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Phillies Nation prospect roundtable

Recently, the writers of Phillies Nation conducted a roundtable about the Phillies’ farm system. Read more below.

Tim Malcolm: We’re now in the “Time to Prove It” part of the rebuild, where a bunch of prospects pretty much need to make it to Philadelphia this year and start playing regularly. So how many prospects do you realistically see in Philly, and playing regularly, BEFORE roster expansion on Sept. 1?

Michael Sadowski: I count four prospects that likely won’t be on the Opening Day roster, but would work themselves into good playing time before Sept. 1: Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro. I don’t know how many of them will stick through Sept. 1, though.

Neither Alec Asher nor Jake Thompson has prospect/rookie status any longer, but I don’t think either make the opening day roster without an injury to someone else. They’ll be the first two Lehigh Valley guys considered when Vince Velazquez gets hurt before Memorial Day.

I see a lot of tinkering with the back end of the rotation through injury or attrition coming; that’s why I see so many pitchers being given a chance. This is the reckoning for Andrew Knapp – I think Alfaro ends up taking over his spot by then. I think Williams breaks out this year, and there is no way the Phillies can keep his bat in Allentown, or on the bench in Philly. And I’d bet it won’t happen, but I’d like to see J.P. Crawford in Allentown all season unless he absolutely pushes his way into the lineup. Why start his arbitration clock when it’s clear he’s not ready?

Corey Sharp: Pitching wise, in my opinion, it’s more likely than not that the trio of Nola, Buchholz and Velasquez will get hurt. Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson are next in line to fill in, but as Michael alluded to, both have exceeded their rookie limits.

I absolutely envision Ben Lively in the rotation before rosters expand whether it’s due to injury or trades. I also expect to see Jorge Alfaro at some point in July, as the three months of seasoning in Lehigh Valley will serve him well. I think the Phils want to see J.P. Crawford come up before September this season. I thought his promotion to triple-A was a tad bit premature, but it validates the Phillies’ love for his plate discipline. Roman Quinn has a spot waiting for him in right or left sometime before Sept 1.

From my discussion with Jayson Stark, the Phillies weren’t happy with Nick Williams last season, and has to rip the cover off the ball to get promoted before Sept 1. To answer the question, I see four prospects playing substantially before Sept 1.

Kirsten Swanson: While the entire Delaware Valley is counting down the days until J.P. Crawford is in big leagues, I don’t see it happening in 2017, at least not until September. That being said, fans should still expect to see a handful of prospects get some regular playing time.

The Phillies have a slew of pitchers in the pipeline that they need to see what they’re made of sooner rather than later. To echo what Michael and Corey said, Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, although no longer rookies, will get some starts and I would be surprised if we don’t see Ben Lively before the year is over. I think I’m most excited to for Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro. The competition is going to be tight in spring training for who gets the backup spot but I would expect to see both get playing time during the course of 2017.

Malcolm: So I’m a little surprised that everyone thinks J.P. Crawford is still a ways from being in the big leagues. Is there any point this season that fans and/or the media start freaking out because he isn’t on the 25-man roster?

Daniel Walsh: Fans and media are always ready to freak out; that’s just something that comes with a city that cares so much about its sports. The shadow of Domonic Brown looms large over our prospect expectations, too. He was the last Phillies prospect to receive this level of praise and anticipation and, after great pains and turbulence, he finally lived up to expectations for about a month before falling off the map.

To put a more specific timetable on it, I expect the freaking out to be started by one of two things: if he hits under .250 for his first 100 at bats of the season, or if the Phillies play just a dismal stretch of games and don’t call him up to get some life in their roster, for lack of a better term. Not that the freaking out would be justified – the guy spent much of last year as the youngest player in triple-A – but I think those are things the average fan puts stock in.

I think we’ve covered the players who could get a call with some fanfare before the rosters expand, but on the level of sheer practicality, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if Jesmuel Valentin or Victor Arano show up to spell an injured player. Maybe this isn’t in the spirit of the question, but their roles – as a utility infielder and relief pitcher, respectively – make them candidates to be called up without needing as much polish or “seasoning” as guys in more high-profile roles. They could both be put in spots, like as a low-leverage reliever or defensive replacement, where they’re not hurting the team if they don’t perform like big leaguers the day they show up.

