Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Unlike some of his fellow Phillies prospects, Nick Williams did not play winter ball this year.

The 2016 season was his first in the organization and when it was over …

“I needed to get away, you know, breathe and stop worrying about everything,” the 23-year-old outfielder said in a soul-baring interview Tuesday at Phillies camp.

Williams was one of the big guns, a must-have hitter, in the July 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers.

The Phillies got four other prospects in the deal, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson.

They all played in the majors with the Phillies last year.

Williams did not.

He did not earn a look in the majors because, well, he could not conquer the opponent in Triple A.

That opponent was himself.

“This is a humbling game,” Williams said. “You need to respect it and go out and have fun.

“Last season I feel like I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun because I was thinking, ‘Big leagues, big leagues, big leagues.’ I was taking a lot of the fun away from it because I was putting too much pressure on myself. My approach was, ‘With this pitch, I can get to the big leagues,’ and that’s totally wrong.”

The pressure that Williams put on himself hampered his performance in the final weeks of the season. Over his final 31 games, he hit just .161 with a .180 on-base percentage. He struck out 45 times over that span and walked just once as his on-base percentage for the season tumbled to .287.

“I think it was all because I was trying too hard,” Williams said. “I felt like all my troubles went into the same thing and I became overaggressive.”

Williams used the offseason as a time to put some physical strength on his 6-3, 200-pound frame, reflect on his 2016 season and contemplate how he can get better in 2017. During his time of reflection, he came to conclusion that his problems in 2016 were self-inflicted. That includes the two times he was benched for not hustling.

“All of the guys that I was traded with ended up in the big leagues except me,” Williams offered. “But I realize that they were ready and I wasn’t.

“Last year was a huge learning experience for me — new organization, going to Triple A — and I did some dumb things, some immature things.

“I got benched for not running out a ball. I look back and I might have thought it was harsh, but it was my fault. I should have run the ball out. That’s what I call not respecting the game. It sucked, but I had to take the punishment. I did it. It was my fault.

“That’s why I think it was good for me to just go home and breathe. I had a lot of time to think about all the things I did right and all the things I did wrong and I know what I need to improve on.”

Despite Williams’ poor finish last year, the Phillies remain high on his potential and still believe he can be an impact bat in the majors. He did hit .303 with a .354 on-base percentage, 17 homers, 55 RBIs and a .845 OPS as a 21-year-old in Double A in 2015. He did hit .258 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs as a 22-year-old first-time Triple A player in 2016.

“On July 29, Nick was hitting about .290 with a .320 on-base and a .460 slugging percentage as a 22-year-old in Triple A,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If the season had ended right there, Nick Williams would be all over Top 100 prospects lists, all over the Internet and, frankly, he may have already reached the big leagues.

“That doesn’t mean that August didn’t happen, because it did — he really struggled in August. But what this kid did for the first four months of the minor-league season last year was very impressive, particularly given his age and where he was doing it.

“Obviously he needs to prove that what happened in August is not a trend and get back to doing what he did for the first four months, but this is a talented kid on both sides of the ball. He can run, he can throw, he can hit with power, he will need to, hopefully, improve his walk rate and his plate discipline, but we’re still very keen on his future. I think he’s got a bright future.”

Like many others in camp, Williams is a bit of a project for new hitting coach Matt Stairs. One of Stairs’ goals is to improve the team’s on-base percentage by stressing the concept of having a plan at the plate and not giving away at-bats.

“I gave away a ton of at-bats last year by being overaggressive,” Williams said.

A year ago, there was legitimate hope within the organization that Williams might be ready to hold down a corner outfield job by the start of this season. That has not happened and the team has had to plug those spots with veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Both are on short-term contracts, so a spot might open right back up for Williams in April 2018.

It’s up to him to prove he’s ready by putting together a consistent and productive season at Triple A.

And armed with the lessons he learned about himself last season, he might just do that.

“I want to get to the big leagues as fast as I can,” Williams said. “But I know I need to be a complete player. I believe I can be that consistent player, be a good all-around player and a good teammate, but I know I have to take it one day at a time.

“What can I do today? That’s got to be my approach.”

MLB Notes: Marlins sending David Phelps to Mariners

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MLB Notes: Marlins sending David Phelps to Mariners

MIAMI -- A person familiar with the negotiations tells The Associated Press that the Miami Marlins have traded right-handed reliever David Phelps to the Seattle Mariners for four prospects, including highly regarded outfielder Brayan Hernandez.

