Taking a peek at Phillies' minor-league system

Taking a peek at Phillies' minor-league system

Lunch Break: Predicting the Phillies' season

March 28, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Jesse Biddle (left) will open the season at Double A, while David Buchanan (center) and Tyson Gillies (right) will start at Triple A. (USA Today Images)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- At baseball’s winter meetings in December, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made a couple of interesting comments about the state of his team.

In referring to the club that will take the field for the 2014 season opener Monday, Amaro said: “We’re built to win. We’re built to contend.”

Moments later, a reporter asked Amaro what the team’s course would be if the team doesn’t win. Could there be a transition phase, a rebuilding effort, coming if the aging Phillies team didn’t win in 2014?

Amaro conceded that, yes, at some point the team might have to rebuild, but it hadn’t reached that stage.

Yet.

When the Phillies take the field Monday in Arlington, Texas, they will start a three-month walk on a fault line.

Stay upright and in contention and this team might stay together deep into the summer.

Stumble and that rebuilding effort could start in earnest with several notable players, starting with Cliff Lee, heading out the door in a trade deadline purge.

In a sense, the rebuilding of the Phillies has already started. The team has integrated several young players -- notably Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Cody Asche -- into the lineup over the last year, and others such as Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez, Jonathan Pettibone and Mario Hollands are certainly in the mix.

But if the Phillies go all-in on a rebuilding effort, eyes will immediately gravitate toward the minor-league system.

What’s coming?

You know about Maikel Franco, the hard-hitting corner infielder who will open the season in Triple A unless he’s a late addition to the big-league roster. He projects as the big, homegrown, right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat this club has long desired.

The problem with the Phillies’ minor-league system is that it is thin, especially at the upper levels. It is not ready to fuel an all-out rebuilding effort any time soon.

Benny Looper, the Phillies' assistant general manager who oversees the minor leagues, does not deny there are shortcomings in the system.

But Looper also sees good things happening.

“I’ve seen and read the negative stuff,” he said one recent morning as he stood on the field watching workouts at the Carpenter Complex. “But we’ve got some guys here. I know we like them more than anyone, but we’ve got some people. It’s just a matter of developing them and getting them to the big leagues.”

Looper especially likes some of the very young players the Phillies have at Single A and below, players such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, last year’s top draft pick; bazooka-armed, 18-year-old catcher Deivy Grullon; and soft-handed shortstop Malquin Canelo.

“The bright spot is (low single A) Lakewood, but we’ve got guys we like at every level,” Looper said.

As minor-league camp was coming to a close, Looper offered some thoughts on the system and some of the notable players in it:

• The Lakewood lineup “will be very interesting,” Looper said. The lineup includes shortstop Crawford; catcher Gabriel Lino; first baseman Wilmer Oberto; second baseman Andrew Pullin; power-hitting third baseman Zach Green; and outfielders Carlos Tocci, Dylan Cozens, Samuel Hiciano and Larry Greene.

Cozens, a second-round draft pick in 2012, is a left-handed hitter with huge power. Greene, of course, was the Phillies’ first pick in the 2011 draft. The lefty hitter also has huge power potential, but hasn’t been able to hit his way out of low A ball. In 657 professional at-bats, Greene has 241 strikeouts and just six homers. He’s also had conditioning issues.

“He needs to step it up and move forward,” Looper said. “Not that we’d give up on him, but we need to see some progress. He needs to have more quality at-bats so he has a chance to show his power.”

• Looper mentioned third baseman Harold Martinez as one of the biggest eye-openers in camp. Martinez, 23, was a second-round pick out of Miami in 2011. He was passed by Franco on the depth chart, spent some time at first base, but is now back on track at third and possibly headed for Double A.

“He trimmed up his body and has shown better bat speed,” Looper said. “Whatever he did this winter really worked. He has better reactions at third base.”

• Lefty Jesse Biddle and righty Severino Gonzalez will headline the pitching staff at Double A Reading. Biddle is repeating the level because he needs to throw more strikes and improve his fielding, Looper said. The Phillies love the “pitch-ability” that Gonzalez, a skinny 21-year-old Panamanian, shows.

“He’s got presence, movement and good command,” Looper said.

Ken Giles, he of the triple-digit fastball, will open in Reading’s bullpen.

“Our best arm,” Looper said.

Pitcher Brody Colvin, once promising enough to earn a $900,000 signing bonus in 2009, will look to get his career on track out of Reading’s bullpen. Austin Wright, another former starter, will also work out of Reading’s bullpen. Tommy Joseph will catch at Reading.

• Outfielder Cameron Perkins, a 2012 draft pick who made the Florida State League all-star team last year, will head to Double A.

The clock is ticking on 2008 first-rounders Anthony Hewitt and Zach Collier, both outfielders. Both are headed back to Double A.

• Centerfielder Tyson Gillies, a tremendous athlete who has been plagued by injuries and off-field issues, returns to Triple A.

Gillies is 25 and the clock is also ticking on him. Why haven’t the Phillies given up on him?

“Too much ability,” Looper said. “We have a lot of time invested in him. If he fails or succeeds, we’d like it to be with us. He had a good camp, though he tweaked a hamstring recently.”

• Right-hander David Buchanan, who made an excellent showing in big-league camp, will open in the Triple A rotation.

• No look at the Phillies’ farm system can be complete without mentioning injuries. A slew of good prospects are coming back from surgeries.

At the top of the list is lefty Adam Morgan. A year ago, he headed to Triple A as the system’s most advanced pitching prospect. He spent the spring rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

“We’re crossing our fingers he pitches this year,” Looper said.

Ditto for right-hander Shane Watson. The team’s first pick in 2012 is also rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Third baseman Mitchell Walding is out for a couple of months after having rib surgery. Outfielder Aaron Altherr is still behind schedule after suffering a wrist injury in the Arizona Fall League. Jiwan James is also behind after requiring offseason surgery for Crohn’s disease.

Some good news on the injury front: Catcher Andrew Knapp, last year’s second-rounder, is making good progress recovering from Tommy John surgery. He could be used as a designated hitter in April. Phillies officials really like his bat.

Also, shortstop Roman Quinn is recovering quickly from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. He is taking ground balls.

“He’ll be in the field this year,” Looper said.

With Crawford viewed as the shortstop of the future, there has been speculation that the speedy Quinn will move to center field. Not so fast.

“He’s put a lot of work into shortstop and really improved,” Looper said. “We want to keep him there.”