Malcolm: Well, spirit aside, Arano is a guy who everyone’s starting to talk about. His strikeout rate (10.7 K/9 in 2016) has improved, and he had a good showing in the Arizona Fall League this year. There are whispers of “future closer.” That said, do you yawn at the “future closer” talk aimed at some double-A pitcher who has a high strikeout rate and can touch the high-90s with a fastball?

Walsh: I don’t think you can yawn at any talk about elite relievers anymore. Think of what we’ve seen in the last few seasons: top-tier closers pulling huge free agent contracts, a postseason where relievers were possibly the most dominant narrative, and Ken Giles being traded for a sizable haul of prospects. It’s clear that relievers are more of an asset than they used to be, so a guy being projected for a relief role is not someone you can write off as long as he can be a performer once he gets there. Even a reliever is more than just some guy if he can shut down the opponent in a big spot.

What I might yawn at is penciling a player into a role before he gets to it, but that has less to do with Arano than it does with my inability to stay away from internet comment sections and Twitter.

Sharp: I do yawn at “future closer” for someone in double-A with a high strikeout rate. Any big-league hitter can hit fastballs. Though different splits a are little harder to obtain at the minor league level, how many strikeouts came from his fastball? Does he have a devastating slider that can complement the heat? Phillippe Aumont’s fastball averaged at 95.3 mph, and he just retired. Even Jimmy Cordero garnered closer talk because of his fastball and it’s still taking him time to find himself. Sorry to yawn on the closer parade.

Sadowski: Not only do I yawn at double-A closers who are being “groomed,” but I glaze over like I was back in junior year European History with Mr. Evans as my buddy pokes me with a pencil to keep me awake.

Look, how many times have we heard it in the Closer Era that someone in the Phillies organization is being groomed for closing duties? Ten? Twenty? And many times has it panned out for the Phillies? I count two: Ricky Bottalico and Ken Giles (Ryan Madson was supposed to be a front-line starter). And it’s not as if Bottalico turned into Trevor Hoffman or anything. That’s two in 35 years. Why would it then be anything but sleep-inducing to hear about closers being groomed in the lower levels?

But I do agree with Dan, you can be excited about an elite-level reliever; just don’t pigeonhole him right out of the gate into a certain role. That’s for the manager and the organization to decide when they reach the majors.

Malcolm: I think it’s obvious that high-octane relief pitching is highly valued in today’s game, which is why the Phillies received a decent haul for Giles. At the same time, we need to let the relievers pitch their way into roles (even though I’m all for a new interpretation of bullpen “roles,” but that’s another roundtable).

Okay. Let’s talk big bats. Start with Dylan Cozens – would you bet on him being an everyday starter in the majors? Or are the platoon splits (.197/.262/.378 vs. LHP in 2016) too big to ignore?

Walsh: I’m not ready to bet on Cozens, and not just because of my trademark frugality. The platoon splits are worrying, and so are his home-away splits. Reading is a notoriously hitter-friendly, power-boosting park, and in away games he hit .259/.325/.441 with 11 homers in the same amount of playing time he had at home.

His power is impressive no matter how you look at it, but right now he’s arguably a one-tool player, which makes him hard to see as an everyday starter.

Consider, too, how he worked a 31.7 K% in double-A last year, which was the second-worst in the league among qualified batters. Even Darin Ruf only struck out 17.5 percent of the time in his stellar 2012 season at double-A, so imagine how those strikeout numbers might translate after promotions and against better pitchers with more developed secondary pitches.

One major advantage he has over Ruf is his age; he’s only 22, and Ruf was several years older when he “broke out” in the minors, so I’m not at all ready to write him off despite the ways he still has to develop. Does that make anyone more optimistic than I am?

Swanson: Anytime a player puts up 40 homers and 125 RBI – even in double-A – he’s bound to generate some excitement. Those big numbers will also give Cozens some extra time and a little more leeway to prove he is capable of being an everyday player as opposed to others.

