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Odds And Ends

Keith Law on the Phillies' Future

Earlier this week in Florida, I had the opportunity to speak with ESPN’s Scouts Inc.’s senior baseball analyst Keith Law on a few odds and ends about the Phillies.

While it may still be safe to say the Phillies are in their “golden age,” it’s always prudent to keep a diligent watch on the team’s future. How will the aging core of veterans hold up? Is there really anything wrong with Domonic Brown? Are Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton for real? We can speculate all we like, but to get a professional opinion, I asked Mr. Law for his take on a few things.

Traveling back in time to June for a second, we remember the Phillies having the 27th overall pick in the Rule 4 Amateur Draft. At the time of their pick, a few high-profile picks had slipped and remained available. The Phillies bypassed those players, including LSU righty Anthony Ranudo, picking local high-school left-hander Jesse Biddle instead.

“[Ranaudo] cost twice what the Phillies were going to pay at their slot,” Law said. Ranaudo, being a Scott Boras client, came with the stigma (of sorts) of having his representation be one of the most powerful men in sports. “When you draft a Boras player, you don’t immediately get the player, you get Boras.”

For a team that deals mostly in young, projectable talent with raw tools, Biddle seemed to be the more natural fit. After signing for $1.16M, less than half of Ranaudo’s $2.55M bonus from Boston 12 picks later, and posting some solid appearances in rookie ball, Biddle looks to be a very early bargain.

That wasn’t always meant to be, though. The hometown kid has a chance to play for the local club, but he wasn’t the Phils’ first choice.

“I know for a fact the Phillies wanted [Westlake H.S. 1B/OF Christian] Yelich. If the Marlins didn’t take him a few picks before, the Phillies were going to,” Law said. Yelich, who went 23rd to Florida for $1.7M, hit .362/.400/.468 in 47 professional ABs in 2010.

As for the most popular Phillies prospect, things have been a bit rougher. Domonic Brown was recently shipped back stateside after batting an ugly .069/.182/.103 in winter ball, though in just 29 ABs. Coupled with similarly lackluster play in an equally small sample at the Big League level, this cold streak of Dom’s has caused some panic, in spite of its relative lack of meaning, but Dom’s early departure from the winter league is not all that uncommon or damning.

“It happens all the time,” Law said. “There’s nothing to worry about.

“You get these sorts of struggles with power hitters…The guy is still a top-five player. He has a swing that should produce 20-plus homers.”

At just 23, Brown is easily the youngest position player on the projected 25-man roster for 2011. His struggles, while not good, certainly don’t spell doom-and-gloom for what should be a very bright future.

“He’s so gifted, and if he were 25 or so, it may be different,” Law said. “But at 22-23, it’s far too early to think about writing him off.”

Speaking of youngsters, teenage sensation Jon Singleton turned heads this summer when he hit .423/.494/.704 for Lakewood in May, and wasn’t going to turn 19 until the middle of September.

“I like his swing,” Law said. “I think it will produce contact and power, and he has the potential to be a well-above-average Major League player.”

The big question surrounding Singleton, though, is where he’ll fit on the Big League club, should he still be around when the time comes for his promotion. Ryan Howard’s contract extension carries him through the 2016 – and possibly 2017 – season, so Singleton would need to learn a different position if he were to be ready for a call-up before age 26. Can he handle the outfield? Law thinks so.

“I like to think he can handle left field. He’s young and athletic enough.

“He could probably handle right field, too, but the Phillies probably won’t try him there because they’ll have Domonic Brown.”

So, for a couple of players, at least, the future still seems bright. As for one member of the core, things may need to change in order for him to stay on the field and stay effective.

Chase Utley has now endured two hand injuries – including one that needed surgery – and hip surgery since 2007, two vital components in a hitter’s swing and power stroke. Utley, when healthy, is likely to still be an elite player in 2011. Even when he’s been dinged up in the past, Chase has found a way to remain among the top position players in the league. As Utley turns 32 this month, his health becomes even more of a concern than it has in the past, and handling his workload becomes critical.

“Maybe he should only be playing 130-135 games in the field,” Law said. “They should take the approach that the club should decide when he gets time off, not his body, and consider giving him one game off per week, minimum.”

That strategy seems a little jolting, considering how accustomed Phillies fans have become to seeing Utley in the starting lineup every day he’s healthy, but seems prudent upon reflection. Perhaps Charlie Manuel has ridden Utley so hard because of the lack of a suitable backup in the past, but even if that remains the case in 2011, the preservation of Utley’s career should be a priority.

“I don’t know if we’re past the point of calling him a top-five player,” Law said. “But there are questions about being able to keep him on the field.

“I’d like to say he could bounce right back and have an MVP season, but I’m trying to be realistic.”

Things look a bit brighter for another star, 2010 N.L. Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay. Though Halladay will turn 34 next May, there seems to be little thought that he’ll be slowing down soon. For starters, his legendary work ethic and conditioning programs seem to have Doc set up for a continued run of success.

“He’s durable and he’s athletic, but his body control is even better than his athleticism,” Law said. “He knows and controls every muscle in his body.”

It’s not every day you hear talk of pitchers being in such advanced command not only of their stuff, but of their bodies. Halladay, in his 250.2 innings pitched this season, walked just 30 batters. He’s just the seventh pitcher since 1901 to pitch at least 250 innings in a season and walk 30 or fewer batters in the process, and it’s all a result of this sort of “total command” Doc seems to have.

Halladay and his shiny, new Cy Young Award are two of the bright spots for this coming Phillies season. In a season that’s sure to have its questions – surrounding Brown, Utley or others – and celebrations – another “H2O” year of Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in the starting rotation – the Phillies will look to retain their hold on the N.L. East as the teams around them make moves to catch up.

You can read more from Keith Law on his Insider blog on ESPN, as well as his (mostly) weekly chat archive. You can also check out some non-baseball thoughts and musings on food, music and board games at his personal blog, The Dish. Our thanks to Keith for his time and answers.

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