Phillies make Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr.'s MLB dreams come true

Phillies make Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr.'s MLB dreams come true

NEW YORK -- Dreams are coming true all over the place with this Phillies team.

First, it was rookies Andrew Knapp and Brock Stassi making the club in the final days of spring training.

And now, 2½ weeks into the season, Mark Leiter Jr. and Ben Lively have arrived from Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Leiter, a 26-year-old right-hander, was called up on Tuesday afternoon and made it from Allentown to Citi Field in time for that night's game. His dad, Mark Sr., pitched for a decade in the majors and spent the 1997 and 1998 seasons with the Phillies. The Leiters are just the second father-son combo to play in the majors for the Phillies, joining the Amaros, Ruben Sr. and Jr.

"That's incredible," said the younger Leiter, who fondly remembers playing catch with his dad at Veterans Stadium. "I'm proud of that. That's something that I've dreamed about and me and my dad have talked about. That was the goal. I would love to have a career like he had. I would love that. I'm excited to be here and looking forward to everything that's coming."

Leiter and Stassi roomed together in Clearwater this spring. The two were both late-round draft picks -- Stassi a 33rd-rounder out of Nevada-Reno in 2011 and Leiter a 22nd-rounder out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2013.

"Seeing everything Brock went through in spring, it felt like a lot of my story is similar," Leiter said. "I couldn't have been happier for him. I was lucky enough to share some of that with him being his roommate and having that night hanging out with him before the team left. To experience it for myself, it's amazing. It really was."

Leiter was not in big-league camp this spring. He was over on the minor-league side, though he did come over to the big-league side as an extra a few times. Leiter pitched at Double-A Reading last season and went 6-3 with a 3.39 ERA in 103 2/3 innings, some as a starter, some as a reliever. Phillies minor-league instructors have long liked his pitching savvy and toughness on the mound. He was promoted to Triple-A this season and allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings over two appearances. He walked two and struck out 11.

The Phillies summoned Leiter when they placed outfielder Howie Kendrick on the disabled list Tuesday. Leiter was on the field in Lehigh Valley going through the pregame stretch when manager Dusty Wathan called him into the dugout.

From afar, Lively watched the dugout meeting.

"We were in the outfield stretching and Dusty said, 'Leiter, come here,'" Lively said. "We saw Mark go in the dugout. We were thinking, 'Did he get sent down?' No one knew. Then we saw them hugging and smiling. It was pretty cool."

Leiter phoned his wife back at the apartment in Allentown and she ran an overnight bag over to the ballpark and within 40 minutes of getting the news of his dream-come-true promotion, he was in a car on the way to New York and ultimately was in uniform in the bullpen for the first pitch. The Leiters, of course, are New Jersey baseball legends from Tom's River. Al Leiter, the brother of Mark Sr., had a long and successful career with the Yankees, Blue Jays, Marlins, and Mets. A bunch of Mark Leiter Jr.'s pals from home made it to Tuesday night's game and shouted at him in the bullpen.

While Leiter was a late-round draft pick, Lively, 25, was a fourth-rounder by the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. The Phillies picked him up in a trade for Marlon Byrd on New Year's Eve 2014 and he won 18 games at Double A and Triple A last season and won the Paul Owens Award as the organization's top minor-league pitcher. Lively came up to replace reliever Pat Neshek, who went on paternity leave Wednesday (see story). Neshek is expected back by the weekend, so Lively's stay could be brief. The pitcher knows that.

"I'll get my feet wet," he said with a smile. "My name is right there -- call me whenever.

"Everyone is always saying you're just a phone call away, and the phone call came at midnight."

Lively was home relaxing after Tuesday night's Lehigh Valley game when Wathan called and told him he was joining Leiter in the big leagues.

Lively's dad, Ed, runs charter fishing boats in Pensacola, Florida. He's on the job by 5 a.m. every day so he gets to bed early. But his son did not hesitate to call his folks at midnight with the good news.

"My dad woke up and said, 'Something happen?' And I said, 'No, no. All good,'" Lively said. "I told him and he was pretty pumped. Then he woke up my mom and she started to cry. She lost it. My dad -- he was just fired up."

The Phillies sent a car to Allentown on Wednesday morning to shuttle Lively to Manhattan. He said he's not a big city guy, but there was no place he would rather have been Wednesday night than New York, in the big leagues, even if the assignment figures to be brief.

