It's been an eventful few weeks for Phillies prospects -- call-ups, fast starts, slow starts and eye-opening performances.
Zach Eflin was called up from Triple A after one start to replace the injured Clay Buchholz. Mark Leiter Jr. was promoted to give the Phils an extra arm in the bullpen. Right-hander Ben Lively spent a few days in the majors and didn't pitch but collected some coin -- an estimated $8,500 for three days -- before heading back down to Triple A.
"The big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Sunday after Eflin pitched seven strong innings.
With that, we'll begin this week's Future Phillies Report with the starting pitcher off to the hottest start.
(This edition features only the players at Triple A, with an update on prospects at lower levels coming later in the week.)
RHP Nick Pivetta
Pivetta, the 6-foot-5 right-hander the Phillies acquired from the Nationals in the 2015 Jonathan Papelbon trade, continues to exceed expectations. Through three starts with Lehigh Valley, he's 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA. In 19 innings, he's allowed just 12 hits, struck out 24 and walked two.
"He's shown a very crisp breaking ball and his location has been really good," Phillies GM Matt Klentak said Saturday. "He's growing up as a pitcher. He's been pretty outstanding so far through three starts. We're pretty pleased with that."
Pivetta, who turned 24 on Valentine's Day, has excelled since going up to Triple A late last season. In eight total starts with the IronPigs, he has a 1.85 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings.
"He's doing everything that I need to see right now," IronPigs pitching coach Dave Lundquist told CSN Philly over the weekend. "The command is there, he's getting ahead of guys, he's finishing hitters. He's got the ability to hold runners and field his position. He's been pretty good in all areas. I like what I'm seeing right now.
"Powerful fastball, good angle, good movement on it. He's shown plus command so far this year. The curveball has a sharp late break. The slider, in and out of the zone, is swing-and-miss pitch right now. Fourth pitch is the changeup, something he hasn't used too much because of the heavy right-hand dominant lineups he's faced and we look to continue using that pitch as well.
"So you've got a strong starter that gets stronger as the game goes on with a four-pitch mix. You've got to love the way he attacks hitters, he goes right after you. He challenges every hitter."
Pivetta is on the 40-man roster and could be the next arm up if the Phillies need a starting pitcher. Leiter and Lively were called up before Pivetta because the Phils wanted to keep Pivetta on his regular schedule. Why mess with a good thing?
Just like the 2014 Roberto Hernandez trade that netted the Phils Jesmuel Valentin, the Phillies did well in the Pivetta deal, trading away a player with which they had little leverage for a legitimate prospect.
(For more on Pivetta, including comments from the pitcher himself on his season, check out Phillies Clubhouse Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on CSN.)
SS J.P. Crawford
Crawford still hasn't gotten going. Through 15 games, he's 5 for 52 (.096) with one extra-base hit, one RBI, eight walks and 17 strikeouts.
Crawford, who hits left-handed, is just 2 for 35 with 14 strikeouts against righties, which is troubling.
Crawford's never had this cold a streak as a pro so it will be interesting to see how long it lasts and if/when he can break out of it. Cold spells at the beginning of the season are much more noticeable than a slump in June, so let's not get ahead of ourselves either and throw out words like "bust." As Ryan Lawrence of the Philly Voice pointed out over the weekend, Crawford's numbers are extremely similar to Jimmy Rollins' through this point.
"I think we want to give it a little time before we put too much stock in an early-season slump," Klentak said over the weekend.
Including last season, Crawford's sample size at Triple A is 101 games and 441 plate appearances and he's hit .224/.314/.294. His long acclaimed strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped against more advanced Triple A pitching -- 50 walks, 75 strikeouts. Prior to reaching Triple A he had walked 190 times and struck out 184.
C Jorge Alfaro
Alfaro, who went 6 for 12 over the weekend with a homer and a triple, is having a great April for the second straight year. He got off to a hot start last season at Double A Reading before suffering an oblique injury that kept him out three weeks.
He's been healthy so far this season -- knock on wood -- and is hitting .357 through 14 games. In 96 plate appearances the last two Aprils, he's hit .413/.438/.630.
Alfaro hasn't yet thrown out a base stealer, but perhaps opposing teams have caught on to his arm strength. Alfaro has been behind the plate for 91 innings and only two men have attempted stolen bases, both reaching successfully.
Alfaro is an advanced prospect but he still isn't walking and maybe never will. Despite the high batting average and the care with which opposing pitchers handle him, he has just one walk and 16 strikeouts. Add that to last year's total and you have 23 walks and 121 K's.
Can Alfaro be an effective major-leaguer some day soon without having above-average or even average plate selection? Prospects who lack that skill tend to struggle early in their major-league careers, but Alfaro has enough of a hit tool that it might not be a huge deal. A catcher who hits .275/.315/.460 is still pretty valuable.
RHP Jake Thompson
Thompson has settled in since allowing 15 runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first two starts.
He pitched seven shutout innings Sunday, striking out seven and allowing only three baserunners, all on singles. Over his last two outings Thompson has given up one run in 12 innings with 13 strikeouts to lower his ERA from 28.93 to 8.64.
Most importantly over these last two starts, he's been missing bats. Thompson was a power pitcher when he first turned pro but over the years has modified his repertoire to throw more sinkers, usually in the 92 mph range, and generate ground balls. That focus on quick outs led to a drastic drop-off in swinging strikes and strikeouts. Thompson struck out just 87 batters last season in 129 2/3 innings at Triple A, a rate of 6.0 per nine innings.
Over his last two starts, Thompson has induced 26 swinging strikes, which is more than he had over any two-game span last year.
Why is that important?