As Daniel mentioned, just look at Ruf. Ruf was 25 when he hit his 38 homers for Reading and still got chance after chance to prove he deserved to be a starter. At 22 years old, it’s hard to bet against Cozens. This could be a make-or-break year for him, though. If he doesn’t make the necessary adjustments to cut back on his strikeouts against minor league pitching, there’s no way he will survive in the big leagues.

Sadowski: I genuinely feel sorry for Cozens because until he can shake it with his play, he’s going to be stuck with the Darin Ruf comparisons. They’re not legitimate either, since Ruf had his 38-homer Reading season when he was 25, at least two years older than everyone else in the league. Cozens did it at 22, more in line with the typical age for the league.

Then again, even if his splits remain as extreme as they they were last year and as extreme as they were for Ruf, he’ll at least have more value than Ruf because Cozens will be playable against 75 percent of baseball’s pitchers instead of 25 percent of them. Which means you would think he’d have more Ryan Howard comparisons, but regardless, he’s going to have to prove it to me again this year, and in the bigs. From a purely statistical standpoint, 2016 looks like a complete outlier. His previous career high for slugging percentage was .496. Then he goes to .591? His previous high in homers was 16. Then he goes to 40? That’s 1996 Brady Anderson kinda stuff right there.

There certainly is the real possibility that he just put everything together and realized his potential as a 22-year-old in 2016, but I’m sorry, with the statistical data available, and for me never seeing him in person (yet), he’s going to have to prove it again this year. Don’t think for a second the Phillies this offseason didn’t try to see what they could get for the 2016 minor league leader in home runs. Yet, he’ll still be in Allentown to start the year.

If he proves it to me and the rest of the baseball world that last year wasn’t a fluke – and he’s only entering his age-23 year, it’s not like he’s ancient – then not trading him will look like a genius move.

Sharp: Cozens’ ineffectiveness against left-handed pitchers is a cause for concern. This year at triple-A will be key for him in determining whether he can hit left-handed pitching. And even if he can’t, there’s nothing wrong with a him platooning at the major league level. In 2008, Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth platooned much of the year before Werth ended up taking over. Cozens is still young enough to figure it out, but if he doesn’t, a left-handed hitter who mashes right-handed pitchers isn’t the worst thing in the world, either.

Malcolm: I generally agree. He’s young, but on the other hand, we need a larger sample size. Also, unlike Ruf, the kid can actually play the outfield a little bit.

So with that, how about Rhys Hoskins? His numbers seem to indicate a player with more than one good tool, and though he received a home run bump with First Energy Field, his road splits were still solid (.270/.357/.496).

Walsh: Keith Law put Hoskins before Cozens on his list of Phillies prospects, and it’s not hard to see why. The home-road splits, like you mention, are better than Cozens’, and he can stand in against righties and lefties both. I have more faith in him turning into something, but I’m not ready to be sold on the power: his .139 away ISO would put him at third-worst among qualified first basemen in the majors last year.

That leads me to another point: the expectations are different for a first baseman than they are for an outfielder like Cozens. The sense I get is that people are bigger believers in Hoskins’ bat than they are in Cozens’, at least in terms of consistency, but first basemen are still expected to display some power. You have to hope he can keep developing that power stroke even away from Reading.

And, to be clear, I’m not saying neither guy can make it to the majors; I’m just still seeing questions marks in both that will need to be sorted out before either is a sure thing.

Malcolm: In both cases we need more time, but you’re right that Hoskins has a slightly more uphill climb.

Okay. Of all the prospects closing in on the majors (including cup-of-coffee guys like Roman Quinn and Jorge Alfaro), who are you most excited about seeing for good in 2017?

Sadowski: If it means he’ll play the whole year, then it’s Roman Quinn* for me. I think a lot of the dominoes fall into place when the Phillies learn whether they can even moderately depend on Quinn. If he can stay healthy, they have a top-of-the-order burner and plus defender on their roster for the next seven years. Or they have a trade chip much more valuable than it would have been at the start of 2016 when everyone KNEW he couldn’t stay healthy. In 2017, Quinn needs to make people forget about the injury issues that have plagued him through the minors.

