Jul 012013
 

Phillies pitching prospect Jesse BiddleComing into the season, Jesse Biddle was the near-consensus number one prospect in the Phillies organization.  Keith Law had Adam Morgan ranked just a little higher, but with Morgan’s shoulder injury, he’s out of the picture for now.  Now emerging is third baseman Maikel Franco.  I had him ranked fifth in the organization entering the year after a breakout second half in 2012.  He has continued crushing the ball in 2013 and earned a surprising early promotion to Double-A Reading, and the question has been raised: who is the Phillies’ number one prospect, Biddle or Franco?

Ceiling

Biddle: If everything comes together for the lefty, he could become a number two starter.  Even for the most optimistic fans, his stuff is going to come up short of an ace, and he’s not going to pound the strike zone like a true number one.  Still, a number two starter is an occasional All-Star and has a lot of value.  The comparison some sources make is to Andy Pettitte which makes sense physically, but for the most part, he was a strike thrower which Biddle will never be.  A number two starter is a pitcher with two plus or better pitches and a third average one.  Biddle’s curveball should be plus.  His fastball could be if he can consistently deliver it in the low 90’s and spot it better, that will be plus too.  His changeup seems to be average.  A number two also has to control and command his pitches better, and this is an area he’s still working on.

Franco: Franco could be an All-Star third baseman with four average or better tools.  The Phillies hope he can provide the middle of the order power they’ve been missing from the right side for much of the five years since Pat Burrell signed with Tampa Bay.  Last year, just six third basemen hit 25 or more home runs, and Franco will have the chance to make his way into that group.  At his best, he could become a .280 hitter with 25-30 homers and a decent on-base percentage.  In the field, his range will probably be below average, but reaction and hands are more important at the hot corner, and he can play the position.  He has a strong arm.

Verdict: It’s close, but I’ll lean toward the number two starter here.  The margin is thin, and the truth is prospects aren’t all about ceiling.

Chance of reaching ceiling

Biddle: Biddle has a lot of work to do if he were to ever reach that number two ceiling.  Most notably, his command has to improve.  At 12.9 BB%, his walk rate is the highest of his career, despite the solid season he’s having with Reading.  Only 59% of his pitches have gone for strikes, and it’s hard to get away with pitching that way in the majors.  Either he’ll walk too many batters or fall behind early in counts, groove fastballs and get hit hard.  Beyond that, it would be nice to see him pitch at a higher velocity more consistently.  If he can do that, his margin for error increases and allows him to get away with more mistakes in the zone.  His strong work ethic should help him improve his weaknesses.

Franco: Unlike a lot of Phillies position player prospects, Franco’s not an athlete learning how to play the game; he’s a pure hitter.  That can usually translate level to level.  That’s not to say there won’t be adjustments as he gets promoted, and he does have things to work on, particularly his plate approach.  He’s a pretty aggressive swinger, but since he’s so strong with a good swing, he can put good wood on balls even if they’re not in the zone.  Pitchers will be able to take advantage of his impatience if he doesn’t wait for his pitch more.  His walk rate is still decent though, so it’s closer to picking nits rather than a major issue.  He has a bit of a wild swing that could make it difficult for some to make consistent contact, but it apparently works for him.

Verdict: I have to go with Franco on this one.  Biddle’s walk rate is quite concerning.

Floor

Biddle:  Ignoring the possibility that either player suffers a career ending injury or just decides to retire tomorrow, Biddle’s floor is probably that of a number five, perhaps four starter.  If he were to not improve at all from this moment on in his career, he could probably hold his own.  He’s big and should be durable and has three average or better pitches, enough to start.  His stuff is good enough to mostly get outs, but he’d be frustrating.  He’d walk too many, allow home runs at inopportune times and leave fans wondering why he’s not better than he is.

Franco: Since Franco’s not an athlete at all, his floor is hard to pin down.  If he fails to stay in shape  and slows down even more, he’s going to have to move across the diamond to first base.  That would be troubling, and if his swing doesn’t develop more, he doesn’t have the bat to profile there.  If this were to happen, it’s hard to see where his value is.  He’d probably start for some poor teams, but on better ones, pinch hitters that can only play first base don’t usually have spots.

Verdict: One more for Biddle.  A lot could still go wrong for Franco.

Overall

I would still personally lean toward Biddle, but at least one source (Baseball Prospectus) now places Franco ahead.  It’s really close to me.  It seems like pitchers can’t get Franco out since his promotion to Reading, but Biddle has been performing pretty well there all year.  What’s clear though is the organization now has two fringe top-50 prospects, something they haven’t been able to boast since the failed gamble on Hunter Pence.  They’re still in the bottom half of the league in terms of prospects, but these two are the kinds of talents that can move the needle when it comes to the fortunes of a team.

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Scott Grauer writes for PSC and Bus Leagues Baseball – check him out!

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