February 9, 2014, 10:30 am
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The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Ten years ago, the Phillies invited a kid to big-league camp because they wanted to get an extra look at him before he headed off to the minor leagues for seasoning.

What a look that kid provided.

On an early March day in Tampa, the kid pitched two scoreless innings against the New York Yankees and dropped jaws by striking out Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Tony Clark in his second inning of work.

That kid was 20-year-old Cole Hamels.

A decade later, he has a World Series ring on his finger and is the owner of the largest contract in Philadelphia sports history.

Who will be this year’s Kid Cole?

What youngster will come into camp and stir excitement for things to come?

Will it be pitcher Jesse Biddle, the lefty out of Germantown Friends who was the team’s top draft pick in 2010?

Will it be power-hitting corner infielder Maikel Franco?

How about Kenny Giles and his 100-mph arm?

And let’s not forget Cody Asche, the 23-year-old third baseman who opened eyes in his first big-league camp last year. He made it to the majors in July and played well enough in 50 games that he comes into this camp as the lead candidate to be the team’s third baseman, but he is still far from proven. He needs a good camp to solidify his spot in the opening day lineup and a good season to show team officials that he can be the man going forward.

Asche is ready for all these challenges.

“I don’t look at it as it’s my job to lose,” he said. “I look at it as it’s a spot I need to get. I put it on myself to make the decision easy for them.”

Phillies officials love to create spring-training competition. It sharpens players, keeps them hungry. Not that he needs one, but Asche will receive a little push in this camp from Franco, the 21-year-old hitting prodigy from the Dominican Republic.

Franco is a third baseman by trade, but he can also play first base. He combined to hit .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs at Single A and Double A in 2013. Franco had less than 300 plate appearances at Double A last season. He could very well open the season back at Reading and work his way to Triple A. Franco might be the right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat the Phillies have long looked to develop. A strong season could have him knocking on the door next spring.

But Franco isn’t coming to this camp to blend in with the palm trees. While he’s here, he will compete.

“I frankly hope there is a great competition in spring training between Maikel and Cody,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “That can create a heck of a situation for us. They’re both very, very good young players.”

Outfielders Kelly Dugan and Aaron Altherr will also make their first trips to big-league camp after being added to the 40-man roster this winter. Pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is another intriguing newcomer to camp. We’ll deal with him later in this series.

Staying on the pitching side, Giles, a 23-year-old reliever, is looking to make the jump to Double A this season. But while he’s in big-league camp, it will be fun to see him rev up his power fastball. He reached 103 mph in a Florida State League game at Daytona last summer, but control can be a problem.

“When he’s right, it’s fun to watch,” said Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development. “It’s the stuff that pitches at the end of games in the big leagues. But he’s not there yet. He’s going to have to pitch under control and throw strikes.”

Biddle also needs to throw more strikes after averaging more than five walks per nine innings at Double A last season. But the 22-year-old left-hander’s talent is indisputable. He showed it in his first five starts at Double A last season. He had a 1.74 ERA over that span and struck out 40 in 31 innings. In one of those starts, he struck out 16 and allowed just one hit in seven innings. Biddle struggled with control and illness (whooping cough) after that. He will look to build consistency as he tries to pitch his way to Triple A at some point this season.

A year from now, he might be bidding for a spot in the big team’s starting rotation.

For now, he’s in camp for the experience of it all. Maybe he can pick up a thing or two from Hamels, a fellow lefty who was in his shoes ten years ago.