If he can’t make it through the season yet again, he’ll probably end up on the outside looking in of the rebuild plan. If it persists, he’s likely to become a fifth outfielder for the Phillies until he becomes arbitration eligible and subsequently non-tendered. I don’t want to see that. You don’t want to see that. No Phillies fan wants to see that. It’s going to be easy to cheer for Quinn this year as a young comeback story, but it will be even more important to cheer for him from an organizational standpoint.

The asterisk on Quinn is because I don’t want to see J.P. Crawford in the majors in 2017 for both financial and baseball reasons. He’s my easy answer to this question in 2018, though.

Sharp: It’s the two guys asked in the question. I can’t wait to see more of the blazing speed of Quinn. By adding Quinn, it makes the lineup so much longer, in my eyes. I wouldn’t mind seeing an order beginning with Quinn, Cesar Hernandez, and Herrera in the three hole. Between the three, their average OBP in 2016 was .364. Their ability to get on-base for Joseph, Franco, and eventually Alfaro could be a scary sight to see. Alfaro’s mammoth 225-pound frame alone attracts the eyes. Those two alone can make life easier on Franco and Joseph.

Malcolm: I’d love to see Mark Appel start 2017 with a flurry, demanding a callup to Philly by mid-season and allowing the team to dangle one of Hellickson or Buchholz for a trade. Pipe dream, I know, since Appel hasn’t shown an ability to throw strikes consistently and stay healthy. Plus he’s looking more and more like a bullpen project, a la the Royals’ Luke Hochevar. Still, Appel has become an unlikely underdog, and you know how much this city loves underdogs.

Sadowski: Appel absolutely has the ability to be this year’s Tommy Joseph. Wonder kid prospect turned almost out of baseball turned viable major league option. And the more of those valuable assets the Phillies can accumulate, the better off they’ll be.

Appel could be very interesting in the bullpen, the next version of Ryan Madson coming through the system. The Phillies have no obvious choice for “future closer” or even their closer of 2020, and it would be best if someone emerges from inside the organization.

If everything breaks according to plan, it’s possible the Phillies could have seven or eight capable or better starters. I don’t know of any seven or eight-man rotations, so, you know, something will have to be done. Moving some of those guys to the bullpen is a good, cheap option.

Walsh: Stipulating that they’ll be up “for good” really complicates this question for me. I’m not sure we see Appel at all this year, let alone to stay, and Alfaro showed in his stint last year that he deserves some time at triple-A before we expect him to stick in the majors.

I’ll have to echo Roman Quinn. He’s an energetic player who’s a lot of fun to watch, and if he’s in the majors for good it’ll mean he’s overcome his biggest problem, which, as has been said, is his health. I get excited about him for the sheer joy of watching his style of play.

We’re also kind of dancing around Crawford, maybe because he’s the easy answer or at least the expected one. I have no issue with starting his service time and think players are criminally underpaid, especially through the minors and when on the cusp of the majors, but I can save that rant for another day.

One reason to bet on Crawford is that, as I’m sure I’ve said before, he plays good enough defense at a difficult defensive position to be valuable while his bat adjusts to every new level of play, which I have every reason to believe it will. That’s why I see a promotion of him as being one that can be permanent.

Swanson: I know I said earlier that I wouldn’t be surprised if Crawford doesn’t get called up until September but since the question is who I’m most excited to see for good in 2017, I have to go with him. Like everyone has said, a lot of things have to fall into place in order for Quinn to stay up for good or for Appel to get a lot of player time.

I’m really excited to see how Alfaro progresses, but unless he absolutely tears it up in spring training, he’s going to start the season and spend a good portion of it in AAA. It seems as if players like Crawford and Alfaro – who the Phillies are most counting on to be a part of the future – are not going to be rushed up.

That being said, when they are called up, it would mean the Phillies think they are ready to contribute full-time. Let’s hope Crawford and Alfaro perform so well in triple-A that Klentak has no choice but to call them up. I’m willing to bet Pete Mackanin will be their biggest advocates, especially if the Phillies offense continues to struggle.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jimmy Cordero’s present standing (not in the Phillies system) because of an editing error. 

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