Prized prospects Franco, Gonzalez eye big leagues

slideshow-phillies-franco-gonzalez-ap.jpg

Prized prospects Franco, Gonzalez eye big leagues

When looking for inspiration, Severino Gonzalez has a couple of pretty good role models.

One is Mariano Rivera, which is a pretty good choice for a pitcher, regardless of nationality. Given that both are from Panama, Rivera’s status in the game takes on a greater impact for Gonzalez.

Then there is Carlos Ruiz. Well known to all Panamanians, Gonzalez has latched onto Ruiz because they are from nearby towns. But given that Gonzalez is a pitcher in the Phillies organization with pinpoint control and a repertoire of pitches that the Phillies’ brass says is reminiscent of Rivera, perhaps there is a chance the team could have an all-Panama battery.

“In spring training was the first time I met him,” Gonzalez said. “The relationship grew from that.”

Gonzalez said Ruiz took him out for dinner and gave him advice when he could. For a kid who watched the 2008 World Series and felt like he was out there celebrating with his countryman when the Phillies won, it was pretty heady stuff for Gonzalez.

But whatever Ruiz passed on must have been pretty good because the right-handed pitcher put together a phenomenal season. Starting in extended spring training, the 6-foot-1, 150-pounder who still wears braces on his teeth, moved to low-A ball in Lakewood before moving to high-A Clearwater as a roster filler.

As it turned out, Gonzalez was a little more than just a guy on the bench. In 20 outings at Clearwater, including nine starts, the righty posted a 2.02 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 75 innings. By the end of the year, he was at Double A Reading for a start and on Monday and Tuesday he was in Philadelphia with Reading teammate Maikel Franco to pick up his hardware for winning the Paul Owens Award.

Given to the top pitcher and hitter in the Phillies system, Gonzalez won the Paul Owens Award, though he escaped much of the notice that Franco received. Gonzalez’s record wasn’t spectacular at 7-5, but he posted a 2.00 ERA between three teams with 119 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings with just 22 walks. Gonzalez had 19 walks in 20 games and 75 2/3 innings for Clearwater.

Just 20 years old, Gonzalez understands that good things happen when a pitcher throws strikes.

“I just didn’t want to walk anyone,” Gonzalez said. “I just kept throwing strikes and that was what I was after.”

Like Rivera, Gonzalez throws a cutter that he moves in and out on hitters. He says he needs to work on his changeup, but he has been able to get away without one so far. In the meantime, Gonzalez likely will start the 2014 season at Double A where he can work on his repertoire.

Franco will probably be at Triple A to start the 2014 season, though an invitation to big-league camp in the spring isn’t far-fetched. Franco belted 31 homers with 103 RBIs and a .320 batting average in 134 games with Clearwater and Reading. His 70 extra-base hits led the minors and got some notice from Phils’ interim manager Ryne Sandberg.

If Franco were to get an invite to big-league camp, Sandberg -- if he is still the manager -- would be excited to see what he can do.

“A guy like him, if he’s in spring training next year, it’ll be the first time for a lot of people to get a look at him and see what he looks like on a field with major leaguers and get him a taste of that,” Sandberg said. “I think (Cody) Asche experienced that last year coming to big-league camp. Sometimes they can gauge what they need to work on, and also gauge where they stand compared to big leaguers.”

Of course there is the issue of a position for Franco, who has played third base for all but eight games last year. He dabbled a bit at first base for Reading and said he felt comfortable with it. However, Asche looks to have an inside track on the third base job next spring and Ryan Howard has first base locked up for a couple more seasons.

Where does that leave Franco if he continues to tear up minor-league pitching?

“Whatever position they want me to play, I’ll play,” Franco said. “Everybody wants to play in the big leagues. That’s my point. I want to play in the big leagues. I don’t care what position I play, I want to play in the big leagues.”

Franco is getting closer. In the meantime, he’ll spend the winter playing for San Francisco de Macorís in the Dominican Winter League. But while Franco was hanging around Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, Sandberg wondered if there was an extra uniform he could use.