The person confirmed the deal to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because the teams have not announced the trade.

Phelps is 2-4 with a 3.45 ERA in 44 games and 47 innings this season. He's a six-year veteran with 64 career starts.

Hernandez, a 19-year-old Venezuelan, is batting .259 in 31 games in the minors this year.

The Mariners entered Thursday three games back in the AL wild-card race. The Marlins are out of playoff contention and looking to upgrade a farm system widely ranked among the worst in the majors (see full story).

Giants: Sandoval reportedly to sign with Giants on minor-league deal
SAN FRANCISCO -- A person with knowledge of his plans tells The Associated Press that Pablo Sandoval plans to sign a minor league contract to return to the San Francisco Giants.

The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because the agreement had not been announced.

Sandoval technically will not be free to agree to a deal with a team until 1 p.m. Eastern Friday.

The Boston Red Sox released Sandoval on Wednesday when the third baseman didn't report after being designated for assignment last week.

It officially ended the Boston tenure for the slugger, who never was healthy enough to live up to the expectations that came with the $95 million free agent contract he signed in 2014.

With the Red Sox unable to find a team willing to take on part of his salary, the 2012 World Series MVP with the San Francisco Giants moved on after a total of 161 games, 575 at-bats, 136 hits and 14 homers for Boston -- but not a single one of them in the postseason (see full story).

Mets: After foul ball catch, Gov. Christie says booing comes with job
NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Days after catching boos after snagging a foul ball at a Mets game, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he's never seen a politician cheered at a sporting event except for President George W. Bush after 9/11.

Christie said Thursday he knew he needed to give the ball he caught during Tuesday night's game to a kid or he'd get even more criticism.

The Republican says that booing comes with the job and noted that TV cameras didn't capture the 10 to 12 people taking pictures with him between innings.

Christie was sitting in the third row, near the New York dugout. In the third inning, St. Louis rookie Paul DeJong lifted a high foul that bounced in the stands. Christie reached out with his left hand and snagged it.

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

Future Phillies Report: Armed with motivation, J.P. Crawford hitting for power

It took the better part of three months but J.P. Crawford is finally on a hot streak. 

Whether it's a result of warmer weather, the ups and downs of a long baseball season, motivation from the national outlets which have soured on him, or all of the above, Crawford is finally hitting the ball with authority.

This week's Future Phillies Report begins with him:

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
Crawford has hit .262 in July with a .357 on-base percentage, but the most impressive part of his month has been the power. Ten of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases (two doubles, two triples and six homers). Crawford is pulling the ball more and generating loft with his swing.

It's an interesting development given the recent criticism from Baseball America's John Manuel and ESPN's Keith Law that Crawford has gotten homer-happy of late. Law wrote in a chat that accompanied his midseason prospect rankings that Crawford had lost his great control of the strike zone because of it.

But the J.P. staples are still there — his on-base percentage is 113 points higher than his batting average this season, and he has 52 walks with 59 strikeouts. 

Crawford has never been a big power guy. These eight home runs are three shy of his career high set in 2014. As Manuel noted on Jim Salisbury's "At the Yard" podcast last week, a player needs to show some pop in order for major-league pitchers to respect his bat and stay away from the middle of the plate. If he doesn't, or if he can't, then that walk total won't be as high once he debuts.

For now, though, Crawford seems to be in a good place, and the Phillies are hoping it continues for another month or so. He still has enough time to turn his 2017 season around and make a push toward next year's opening-day roster.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (Class A Lakewood)
Sanchez is gaining more and more steam nationally as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Law wrote on Wednesday, after seeing Sanchez pitch last week, that he has "perhaps the best" fastball of any starting pitcher in the minors.

The Phillies have been very cautious with Sanchez, who turns 19 on July 29. He has yet to throw more than 80 pitches in any game this season, and his six innings last Wednesday matched his season high.

He's having a stellar year against Single A competition — .199 opponents' batting average, 54 strikeouts, six walks, one home run allowed in 56⅓ innings.

Sanchez still has some things to work on, notably his breaking ball. Even a pitcher with the best of fastballs needs to be able to throw his slider or curveball effectively for strikes to succeed in the majors. 

As Sanchez progresses through the Phillies' minor-league system, these pristine strikeout-walk numbers may regress. His control is excellent and his command is advanced but no 19-year-old has mastered fastball command. In the South Atlantic League, he's been able to keep hitters off balance even when he makes mistakes.