"Honestly, when it started setting in, I was in the car and I started seeing the city," he said. "I was like, 'All right, this is happening.' It was pretty cool."

Phillies call up pitching prospect Ben Lively; paternity leave for Pat Neshek

Phillies call up pitching prospect Ben Lively; paternity leave for Pat Neshek

Another Phillies pitching prospect is on his way to The Show.

Right-hander Ben Lively, who is 12-6 with a 3.15 ERA and 0.93 WHIP for Lehigh Valley since the start of 2016, was recalled from Triple-A. 

The Phillies have a roster opening for a few days with reliever Pat Neshek going on paternity leave. 

Lively, who was scheduled to start for the IronPigs on Thursday, will help out in the bullpen. 

The move comes a day after the Phillies selected the contract of RHP Mark Leiter Jr., who could serve as the long man. The Phillies also brought up Zach Eflin on Tuesday before his start at Citi Field, and gave Jake Thompson 10 starts last summer. Mark Appel and Nick Pivetta, also in the Triple-A rotation, could be up at some point this season as both are on the 40-man roster.

Lively, 25, was acquired by the Phillies from the Reds prior to 2015 for Marlon Byrd. He dominated last season at Double-A Reading, going 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA before making the jump to Triple-A, where he was also effective.

Lively is not a hard thrower but he is a strike thrower -- 66 percent of his pitches last season were strikes, and he's walked just 2.2 batters per nine innings since joining the Phillies' system.

It's the realization of a lifelong dream for another Phillies prospect.

Future Phillies Report: When to expect call-ups from top prospects on the cusp

Future Phillies Report: When to expect call-ups from top prospects on the cusp

With the Minor League Baseball season kicking off over the weekend, it's time for our first Future Phillies Report of 2017.

Several of the players who made Double A Reading such an exciting team last summer have moved up to Triple A Lehigh Valley, which is the club to watch all season long.

Today, we'll focus on the Triple A guys. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the rest.

But first, a refresher course on some roster matters:

Who graduated
Andrew Knapp and Brock Stassi made the Phillies' 25-man roster out of camp, answering the question of who would be the first Phillies farmhand(s) to make the jump to the majors, even though neither was regarded as a top prospect.

Knapp made the team as much for roster reasons as performance. The Phillies have a 40-man roster crunch (more on that later), so one of the non-roster catchers in camp (Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday, Logan Moore) would've needed to have a huge spring to entice the Phillies to take someone off the 40 for them.

Instead, the Phils went with Knapp. After Cameron Rupp and Knapp, the only other catcher on the Phillies' 40-man roster is Jorge Alfaro. Remember that if Rupp or Knapp is injured at some point this season and the Phillies need another catcher. As long as Alfaro is hitting at Triple A, it figures to be him.

Which prospects are on the 40?
This is important because it means that the Phillies wouldn't need to designate someone for assignment to call one of these prospects up.

Phillies prospects already on the 40-man roster are, in alphabetical order:

C Jorge Alfaro
RHP Drew Anderson
RHP Mark Appel
OF Dylan Cozens
RHP Ben Lively
OF Roman Quinn
RHP Jake Thompson
2B Jesmuel Valentin
OF Nick Williams

Which prospects are not on the 40?

SS J.P. Crawford*
1B Rhys Hoskins*
2B Scott Kingery 
OF Mickey Moniak
OF Andrew Pullin*
OF Cornelius Randolph
RHP Tom Eshelman
RHP Tyler Viza
RHP Shane Watson
RHP Frankyln Kilome
RHP Sixto Sanchez

*Crawford, Hoskins and Pullin will need to be added to the 40-man roster after this season to avoid being exposed in the Rule 5 draft. (Pullin was exposed this past winter but went undrafted.) Why does this matter? Because it increases the likelihood the Phillies call Crawford up at some point this season.

Crawford would be a logical September call-up at the very least, and if Freddy Galvis gets hurt at some point in '17, it would be realistic for the Phillies to DFA someone, add Crawford to the 40, call him up and give their top prospect his first taste of The Show.

(In case you're unfamiliar with the Rule 5 protection process: A player signed at 18 or younger becomes eligible to be plucked away in the Rule 5 draft if he's not on the 40-man roster five years after signing. Same goes four years after signing for a player who signed at 19 or older. Crawford signed in 2013 out of high school so he needs to be added this winter. Hoskins signed in 2014 out of college at 21 so he needs to be added as well.)