Last season, only four starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title struck out fewer than 6.0 batters per nine innings: Jered Weaver, Doug Fister, Martin Perez and Kendall Graveman. Respectively, their ERAs were 5.06, 4.64, 4.39 and 4.11.
It's hard to be successful at the major-league level if you can't miss a bat in a big situation. You either need elite command, a sinker that does its job or both.
To be effective in the majors, Thompson is going to need to combine these skills. He's not going to miss as many bats as Vince Velasquez, nor is he going to be a top-level groundballer like Dallas Keuchel. But if he can do both things pretty well, he's going to be OK.
OF Nick Williams
Williams was 5 for 28 through his first eight games and is 11 for 26 over his last eight, with two doubles and a homer.
Overall, he's hitting .296/.316/.426 with four doubles, a homer, five RBIs, one walk and 19 strikeouts.
No, he's still not walking. And at this point, no, he may never walk with any regularity.
If that turns out to be the case, it's fair to question Williams' ceiling, even with the bat speed, foot speed and athleticism. So far, he's been a prospect with a solid hit tool who doesn't walk enough or hit for enough power to project as a true middle-of-the-order bat in the majors.
There aren't many recent examples in the majors of an outfielder hitting better than .280 with an on-base percentage below .320.
Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, who's never walked much, has routinely been in both ranges, hitting .279 with a .318 OBP from 2010-16. Jones has remained a valuable player, though, because he's averaged 28 homers per year over that time and played Gold Glove defense.
Williams has never shown that kind of consistent home run power, topping out at 17 homers in Single A in 2013 and Double A in 2015. Then again, it's worth noting Jones had only one minor-league season with more than 16 homers.
You'll see Williams at Citizens Bank Park at some point this season barring an injury or an epically bad season at Triple A. He's already on the 40-man roster, and if nothing else he's a logical September call-up, especially if the Phillies trade Michael Saunders and/or Daniel Nava around the deadline.
1B Rhys Hoskins
Talk about consistency -- Hoskins has reached base in 16 of the 17 games he's played this season. He's hitting .321/.429/.604 with three doubles, four home runs, nine walks and 11 strikeouts.
It bodes well for the future when a power hitter is controlling the strike zone in the minors. That's typically a skill that translates to the majors. That doesn't mean Hoskins will one day have a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio in The Show, but he should be able to contribute beyond the occasional home run.
Hoskins turns 25 next March, and at this rate, there's no way the Phillies will be able to keep him off of next year's opening day roster. The organization is high on Hoskins' intellect at the plate, and though Tommy Joseph has 22 home runs and a .473 slugging percentage in 407 plate appearances, he also has a .300 on-base percentage. It's not as if Joseph has firmly seized that everyday first base job.
OF Dylan Cozens
Cozens leads the IronPigs with 10 RBIs through 17 games, but he's hitting just .140 with 25 strikeouts in 65 plate appearances. He's struck out at least once in each of his last 13 games, punching out 24 times in total.
That's an even higher rate of strikeouts than Cozens had last season at Double A, when he whiffed 186 times.
Cozens has the most raw power of any Phillies prospect but it takes more than that to stick in the majors. He's a month away from his 23rd birthday, so it's not like he's a finished product. The Phillies will give him plenty of time. Given the importance of Cozens' development and the relative depth the Phillies have in young outfielders (Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, Williams, Roman Quinn), there's no need or point in rushing him. Cozens will get a full season at Triple A.
Even if Cozens does cut down on the strikeouts some, to this point he's looked like a platoon player. A left-handed hitter, Cozens had no home runs in 165 plate appearances against lefties in High A in 2015, and he's hit .181 against lefties at Double A and Triple A.
2B Jesmuel Valentin
Klentak said over the weekend that he considered bringing up Jesmuel Valentin to fill out the Phillies' bench before acquiring infielder/outfielder Ty Kelly, who will join the team in time for Tuesday's series opener against Miami.
"We're constantly trying to balance what is the right thing for the major-league bench with what is the right thing for a player's development," Klentak said. "And in Jez's case, he's off to a real good start, and the more we can do to allow him to keep that going, the better. That was a viable possibility absent Ty Kelly becoming available."
Valentin has hit .292 through 52 plate appearances and has converted 41 defensive chances at second base without an error.
Based on Klentak's admission over the weekend and how close Valentin was to cracking the Phillies' opening-day roster, it's clear they view him as a near-ready piece who could serve as a utility infielder.
The thing is, there might not be much opportunity for Valentin here over the next few years. Why? Five reasons:
• Cesar Hernandez is locked in at second base.
• Crawford is the shortstop of the future.
• A spot will need to be found for Freddy Galvis when Crawford arrives.
• Scott Kingery is off to a great start at Double A and looks like more of an impact player.
• Andres Blanco, 33, continues to provide the Phillies so much value as a bench bat and utilityman that they're not going to let him leave anytime soon.
RHP Mark Appel
Appel has made 11 starts at Triple A since the Phillies acquired him in the Ken Giles trade prior to 2016. He's lasted past the fifth inning one time.
It's hard for an organization to trust a pitcher when he's unable to reach six innings in the minors. A team doesn't want to call up a guy for a spot start knowing it might need the bullpen for four or five innings anyway.
The clock is ticking on Appel, whose opponents this season have hit .327 with three homers, six walks and seven strikeouts in 60 plate appearances.
His stuff isn't good enough to overcome a lack of command and he knows it, and as a result he does a lot of nibbling on the outside corner, which results in walks, which results in high-stress innings, which results in runs scoring. It's not a good recipe for Appel, who was drafted first overall in 2013 and has faced immense pressure every step of the way.
Later this week: A look at the Phillies' prospects below Triple A