Baseball America ranked Sanchez 47th in its Midseason Top 100, a spot behind Mickey Moniak.

RHP Adonis Medina (Class A Lakewood)
From one young Dominican right-hander to another, Medina is having a very impressive year for the BlueClaws. In 15 starts, he has a 3.32 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 81⅓ innings.

Medina has never before missed bats at this clip. It's his fourth year in the Phillies' system, and from 2014-16 he struck out 6.0 batters per nine innings. This season, he's struck out 10.7 per nine.

Medina, 20, gets his fastball up to the mid-90s and has shown an impressive curveball and changeup this season. 

The Phillies feel good about that young pitching staff at Lakewood, which also includes Nick Fanti, who was involved in his second no-hitter of the season earlier this week.

2B Scott Kingery (AAA)
Kingery has hit safely in 16 of 19 games since being promoted to Lehigh Valley and has reached base in 18 of 19. 

He's swung and missed more often with the IronPigs — his strikeout rate is 23.5 percent at Triple A compared to 16 percent at Double A. But he's still playing well and sparking his team's lineup. 

In his 19 games at Triple A, Kingery has four homers, three doubles and seven steals in as many attempts. Overall this season, he's hit .306/.364/.579 with 21 doubles, 22 homers, 54 RBIs, 26 steals in 29 attempts and 74 runs scored.

And he's done all of this while playing excellent second-base defense. Kingery's speed, defense and contact ability should make him a starting second baseman in the majors soon. His floor seems to be Cesar Hernandez with a bit less plate selection but better defense and baserunning. His ceiling is all of that with the added element of power.

1B Rhys Hoskins (AAA)
For the first time this season, Hoskins is in a cold spell. He's just 9 for 54 with three extra-base hits in July and down to a still-impressive .281/.376/.550 on the season.

Hoskins' call-up will likely occur soon, but the Phillies will first want to him to get back to swinging well and comfortably working deep counts. 

The organization knows it can't keep both Hoskins and Tommy Joseph because both look like everyday first basemen and neither can play another position. The problem is, it doesn't look like the Phils will be able to trade Joseph for much ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.

The only two potential contenders who could use a first baseman were the Yankees and Mariners, but the right-handed heavy Yankees never made a ton of sense for Joseph and can be crossed off after Tuesday's acquisition of Todd Frazier. The Yankees will likely use Frazier and Chase Headley at the infield corners.

The Phils would be wise to hold on to Joseph and try to trade him this winter when more teams are likely to express interest. Even if that's the case, though, they can still call up Hoskins and play him regularly. Joseph is not some seasoned veteran the Phillies should feel locked in to starting. He's a league-average offensive first baseman with a below-average glove. He has some value, but it shouldn't come at the expense of finding out what you have in Hoskins.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
It's a shame Cozens is back to striking out so much because Aaron Altherr's hamstring injury might have created an opportunity for him. Altherr is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks, but the Phillies will likely stem the tide with Daniel Nava and Cameron Perkins before welcoming Howie Kendrick back.

In Cozens' last 100 at-bats, he's hit .230 with six homers and 45 strikeouts. Overall, he's whiffed 126 times in 386 plate appearances. That's an even higher strikeout rate than he had last season when he punched out 186 times.

Opinions of Cozens are mixed. Some question whether he'll make enough contact to ever be a valuable player. Some question his attitude. Most question his defense.

Cozens has 62 homers in 972 plate appearances the last two seasons at Double A and Triple A, but his value is tied almost entirely to that raw power. Will a front office that clearly values consistency, a solid hit tool and thoughtful approach at the plate be able to live with Cozens' streakiness?

He turned 23 at the end of May so he's still not yet at that non-prospect age. But Cozens requires further seasoning and is no lock to be in the majors next spring.

C Jorge Alfaro (AAA)
These final two months are crucial for Alfaro, who has had a down year at Triple A. Through 75 games, he's hit .246/.300/.360 with six homers, 40 RBIs, 16 walks and 96 strikeouts.

Alfaro will be up in the bigs next season — he's out of options after this year — so the need for him to show improvement and more consistency has heightened. 