. . .

The Triple A bats

SS J.P. Crawford (22 years old)
Crawford returns to Lehigh Valley, where he hit .244/.328/.318 in 385 plate appearances last season.

It's an important year for Crawford offensively. He still walked a lot at Triple A but the hits weren't plentiful. He was 5.6 years younger than the average Triple A player last season.

"He's grown defensively," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan told Jim Salisbury on last week's At The Yard podcast. "I have tremendous confidence in him at shortstop. Offensively, he knows exactly what he needs to do. ... He got caught up a little bit in some things at Reading and then he took some bad habits to Triple A that he never got past. But J.P. knows what he needs to do. He just needs to go hit. He's gonna have a very good year, I really believe that."

Crawford batted second for the IronPigs over the weekend and got off to a slow start, going 1 for 15 with six strikeouts.

OF Nick Williams (23)
Williams also returns to Triple A, where he hit a disappointing .258/.287/.427 in 125 games last season. The extra-base hits were there -- 33 doubles, six triples, 13 homers -- but Williams' ratio of 19 walks and 136 strikeouts was unsightly. The lack of walks is something Williams has been asked about since he arrived in the Cole Hamels trade but he hasn't been able to turn a corner. It was an issue the entire organization was well aware of last summer, and from July 14 through the end of the season, Williams had one walk and 54 strikeouts.

There are still reasons to believe in him, though. He has the tools, most notably the bat speed. 

Williams was 2 for 10 over the weekend with a pair of singles and a stolen base.

C Jorge Alfaro (23)
Alfaro had a very brief cup of coffee in the majors last September but it wasn't indicative of his skill set. I've written it before in this space but Alfaro has the chance to be the most impactful of all of these Phillies prospects because of his two-way ability. He has an incredible arm behind the plate that could allow him to control a running game, and when he makes contact it's usually loud contact. He hit 15 homers and 21 doubles in a hitter-friendly park at Reading last season. Those numbers belie the power in that bat of his.

The entire middle of Reading's order in 2016 -- Alfaro, Dylan Cozens and Hoskins -- is now at Lehigh Valley.

Alfaro got off to the fastest start of that trio, going 6 for 11 with three RBIs in his first two games. His two-run single in the season opener was an example of how hard his contact usually is -- Alfaro rocketed a line drive single just past the diving Pawtucket shortstop to plate two.

OF Dylan Cozens (22)
Cozens has the most power of anyone in the Phillies' farm system. His 40 home runs and 38 doubles last season tell one half of the story. His 186 strikeouts and .197 batting average vs. lefties tell the rest of it.

We'll see this season just how much Reading's wind-fueled bandbox aided Cozens' power surge. He hit 29 of his 40 home runs at home and slugged 303 points higher (.744 vs. 441) at home in 2016.

"Coz, I think he's still developing," Jordan said. "He's got more power than any of them. He's still developing as a hitter. I think the challenge at Triple A, the biggest difference is the pitching at Triple A, they're smart enough that if you get yourself out, they'll let you."

Cozens gained some national attention last season as we got a glimpse of his ceiling. This season, particularly how Cozens adjusts to pitchers with major-league experience at Triple A, will help show us how realistic it is that he reaches that ceiling.

Cozens' solo homer over the weekend was his only hit (1 for 12), but he also had three walks and just one strikeout. That's a positive.

1B Rhys Hoskins (24)
The man pushing Tommy Joseph.

Hoskins' 2016 was in some ways more impressive than Cozens'. He hit .281/.377/.566 at Double A with 38 homers and 116 RBIs. He walked 71 times, and he struck out 60 fewer times than Cozens.

Everything seemed to slow down for Hoskins down the stretch at Reading. Over his last 34 games, he had 30 walks and 24 strikeouts. It's rare you see a big 6-foot-4 power hitter maintain his power while learning to control the strike zone like that.

There's a ton of talent around Hoskins, but Jordan paid him a pretty nice compliment before the season began.

"Rhys is, for me, the smartest hitter on that (Lehigh Valley) team," Jordan said. "He's got a plan that he commits to. He's not afraid to swing and miss, and he's got power. You make a mistake up in the zone, he can hurt you. I think he's a hitter first."

Hoskins had a great day Sunday in Lehigh Valley's doubleheader, going 4 for 6 with a double and a homer.

