By Will Kimmey
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
Everything looked to be shaping up just right for the Phillies in 2003. The Braves were forced to cut costs and overhaul their pitching staff, while the other National League East teams all seemed to be rebuilding or revamping. After the offseason additions of Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood, most pundits rated the Phillies as sure a bet for the postseason as any NL club.
The season didnít play out that way. The new-look Braves won their 12th consecutive division title, while the upstart Marlins received a boost from their farm system and actually added salary as they captured the wild card by five games and went on to win the World Series. Philadelphia led the wild-card race with nine days left, then dropped six straight games to ruin its season.
Nonetheless, the Phillies should enter 2004 with as much optimism as they did in 2003. While the Braves and Marlins both are likely to lose key players because of salary constraints, and the Expos and Mets will continue to search for direction, the Phillies are moving into Citizens Bank Park and will generate more money there.
The Phillies could bring back their entire 2003 nucleus aside from Millwood (a free agent who is unlikely to return) and will spend the offseason retooling the bullpen and looking for a front-of-the-rotation starter through trade or free agency. They got an early start by making a quick strike on the trade market to land closer Billy Wagner, their No. 1 target, from the budget-conscious Astros.
The deal cost the Phillies major league righthander Brandon Duckworth and two more righties who would have appeared on their Top 10 Prospects list in Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.
All three pitchers came from the organizationís recently productive farm system. It allowed the Phillies to make the deal and should provide a solid backbone as the they push to make their first playoff appearance since their the 1993 World Series. It has produced everyday players Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal and Jimmy Rollins, and over the last year plugged in Marlon Byrd, Brett Myers and Chase Utley.
Because many of the systemís top prospects have graduated to the majors recently, there isnít much high-end talent ready for Philadelphia in 2004. Righthanders Ryan Madson and Josh Hancock are likely to battle Amaury Telemaco for the fifth starterís role this spring. But thereís plenty of help on the horizon with two of the gameís top pitching prospects, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd, just a year or two away.
Hamels and Floyd are a testament to the systemís greatest strength: pitching. Overall, the Phillies have decent prospects at multiple positions and at multiple levels. Thatís impressive, given that theyíve forfeited five of their 12 picks in the first three rounds over the past four drafts because of free-agent signings. Philadelphia has drafted astutely and implemented a newly proficient Latin American scouting program. The Phillies are lacking at catcher but addressed their other organizational deficiency by using their first three picks in the 2003 draft on speedsters.
Top Prospect: Cole Hamels, LHP
Age: 20 Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 185 Bats: Left Throws: Left
Background: Hamels had nothing but question marks entering his pro career, but has provided only exclamation points since signing with the Phillies. He ranked as one of the top pitchers in the 2002 draft, but a broken humerus in his left arm caused him to miss his junior season at Rancho Bernardo High and slip to the 17th overall pick. He originally injured his arm in an off-field accident and aggravated it by pitching. He had surgery performed by the Padres team doctor in his native San Diego and rehabbed with pitching guru Tom House before returning and impressing as a high school senior. Protracted contract negotiations kept Hamels away from baseball before he agreed to a $2 million bonus, and then he showed up out of shape from the long layoff. Because he got little done in instructional league, the Phillies sent him to extended spring training in 2003 to get indoctrinated in the organization's philosophies. Once they turned him loose, he dominated the low Class A South Atlantic and high Class A Florida State leagues. His combined 1.34 ERA would have led the minors had Hamels accumulated 11 more innings to qualify. He allowed just 15 earned runs and not a single home run all season. His command, stuff and pitchability allowed him to edge Gavin Floyd for the top spot on this list, and being lefthanded also aided Hamelsí cause.
Strengths: Hamels should have three above-average pitches when he reaches the majors. He already shows plus command of a fastball that sits between 89-92 mph with plenty of movement. He can reach back for more when he needs it, topping out at 94. His best pitch might be his plus-plus changeup, which was neck-and-neck with Ryan Madsonís as the best in the organization and possibly the minors. Hamels displays exceptional control of his changeup at such a young age, and it really fades away from hitters. Hamels shows a very businesslike mentality on the mound, with no great highs or lows. Heís a great athlete, allowing him to repeat his delivery with ease, hold runners and field his position well.
Weaknesses: His curveball eventually should become a third plus pitch for Hamels, and its movement is already there. He just needs to develop more consistency with the curve. His overall command and control are advanced for his age--and ahead of where Floyd and Brett Myers were at similar stages in their development--but he can continue to improve it as he progresses.
The Future: Hamels hasnít experienced any repercussions from his high school arm injury. A pulled muscle in his right shoulder blade caused the Phillies to remove him from the trials for USA Baseball's Olympic qualifying team. Club officials didnít want to risk Hamels altering his mechanics to cope. The minor injury isnít a long-term concern, and he should begin 2004 on schedule by returning to high Class A Clearwater. Heíll be challenged in Double-A Reading as soon as he proves heís ready, and will continue his rapid development toward becoming a frontline starter.