Over his last seven games, Alfaro is 4 for 27 with no extra-base hits, one walk and 12 strikeouts. The Phillies would be right to wonder whether weeks like that will be frequent once he's in the majors. It's tough to live with a starting catcher who doesn't walk, strikes out a lot, isn't hitting for power and isn't a great receiver.

That last part is very important. Catchers are no longer judged mostly by their throwing arm but instead their ability to frame pitches and block balls in the dirt. Alfaro can also be a bit jumpy behind the plate; teams seek stillness from their catcher as soon as the target is set.

Alfaro has a long way to go, but he has the tools and the upside. He just hasn't squared the ball up enough this season, fouling off or swinging through hittable pitches. The Phillies won't enter the offseason feeling confident about their catching situation, short term, if he has a second half like his first.

OF Adam Haseley (Short-Season Class A Williamsport)
The Phillies' first-round pick has had a hot start to his pro career, hitting .342/.437/.479 with seven extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

Haseley's teammates at Williamsport rave about his work ethic, and there are believers in the Phillies' organization that he will someday be a 25-home run guy.

Haseley's intensity and focus have stuck out to Williamsport manager (and former MLB catcher) Pat Borders, who noted how locked-in and committed to his plan Haseley is during batting practice. 

Haseley's lone home run with Williamsport was an opposite-field shot down the left-field line. He uses the opposite field quite a bit. Borders remarked that once Haseley starts pulling the ball with authority, he'll be a real problem.

"The sky's the limit for him because he can repeat his swing so well and drive the ball," Borders said on this week's Phillies Clubhouse, which will air after Postgame Live Saturday night. "He hit a home run to straight left field the other day, which is a remarkable feat for anybody hitting the ball the other way but especially for somebody his age (21). He's not a super big kid but he's got power going the other way. When he learns to pull the ball with power also, he's going to be a dangerous, dangerous hitter."

OF Mickey Moniak (Class A Lakewood)
Moniak has had some growing pains in his first full pro season. Through 355 plate appearances, he's hit .263/.317/.379 with 22 walks and 72 strikeouts.

He's struggled with breaking balls, struggled against lefties and hasn't hit for much power. He was picked off last night, the sixth time he's been caught stealing in 15 attempts.

Perhaps Moniak wasn't as advanced as the Phillies thought when they selected him first overall in 2016. But that doesn't mean the shine has worn off — he's still just 19 years old. 

One interesting note from Manuel last week was that some scouts have opined that as Moniak has gained muscle, he's lost some of the quick-twitch ability that had made him such a polished, gap-to-gap hitter.

LF Cornelius Randolph (High-A Clearwater)
Randolph is in the midst of his best month in the Phillies' organization. The 2015 first-round pick has hit .397 over his last 18 games with five doubles, a triple, three homers and 15 walks.

He's hitting .258/.358/.407 this season with nine homers and 38 RBIs. The Phillies are happy to see the double-digit power because Randolph, whose value is tied entirely to his bat, entered 2017 with three home runs in 503 pro plate appearances.

At 20 years old, Randolph is nearly three years younger than the Florida State League average. The Phillies were aggressive in moving him up to Clearwater this season, but he's made the necessary adjustments as the season has gone on.

RHP Jesen Therrien (AAA)
Therrien could soon be up in the majors after the expected trades of Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. The 24-year-old relief prospect has had success at both Double A and Triple A this season, posting a combined 1.49 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 62 strikeouts and just seven walks in 54⅓ innings.

The Neshek and Benoit trades would create an opening for Therrien to slide in as a seventh-inning guy. In that scenario, the Phils would likely use Luis Garcia in the eighth and Hector Neris in the ninth. 

It would be nice for the Phils to promote at least one legitimate relief prospect before the season ends so they enter the offseason feeling somewhat comfortable about their future bullpen. Therrien's progress could, in a way, cancel out the steps back taken by Edubray Ramos.

Other tidbits
Zach Eflin pitched well Wednesday night, allowing one run over seven innings for the IronPigs. He missed nearly all of June with a sore elbow but has a 2.22 ERA in five games since returning.

Jake Thompson continues to struggle. He followed a seven-inning start on July 6 by lasting just 4⅔ innings his last time out. He walked four and threw 101 pitches. In 17 starts at Triple A this season, Thompson is 3-11 with a 5.59 ERA and 1.60 WHIP.

Mark Appel was placed on the DL last week with more shoulder problems.

• In 24 games since his promotion to Triple A, outfielder Andrew Pullin has hit .198 with six doubles and two homers.