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Let the hype begin: The IronPigs could win 100 games

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs are going to be good this year.

How good? On paper, maybe historically good.

The IronPigs in 2017 will be a confluence of talent, remarkable timing, major league successes and experiments that keep its players blocked from the big leagues, and a little bit of luck. Put it together, and that could possibly make this the most talented team in the history of the Phillies minor leagues.

The International League plays 144 games, which means the IronPigs would have to play almost .700 baseball to go 100-44. And you know what? It’s officially in play. No International League team has won 100 games since 1960, when the Toronto Maple Leafs won 100 in 154 games. Now they play 144.

But with the roster the IronPigs project to put out on the field and the expectations behind those players, this really could be a historic team and one of the best triple-A Phillies teams, if not one of its best minor-league teams, in franchise history. What makes it even better is that if they do make that kind of history, they’re going to be doing it with almost all legitimate prospects.

Stiff competition

Right now, you’d probably look to the 2002 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, a team that featured top prospects Marlon Byrd, Chase Utley, Brett Myers and Bud Smith and went 91-53, as the best example of a team that was prospect-laden and performed well on the field. Even though he was never considered an impact prospect, Joe Roa went 14-0 in 17 games (!) and forced the Phillies’ hand to give him a shot in the rotation in 2003 (a predictable, but necessary, failure). That season, however, also featured a pennant-clinching postgame celebration in the stadium’s bar where Byrd initially was charged with beating up his girlfriend, though the charges were later dropped.

But that team had its fair share of organizational filler playing nightly. David Doster, a 31-year-old Red Baron legend, played 132 games, and 34-year-old P.J. Forbes logged 355 at-bats. These … these were not prospects.

To go back further, the 1983 Reading Phillies went 96-44, the best record in the history of the Eastern League to that point. Darren Daulton, Juan Samuel, Don Carmen, Mike Lavalliere and the incomparable Jeff Stone all headed up that team and gave Phillies fans hope that the franchise can bridge the gap of the Wheez Kids into the future. That Reading team’s pitching staff fizzled when it reached the upper levels, leaving the franchise to face some truly rocky times.

A stacked roster

Which brings us back to the potential of Lehigh Valley’s Opening Day lineup:

  1. Roman Quinn CF
  2. J.P. Crawford SS
  3. Dylan Cozens LF
  4. Rhys Hoskins 1B
  5. Jorge Alfaro C
  6. Nick Williams RF
  7. Brock Stassi/Tyler Goeddel DH
  8. Jesmuel Valentin 2B
  9. Taylor Featherston 3B

The first six guys constitute half of the team’s top 10 or 12 prospects. Obviously there is going to be some regression with Cozens and Hoskins, if only for the reason that they just can’t keep up their double-A pace at a tougher hitter’s park. But there is only one piece of organizational filler in the lineup (Featherston). Every other guy you can conceivably see playing in Philadelphia for 10 years or more. Well, maybe not Goeddel or Stassi, but you get the picture.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if this looked very close to the Phillies starting lineup in 2020 or so, with the addition of Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and/or Cesar Hernandez. Yes, tons of things have to break just so for that to happen. But focusing on this year, that’s got to be the best Phillies triple-A lineup ever, right? It’s by far the best since at least 1989 when they moved to Scranton and I started going to games.

It’s also the best lineup of prospects I’d remember coming through Scranton from the visiting team. This potential lineup alone would probably be worth a .600 winning percentage because it’s going to outscore just about everybody.

But wait! There’s more!

Here is what the IronPigs rotation should look like:

  1. Jake Thompson
  2. Zach Eflin
  3. Alec Asher
  4. Ben Lively
  5. Nick Pivetta

Say what now? Those are five legitimate starters who could find themselves in the majors playing significant roles for someone in the next three years. Some already have had some major league success. Remember Eflin’s six-start stretch from late June to late July last year that included two complete-game wins? Or Asher’s two-hitter against Washington over six innings last September?

It wouldn’t ever be a potential rotation for the Phillies the way the Lehigh Valley lineup could, because organizationally, Aaron Nola (for sure) and Vince Velazquez (probably) are thought of in higher regard. Jerad Eickhoff isn’t going anywhere soon as long as he stays consistent. But you would think all five of these Lehigh Valley guys know that, and they might be ready to tear each other’s hearts out for a shot at one of those two available rotation spots in 2018. Or around Memorial Day 2017 when Velazquez goes down with a groin issue. Either way, that could send the Lehigh Valley rotation mates out with a mission, purpose, laser focus and killer attitude every night.

And we haven’t even talked about Mark Appel yet, because I’m waiting to see if he’ll have to (or be forced to) open the season the disabled list. Yes, that Mark Appel, who once was, you know, only the top pick in the draft and the wild card of the Ken Giles trade. Coming of mid-season elbow surgery, who knows if he’ll be ready for the season or not. But it might be time for him to start thinking about moving to the bullpen as a shutdown relief man, whether as the closer or not.

Oh, and I’m not mentioning Adam Morgan for a reason. I think we’ve seen what we’ve seen and know how that story ends in terms of his potential with the Phillies, even though he could play a critical part in the Lehigh Valley rotation or bullpen this year. Perhaps it’s time for Morgan to start considering becoming a lefty out of the bullpen if he wants to stay with the Phils.

The problem with the Lehigh Valley rotation for future projection is the same problem the Phillies’ system has had for the last couple of years since the rebuild started: There isn’t a top-level guy there, no projected No. 1 ace in the majors. Perhaps Thompson could rise to a No. 2 starter in the bigs, but the rest of them are all likely mid-rotation, or at worst back-end guys. None of them miss nearly enough bats to be put into that upper echelon. But they’re all major-league playable and major-league ready. And if they’re all going to spend the year in Allentown, there are going to be a lot of wins in Coca-Cola Park.

We haven’t talked about the bench (likely to include Cameron Perkins, maybe Pedro Florimon and Logan Moore), bullpen (possibly with Michael Mariot, Dalier Hinojosa, Colton Murray), callups (Scott Kingery? Ricardo Pinto?), manager (Dusty Wathan went 89-52 last year with Reading) or coaching staff, important factors that go into whether a team can do something historic that hasn’t been done since 1960. That could trip the team up. And outside of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, no Phillies fan cares even slightly about how the IronPigs perform this year, they just want to be able to see production from the guys who could be up in Philadelphia as early as this year.

But for those of you in the Lehigh Valley area, Phillies fans or otherwise, prepare to see what should be one of the great minor league teams in Phillies history, or maybe even in modern minor league history. The #LVIPRoadTo100 (official hashtag as of now) begins April 6.

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