OF Roman Quinn (23)
Unlike Alfaro, Quinn received regular playing time when he was called up last September. He showed some flashes, reaching on three infield hits and a bunt single, throwing a runner out at home from center field and displaying impressive speed and instincts defensively. 

Quinn begins the year leading off at Triple A, where he's never been before. If the Phils suffer an outfield injury and Quinn is hitting and healthy, he could be the first one up. 

He's gotten off to a strong start, just as he has each of the last two seasons. Quinn went 5 for 15 with three RBIs over the weekend. He was caught stealing on his only attempt, and six of those 10 outs were strikeouts.

2B Jesmuel Valentin (22)
Pete Mackanin got a good look at Valentin in spring training as the infielder nearly made the team. It came down to Valentin, Stassi and Daniel Nava for the Phillies' final two bench spots.

The Phillies acquired Valentin in August 2014 from the Dodgers in exchange for a half-season of journeyman Roberto Hernandez. Getting literally anything out of that trade makes it a win for the Phils.

A switch-hitter, Valentin hit .269/.341/.395 in 511 plate appearances last season at Double A and Triple A. He impressed in spring training, going 15 for 41 (.366) with six doubles and four walks.

He's probably the next backup infielder the Phillies will utilize. If Andres Blanco (a free agent after the season, but a guy the Phillies keep bringing back on one-year deals) goes down at some point this season, Valentin is the logical call-up.

Valentin doesn't have huge upside but he looks like a serviceable utility infielder.

He's Lehigh Valley's hottest hitter in the early going. Valentin's first four games: 2 for 4, 2 for 4, 1 for 2, 3 for 3.

. . .

The Triple A arms

RHP Jake Thompson (23)
Thompson was absolutely shelled in Lehigh Valley's season opener against the Pawtucket Red Sox. He was given a 4-1 lead after two innings but gave it all back, allowing nine runs on eight hits and three walks over 2 1/3 innings.

Thompson just couldn't command his pitches. He had a walk in all three innings, allowed a run on a wild pitch, and we saw last season in the majors that when Thompson falls behind in counts he typically doesn't have the stuff to keep himself out of harm's way.

It was a troublesome first start for Thompson, but it's only one game. He'd probably be the first starting pitcher called up in case of injury, but his command must improve. 

Thompson was a strikeout pitcher early in his minor-league career but his repertoire has changed over the years to include more two-seam fastballs, which last season at Triple A resulted in a high rate of groundballs and double plays. That was the fuel for his 2.50 ERA in 130 innings with Lehigh Valley in 2016.

Thompson's perceived upside isn't as high as it once was, but if he gets back into a groove and recaptures the ability to consistently keep the ball low, he could be a decent fourth starter.

RHP Mark Appel (25)
Make or break year for Appel, the 2013 No. 1 overall pick whose draft status is a major reason for his even being on the 40-man roster. 

Appel went 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA in eight starts with LHV last season before requiring season-ending elbow surgery. It was an ignominious first year in the Phillies' system for Appel after he came over from Houston in the Ken Giles trade.

Appel's first four starts last year went well (1.64 ERA), but there were some smoke and mirrors there. He walked nine and threw just 63 percent of his pitches for strikes. Over his next four starts, the rate of strikes dropped down to 58 percent as he allowed 18 runs in 16 1/3 innings.

Appel doesn't seem to trust his stuff fully, which is often an issue for a young pitcher who hasn't sped through the minors. He needs to work inside more -- a pitcher can't simply live on the outside corner unless he has top-notch command -- and avoid the constant nibbling that has led to many a walk.

If Appel doesn't have a bounce-back season, he could be a candidate to be removed from the 40-man roster after the season to make room for someone else.

RHP Ben Lively (25)
Also on the 40, Lively's stuff isn't as enticing as someone like Anderson's. Lively sits in the high-80s with his fastball, topping out in the low 90s. He's had plenty of minor-league success, going 18-5 with a 2.69 ERA last season at Double A and Triple A, and 10-1 with a 2.28 ERA at the Reds' High-A affiliate in 2014. Results do matter.

Lively's first result Sunday was a good one: six innings, three hits, one run, no walks, five strikeouts and the win. 

Lively, though, seems to be a classic case of a pitcher whose stuff might not translate to the game's highest level. Remember Tyler Cloyd?

Tomorrow: A look at the Phillies' remaining prospects below Triple A.