The long offseason is finally over, and minor league games are beginning. For the first time in what seems like a long while, there are some minor league affiliates opening before their parent clubs. On Thursday, all four of the Phillies full-season affiliates started their season just like the big club. Two affiliates reached the playoffs last season, and some of them will have a chance again. Which prospects will be traded away at the deadline? It’s the start of a new season.
Lehigh Valley IronPigs
Rotation: 14 pitchers combined to start 144 games for Lehigh Valley last year, and Dave Bush is the only one who returns for the 2012 season. The Conestoga product will serve a five game suspension at the start of the season for a brawl in a minor league game against Pirates prospects, but he was slated to be their Opening Day starter. Austin Hyatt is the only prospect in the rotation, and he’ll try and build on a very good 2011 season and prove his strikeout stuff is for real. ML veterans Scott Elarton and Pat Misch will also be in the rotation, as will minor league pickup Tom Cochran from the Reds organization. He had a 3.55 ERA and 1.27 WHIP for AAA Louisville last year, and he has relief experience too. Drew Naylor is starting the season on the DL.
Bullpen: If completely healthy, the IronPigs should have one of the deeper bullpens in minor league baseball. After struggling for a few innings in ML spring training, Phillippe Aumont will likely have a chance to close games. His command tapered off a bit after his promotion to AAA last year, but he still has closer’s stuff. Michael Schwimer will also have an opportunity to close games, trying to get back to the majors for good. If the Phillies need lefty help in the bullpen, there are plenty of pitchers with Lehigh Valley that do in fact throw left handed. They’re led by Jake Diekman who impressed the team in spring training. Veterans David Purcey and Raul Valdes have major league experience, and the bullpen also includes Jeremy Horst who the team acquired from Cincinnati for Wilson Valdez. Justin De Fratus is starting the season on the DL, and Joe Saverywill probably re-join the team if Jose Contreras proves to be healthy.
Infield: Minor league veteran Erik Kratz will be back behind the plate, and for now, he’ll have two backups. Tuffy Gosewisch has a lot of experience in the Phillies system, and John Suomi has been bouncing around the organization for two years now. Cody Overbeck will probably start regularly at first base, and at 25 years, he’ll be the youngest infielder on the roster. Hector Luna, starting his 7th straight year in AAA, will be across the diamond at third base. Andres Blanco, Kevin Frandsen and Joe Thurston will all spend time in the middle infield, Blanco probably getting the majority of time at short until Freddy Galvisis optioned back down.
Outfield: Once again, the Phillies’ best option in left field will start the season in AAA. Domonic Brown, the owner of a .390 OBP in 292 AAA plate appearances, will be the team’s big hitter until he gets called up again. Derrick Mitchell will join him after hitting a career high 19 home runs with Reading in 2011. He’ll hope to prove that he’s more than a future AAAA player. Rich Thompson will return as the team’s stolen base throat, and Lou Montanez will see some time too.
Overall: Prospect watchers won’t have much to look at when it comes to the IronPigs. There aren’t any top 30 prospects in the every day lineup because Brown has graduated, and the pitching staff is comprised of mostly veterans with Hyatt and some interesting relievers mixed in. The pitching staff should be okay because they have a lot of AAA experience, but the lineup might struggle to score runs without a lot of power. Sound familiar?
Around the International League: For one season, the Scranton Yankees will be known as the Empire State Yankees. Due to ballpark renovations, they will play no home games. They’re a talented team, but spending all season on the road will be draining. Bryce Harper starts the season in Syracuse, and they visit Allentown next week, April 11th-13th. That’s the only time Lehigh Valley will host Syracuse early in the season when he’s expected to be in the minors. Other prospects of note include Matt Harvey(Mets/Buffalo), Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances (Yankees/Empire State), Julio Teheran (Atlanta/Gwinnett), and Will Middlebrooks (Boston/Pawtucket)
Rotation: Although Jarred Cosart was traded and Brody Colvin was left in Clearwater, there’s still enough talent on the staff for some to call them the baby aces. Trevor May, Jonathan Pettibone and Julio Rodriguezare all getting their first taste of AA action, and it will be the biggest test of their careers. Once Bush’s suspension is finished, it’s possible that Tyler Cloyd is demoted back to Reading where he’ll join those three. The 5th starter will be David Buchanan, a ground ball pitcher that reached high-A in his first full season. In his ML spring training appearance at the end of March, Rodriguez pitched exactly how the scouting reports described: a fastball that ranged from 88 to 90, a high 60’s curveball and high 70’s changeup. He has a bit of an arm stab in his delivery that creates deception.
Bullpen: After failing to improve his secondary stuff, J.C. Ramirez is being converted to a reliever and remaining in Reading. In short bursts, he could throw into the high 90’s, and he won’t need to rely on other pitches as much, but he still needs to master a breaking ball to be anything more than a middle reliever. Justin Friend pitched very well for Clearwater and Reading last season, and he could be the closer again. B.J. Rosenbergmade two appearances in major league spring training, and he still has hopes of reaching the Phillies as a middle reliever. The rest of the bullpen is pretty much all Reading veterans, plus newcomer Juan Morillo,a high strikeout, high walk righty with a lot of minor league experience.
Infield: Sebastian Valle behind the plate is the best position player prospect in the system. Going from Clearwater to Reading will help inflate or normalize his power numbers. Steven Lerud, an Eastern League veteran recently with the Baltimore organization, will back him up. The right side of the infield is set with Darin Ruf at first and Cesar Hernandez at second. Hernandez struggled for much of 2011 in Clearwater, but since this is already his second season on the 40 man roster, time is running out, and they need to see what he can do. That leaves four infielders for the left side, two Phillies homegrown players and two minor league free agents. Troy Hanzawa is a really good defender at short, and he should see more time there than Miguel Abreu. Tug Hulett has a lot of experience in AAA, and he should provide a decent bat at third. Harold Garcia will miss his second straight season.
Outfield: The flyball pitchers on the staff will appreciate the defense they’ll receive in the outfield this season. If healthy, and that’s obviously been a big if the last two years, Tyson Gillies and Jiwan James will be able to run down a lot of balls that would probably otherwise be hits. It’s also an important season for both of those at the plate. This is the third year that James will be a position player, and he needs to start hitting. Leandro Castro isn’t a slouch in the field himself, and it’s only a matter of who gets to play center most nights. Veterans Mike Spidale and Steve Susdorf will also get some at bats, and Tim Kennellycan probably get time in the outfield corners too.
Overall: Reading could have a return trip to the playoffs. Their lineup has a nice blend of power and speed, and they should score a lot of runs if James and Gillies can get on base for players with more power like Valle and Ruf. Their defense is very good up the middle and in the outfield, and the rotation should be one of the best in the organization. If the prospects up from Clearwater are as good as people expect, then they’ll be able to adjust to AA and lead Reading back to the postseason.
Around the Eastern League: Officials in Ottawa this offseason claimed that an unnamed Eastern League team has agreed to move there, but all of the reasonable possibilities have denied it’ll be them. Prospects of note include Zack Wheeler (Mets/Binghamton), Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop (Baltimore/Bowie), and Gary Brown (San Francisco/Richmond)
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Scott Grauer writes for PSC and Bus Leagues Baseball – check him out! Scott also regularly updated the PSC 2011 Minor League Thread with player stats, game results, and more, and will be doing the same for the PSC 2012 Minor League Thread as well…