GREENSBORO, N.C.—Patience, patience, patience.
When Mark Parent was a catcher in the major leagues for more than a decade, he knew he had to be patient when working with young pitchers fresh from the minor leagues.
Today, Parent is manager for the the Phillies' low Class A Lakewood, a team filled with high-ceiling, tooled-up athletes, many of whom are about as raw as they come.
Patience, Parent believes, is the key to developing that type of player.
"It's almost like a circus every night, but controlled," he said. "You never know what's going to happen, but you figure out what happened that night and then you go work on it the next day. That's all we can do."
Lakewood's roster is replete with premium athletes picked out of high school and chock full of Latin American talent. On any night, the BlueClaws have the power to smash line drives and opposite-field home runs, the speed to leg out infield hits, force errors, take the extra base and run down fly balls in the gaps. They're also just as likely to swing early in counts and at balls in the dirt, whiff through pitches in the strike zone, make mistakes on the basepaths or make an error on a routine play in the field.
"When you watch us play, there's a lot of times I can't wait to get in the shower. I'm drained afterwards," Parent said. "You never know what's going to happen. It's awesome."
After Lakewood finished its four-game series at Greensboro (Marlins) on Tuesday, here are reports on some of the BlueClaws' top prospects:
CF Jiwan James
James' .222/.290/.333 slash stats in 21 games don't exactly scream "prospect," and his .623 OPS is the worst of any regular in Lakewood's lineup. Yet to Parent, James has been a standout player, and from what he showed against Greensboro, it's not hard to see why.
James signed with the Phillies in 2007 as a pitcher, so he's still in his first full season as a hitter after logging 30 games as a position player last year with short-season Williamsport. Listed at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, the switch-hitting James has a long, lean frame and is an outstanding athlete with good speed, getting to first base in 4.15 seconds on ground balls from the left side.
Of all of the BlueClaws' top prospects, the 21-year-old James separates himself from his free-swinging teammates with his ability to manage his at-bats, control the strike zone and put the bat to the ball. James has a very quick bat, though he's more advanced from the left side and his swing right now is more conducive to hitting the ball on the ground than driving it in to the gaps. Given James' tremendous athleticism and advanced idea of what he's doing at the plate given his relative inexperience, he could easily be a breakout prospect in the near future.
"He's got the physical talent, the speed, pretty good arm, his on-base percentage," Parent said. "He puts the ball in play a lot and he has a good eye. It's tough for a young guy to do that."
Valle made his offensive potential evident last year playing winter ball in Mexico, where he hit .286/.326/.556 with 11 home runs in 52 games. Valle, 19, has always stood out more for his offensive promise than his defense, though he's off to a rocky start in 2010 batting .268/.299/.366 through 18 games.
A righthanded hitter, Valle went in to a funk at times last year when he became pull-conscious, and pulling off the ball has gotten him in to trouble again early this year. Even still, when Valle makes contact, it's usually well hit, and he's faster than most catchers.
"When he's going right he goes to center field and right-center field also," Parent said. "He has power to those spots."
Valle's defense is still a work in progress, but he has enough ability to be able to stick behind the plate with improvement.
"He's going through his rough period right now offensively," Parent said. "The thing is we can't let him take that behind the plate, because behind the plate is more important than the offense. If he can get it behind the plate—and that's his No. 1 priority—he's going to be a real good catcher for the Phillies for a long time. Now, if every time you get a hit you're a good catcher and every time you don't get a hit you're a bad catcher, the odds are you're going to be a bad catcher a lot. So he has to continually learn that catching is the main reason he's in the game and to keep improving."
RHP Jared Cosart
Cosart left his start after 2 1/3 innings when he re-aggravated a blister he developed in his previous start, then went on the disabled list and will miss his next scheduled start.
Cosart, 19, threw 12 fastballs in the first inning, two at 94 mph and the rest at 95-96. He sat at 93-95 the rest of his brief outing. There is some effort in Cosart's delivery, as he throws somewhat across his body with a slight head jerk on occasion. It's difficult to gauge how much his blister was affecting his command and his offspeed pitches (a 78-79 mph curveball and an 82-84 mph changeup), but scouts who have seen him earlier in the year have said they will all need refinement.
"He wants to show everybody he's the complete package, but that's the learning part of it," Parent said. "You have to learn the command in the zone. When he misses, he doesn't miss by that much . . . It's when he starts throwing back-to-back breaking balls and he misses there, they know fastball's coming, and they can cheat on it. You get him going speed, speed, speed and when you drop (a curveball) in there just to show them you've got it, then it's always in the back of their minds."
Santana will play nearly the entire season as a 17-year-old, making him by far the youngest player in the South Atlantic League. It's a speedy ascent to full-season ball for a player signed 13 months ago at age 16. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, Santana isn't muscular but generates outstanding natural power for his age with a long, leveraged swing.
Santana at times looks every bit like a 17-year-old in the Sally League. He has a plus arm and got some good jumps on the ball in right field, but he also had two fly balls bounce right out of his glove. Santana swings and misses as much as anyone, which is why he already has 26 strikeouts in 74 trips to the plate. Yet despite his problems making contact, Santana does have a solid idea of what he's doing at the plate for his age. He showed surprising patience against Greensboro, and he's already drawn 14 walks.
"He certainly has a ton of talent," Parent said. "He's so young that he doesn't quite know where his arms and legs are all the time quite yet. So what we do is we have him to extra agility work, talk to him about getting in the weight room more, get stronger, working on putting the ball in play more. You don't want to take it out of him by making him stay inside the ball more, not force him that way, because every now and then you want to see the big dog eat—you want to see him take that big hack. You don't want to take the aggressiveness out of him."