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozens baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coughlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could held Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95, it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”
 
Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.

Roman Quinn hopes new offseason plan results in that elusive healthy season

Roman Quinn hopes new offseason plan results in that elusive healthy season

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Roman Quinn’s bio covers a wide range of body parts. There’s the Achilles tendon, as in torn, the quad, as in torn, and the oblique, as in strained. Twice. The word concussion also appears in there.
 
Sick and tired of having things go ‘pop’ in his body, Quinn decided to try something new after last season.
 
In early November, he rented an apartment “two minutes” from the Phillies’ spring-training facility and for three-plus months worked under the supervision of Paul Fournier, the team’s strength and conditioning guru.
 
“Paul and I worked five days a week,” Quinn said Saturday. “Strength. Flexibility. It was something I wanted to do because in the past I was doing something wrong in the offseason. I was ready for the season but I ended up getting leg injuries. Paul put together a plan to get my body right and he was there the whole time to tell me if I was doing something wrong. I’m going to carry it into the season.”
 
Quinn, 23, made a solid showing in a big-league cameo with the Phillies in September. In 15 games, he had a .373 on-base percentage and showed off a big arm in the outfield. Alas, he did not play in the final five games of the season after injuring his oblique for a second time.
 
Quinn’s play in September fueled speculation that he would be in the Phillies’ opening day outfield this season. Even manager Pete Mackanin said there was a good chance it could happen. But that late-season oblique injury served as one last reminder of Quinn’s inability to stay healthy and the Phillies ended up bringing in two outfielders, Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, this offseason.
 
Kendrick and Saunders were added first and foremost to provide some veteran impact and offense in the lineup. But you have to believe Phillies officials might have stopped at one veteran bat or brought in a semi-regular player to share time with Quinn if Quinn’s health history wasn’t such an issue. He’s never stayed on the field for a full season.
 
“If that was the case I can definitely see where they’re coming from,” Quinn said. “I know I need to play a full season and be healthy and prove that I can play 160-something games.”
 
Saunders’ signing last month pretty much made it official: Quinn will open the season in center field for Triple A Lehigh Valley. Quinn said he was not disappointed by that. He applauded the signing of Saunders.
 
“I think it was a good team decision,” he said. “He’s a really good player and he’s going to provide a lot for this team.
 
“Those things are out of my control. All I can do is go out and compete and play my heart out.
 
“I’ve never played at Triple A. If I do end up in Triple A, I’m going to make the most of it and play hard and compete like I have throughout my time in the minor leagues.”
 
When Quinn is healthy and on the field, he is a dynamic player, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound switch-hitter with gap power and blazing speed. He has 159 stolen bases in 356 minor-league games since being selected in the second round of the 2011 draft and passing on a scholarship to Florida State to sign with the Phils.
 
Quinn has the arm to play any outfield position. He showed that September 14 when he gunned down Sean Rodriguez at the plate in the ninth inning to help preserve a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Philadelphia. The throw registered 96 mph on MLB.com Statcast.
 
96.
 
The Phillies have one starting pitcher — Vince Velasquez — who throws that hard.
 
“It was a pretty cool feeling,” Quinn said.
 
In high school, Quinn was often used as a closer. He said he hit 94 mph on the radar gun back then.
 
Though Quinn is ticketed for Triple A, Phillies management is eager to see him play in Grapefruit League games. He was arguably the most exciting player on the field during his time in big-league camp last year.
 
“What we saw in September was a really exciting player with a lot of promise who has a chance to be an impactful big leaguer,” general manger Matt Klentak said. “But we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for Roman developmentally. He’s never had an at-bat at the Triple A level and we don’t believe some additional time in the minor leagues will stunt his development.”
 
At Lehigh Valley, Quinn will be flanked by Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams in a prospect-studded outfield. All three could be in Philadelphia at some point this season.
 
“If I do end up at Triple A, we’re going to have a pretty stacked team,” Quinn said. “It will be exciting because we all could be knocking on the door of the big leagues.
 
“I know just getting that little taste last year made me feel like it was somewhere I belong. I’m hungry.”