Rising 2B prospect Scott Kingery climbing ladder, impressing Phillies

Rising 2B prospect Scott Kingery climbing ladder, impressing Phillies

The Phillies’ Double A Reading club was a terrific story in 2016.

The Fightin Phils had the second-best record in all of minor-league baseball, their 89 wins topped only by the New York Yankees’ Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre club, which had 91.

Reading trotted out a lineup that included a number of top prospects that will be making their way to Philadelphia soon. Heck, outfielder Roman Quinn and catcher Jorge Alfaro made cameo appearances in September. Sluggers Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins led Reading’s offense with an astounding combined total of 78 homers and 241 RBIs, and pitcher Ben Lively went 7-0 before earning a promotion to Triple A.

There were more contributors than this, but you get the idea.

In August, as the Fightin Phils’ remarkable season was nearing the finish line, a high-ranking official with the big-league club was talking about all the promising players who had helped play a role in Reading’s season. The official ran through a list of names, adding superlatives liberally, and then issued a notable P.S.

“And, you know, there are many nights when Kingery is the best player on the field,” the man said.

That was a pretty good testament to the player that Scott Kingery has made himself.

Kingery, 22, was the Phillies’ second-round draft pick in 2015, a scrappy second baseman out of the University of Arizona. In less than two full seasons of professional baseball, he has established himself as one of the club’s top prospects and there are a lot of rumblings that he could be the team’s everyday second baseman in a year or two.

Kingery’s development path will include a stop back at Reading to open the 2017 season. He spent just six weeks and 37 games at Double A in 2016 and needs more time there. In those six weeks, he hit just .250 with a .273 on-base percentage. But he exhibited the head, heart, baserunning and defensive ability that have won him comparisons to Boston Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia and led Phillies officials to say things like, “There are many nights when Kingery is the best player on the field.”

Phillies officials believe that Kingery, after having gotten a taste of Double A late in the 2016 season, will be ready to shine with the bat in 2017 and be closer to the player that hit .293 with 29 doubles and a .360 on-base percentage in 94 games at advanced Single A Clearwater before arriving in Reading.

During a recent interview in Arizona, where he spent part of the fall playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, Kingery recalled the day in July when he learned he was being promoted to the Phillies’ rampaging Double A team. He replaced Jesmuel Valentin, another promising second baseman who had been moved up to Triple A. The Phillies’ brass thinks so highly of Valentin that it recently added him to the 40-man roster, protecting him from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft. With Valentin and Kingery coming, the Phillies have the second-base depth that should inspire improving Cesar Hernandez to continue doing that as he heads into 2017.

“That was the best part,” said Kingery, recalling the day he got the news that he was moving to Double A. “They told me, ‘Hey, we’re only going to send up guys who we think can make that already incredible lineup even better,’ so it was really exciting.

“When I got there and looked at that lineup, it was incredible from top to bottom. That lineup had a lot of guys that are going to be future Phillies, some core guys who are going to be up in the big leagues real soon.”

While Kingery’s climb to the list of top Phillies prospects has been swift, his overall baseball journey has not been completely smooth. He was not recruited by any Division I college teams coming out of high school in Phoenix. He wrote letters to college coaches asking them to take a peek at him. Finally, a member of the coaching staff at Arizona took a look at him and offered him a walk-on spot on the Wildcats’ fall roster as a freshman. Essentially, it was a tryout, and Kingery nailed it.

“It definitely put a chip on my shoulder to go out there and prove what I could do every single day because I needed to find some way to make the coaches notice me and put me on the spring roster,” Kingery said. “I just hustled all the time, laid out for every ball I had a chance of getting, took the extra base when I could, basically just played the game the way I know how to and it ended up working out for me.

“Looking back, I would not have taken any other route because it made me not take anything for granted. I still carry that in my game today. I still feel like I have something to prove every day so I’m not going to get complacent.”

Kingery played shortstop in high school. He played the outfield his first two years at Arizona then move to second base as a junior. He hit .354 with a .456 on-base percentage as a sophomore and .392 with a .423 on-base percentage before being drafted as a junior.

At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, the right-handed hitting Kingery is not a big guy. He projects as someone who could hit near the top of the batting order, get on base, rack up doubles, pop an occasional homer and steal some bags. He stole 26 bases and was caught just five times while at Clearwater in 2016.

“I like to say that my best tool is my speed,” he said. “I’m always working on that. That’s why it was a great thing to be able to play alongside Roman Quinn. He’s incredibly fast. It was great to be able to see the kind of jumps he gets and the leads he takes and pick up on the things he does to try to help my game. When he gets on base, you never knew what was going to happen. He gets himself into scoring position so quickly.”

The Phillies thought enough of Kingery to assign him to the AFL, and though he hit just .234 with a .294 on-base percentage in 20 games, he found the experience beneficial.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot,” he said.

In the AFL, Kingery shared a clubhouse with some big names. Tim Tebow was a teammate, and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was around often, in uniform, working with hitting prospects from the Yankees. In the final week of the season, Tebow had a walk-off hit to give Scottsdale a win.

“It was surreal,” Kingery said. “Tebow hits a walk-off and Reggie Jackson is in the dugout. If I look back in 10 years and thought I’d be in the dugout with Reggie Jackson and Tim Tebow at the same time I would never have believed that.”

Maybe in 10 years, Tebow and Jackson will look back and recall the time they shared a dugout with a young second baseman from the Phillies' organization.

“Hopefully that’s the case,” Scott Kingery said. “That would be a great thing.”

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a 1-2-3 inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double off him that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."