Even on a team full of outstanding athletes, it's hard not to notice Villar's athleticism. While some believe Villar might shift over to second base as he fills out his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame, he flashed impressive but inconsistent defense in Greensboro.
Villar made a web gem of a play in the first game of the series, ranging up the middle and diving to field a ground ball. He came up quickly and fired a bullet to first base for the out. He showed smooth, fluid actions the rest of the series and hung in well turning the pivot on double plays against hard slides.
Villar turns 19 on Sunday and showed his youth in the field. He airmailed a throw over the first baseman's head after making a nice play to get to a grounder up the middle on Sunday, but then made an error on a slow roller towards him later in the game.
"With his arm and his athleticism, I think there's no reason he couldn't be a major league shortstop," Parent said. "We have to work him out there and let him play there as long as possible, and you never know."
Villar, a switch-hitter, is off to a solid start at the plate, batting .306/.398/.389 in 21 games. He has little power and needs to do a better job recognizing offspeed pitches, but there's enough upside there to make him a solid middle infield prospect.
"He has line-drive power, and every now and then he can drive one out of the ballpark," Parent said. "He keeps continuing to work on his swing and stay on top of the ball, get some backspin. That's a big learning process."
Castro loves hitting. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that Castro loves swinging. Castro has an intriguing combination of power and speed, but he's a hyper-aggressive hitter who seemed to swing at nearly every pitch regardless of its location. In his first at-bat on Monday, Castro swung and missed at the first three pitches he saw: a changeup away, a breaking ball that nearly hit his ankles and another breaking ball in the dirt.
Castro, 20, isn't big (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), but he can drive the ball with authority to all fields from the right side. With a .314/.351/.453 slash line in 21 games, Castro is third on the club with an .804 OPS. With an open stance, Castro steps in the bucket, takes a big swing and usually came out hacking at the first pitch, but he hit lasers when he connected.
"He'll swing at two balls in the dirt," Parent said, "and you'll look at him and go, 'Man, I'd be crushed right now. I'd be kind of embarrassed.' He's not. He doesn't care, because he knows he's going to get that next pitch, and he knows he's going to hammer it.
"He swings at a lot of bad balls, he's a free-swinger, but when he gets down to two strikes, he can shorten up and be a little more selective, which is what you want in a guy. (An) 0-0 (count) to him is like 2-0, 3-0—he's gearing up, ready to drive it."
RHP Brody Colvin
Colvin, who signed for $900,000 last year as a seventh-round pick, has had a difficult start to 2010, with an 11.15 ERA through four starts and as many walks (9) as strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings.
Colvin, 19, had spurts of strike-throwing on Monday, but too often his command escaped him, and he finished the night having allowed five runs (four earned) in five innings with four walks and three strikeouts. A good athlete at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Colvin threw across his body and fired a lively 89-93 mph fastball. He touched 95 once when he reached back for something extra to get catcher Kyle Skipworth to chase a high fastball in a 1-2 count. He threw a 76-78 mph curveball and a changeup in the low-80s, though he didn't get any of the Greensboro hitters to swing and miss at his secondary stuff.
Hewitt can run, he can hit for power and he's an excellent athlete with a well-built 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame. When he squares up a pitch, good things happen. But since signing as a first-round pick in 2008, Hewitt has come as advertised: very, very raw. Already 21, Hewitt has also moved from third base to right field, where he has looked solid but is still learning the position.
The righthanded-hitting Hewitt has made some strides at the plate, but his plate discipline and contact issues—he has three walks and 26 strikeouts in 89 plate appearance—have held him back.
In the third inning on Monday, Hewitt whiffed at a 1-1 curveball over the plate, then on the next pitch struck out swinging chasing another curve, this one out of the strike zone. The next inning, Hewitt swung and missed a high-and-away fastball, fouled off a curveball, then watched the third pitch of the at-bat, a fastball, sail across the heart of the plate for strike three. In his final at-bat, Hewitt drove an 0-1 fastball on the outer half over the right field fence for a home run.
"He's got a lot of power," Parent said. "When he puts the ball in play, it's usually hit hard. He thinks a little bit too much. He's got to learn to relax. His highs and lows are so far between. The sooner we can narrow his highs and lows in his own mind so he can stay more even keeled and let his ability take over, then he'll be fine. But that comes with a lot of failure and some success, because that's baseball: a lot of failure."
• Double-A West Tenn right fielder Carlos Peguero (Mariners) went Mike Stanton on Mobile yesterday, hitting three home runs against the BayBears to tie Stanton for the minor league lead with nine. What's interesting here though isn't the power. We already knew Peguero had outstanding raw power, but now the 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic isn't striking as much as he used to. Last year with high Class A High Desert, Peguero whiffed 172 times in 544 trips to the plate, or 32 percent of his plate appearances. It's still only April, but in 84 PAs Peguero has just 16 punchouts (19 percent). If Peguero can keep hitting for power and keep his K-rate down, he's a much more interesting prospect.
• It's hard to slow down the Angels' Mike Trout. Trout, a first-round pick a year ago, continued his assault in the low Class A Midwest League yesterday with three more hits, including a double, a triple and a stolen base, his 11th in 12 attempts. Trout, 18, is hitting .372/.432/.474 in 19 games for Cedar Rapids. The Angels are typically conservative with promoting their youngest prospects, but if Trout keeps this up, it's going to be hard to keep him out of the high Class A California League before the end of the season.
• Phillies righthander Colby Shreve made his debut with Lakewood for an inning on Monday and allowed one run on a home run. Shreve threw 89-90 mph, flashed a solid changeup and a breaking ball that's still a work in progress.
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